Constable: How a Rolling Meadows man helped create Neil Armstrong's Apollo 11 spacesuit

An electrical engineer working for the fledgling NASA space program, Bob Davidson was three months into his job in 1962 when he was told that his project had been scrapped. Instead, he would be given the chance to work on a new venture with a division of Playtex.

“Playtex? The bra and girdle company?” a dubious Davidson asked. “And they said, 'Yes.'”

And that's how Davidson, now 76 and retired and living in Rolling Meadows, got to pal around with Apollo 11 astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin as he helped design the revolutionary spacesuits those men wore for man's first steps on the moon on July 20, 1969.

Those weren't upgraded flight suits. They were more like one-of-a-kind, single-occupancy spacecraft.

“We had to build them to withstand 220 degrees below zero and 280 degrees above zero,” Davidson says, as he sits in his living room and thumbs through the 17 layers of a piece of the material used in the outer covering of those suits made to withstand everything the moon might throw at them. While some materials were similar to those found in the fire-retardant outfits worn by race car drivers and the coats worn by mountain climbers, the spacesuits also featured new materials such as “aluminized mylar” and “Beta cloth-Teflon-coated silica fibers.”

Engineered to protect against the “micrometeor bombardment” from specks zipping through space that could puncture most materials, the suits' layers included “ripstop tape” and patterns with holes that would prevent a tiny puncture from becoming a major tear.

Not only did the suits have to keep the astronauts alive, but they had to enable the men to move while under the pressure of 14 pounds of air per square inch. Each suit had to be a perfect fit, so they took 180 measurements on the astronauts' bodies and constructed bevels and swivels for each joint.

“The hardest thing to do was the fingers in gloves,” Davidson says, noting how the astronauts needed to pick up items and adjust controls. “The gloves were incredibly complex.”

Davidson and a team of 20 engineers also outfitted the spacesuits with a communications system that enabled Armstrong and Aldrin to chat with each other, communicate with fellow astronaut Michael Collins orbiting the moon, and talk with communication centers back on Earth, where 500 million people watched and heard their broadcast from the surface of the moon.

A stiff and uncomfortable Buzz Aldrin tries on an early version of the Apollo 11 spacesuit as Bob Davidson, left, chats with the astronaut on his headphone. After seven years of design and modifications, the spacesuits worked flawlessly on the moon. Photo courtesy of Bob Davidson

“And we have trouble getting a good signal on our cellphones here,” quips Davidson's wife, Barbara, a former flight attendant for Pan-Am World Airways. Married for 51 years, the Davidsons have two grown children, Tim and Chrysteen, and a granddaughter.

On the historic day, while hosting another engineer and his wife in their apartment in Ogletown, Delaware, Bob Davidson watched the moon landing with confidence. “We knew if we could do it here it would be great on the moon, which has one-sixth the gravity,” he says.

The spacesuits matched the performance of Armstrong and Aldrin, who were the perfect team for that mission, says Davidson, who got to know both astronauts. The engineers could spend 10 straight days working directly with the astronauts and then not see them for a month. They went to restaurants together and socialized.

“They were as different as night and day,” Davidson says of the enigmatic Armstrong and the outgoing Aldrin. “Buzz was on 'Dancing with the Stars,' and you couldn't even get Neil in the audience.”

Astronauts Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins and Buzz Aldrin signed this photo for Bob Davidson of Rolling Meadows, who helped design the spacesuits worn on the moon. courtesy of Bob Davidson

Aldrin was a fighter pilot during the Korean War who was awarded a Distinguished Flying Cross before earning a Ph.D. in aeronautics and astronautics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Armstrong, whose aerospace engineering studies at Purdue University were interrupted by the Korean War, flew 78 combat missions before returning to finish his degree and go on to receive a master's degree at the University of Southern California. Armstrong was a gifted pilot who pioneered high-speed aircraft, such as the X-15, which reached 4,000 mph.

“We used to drink together,” Davidson says of Aldrin. “Neil liked a cocktail, too.”

The reserved Armstrong was a man of few words. “'No' is an argument with Neil,” Davidson says. “I'd say, 'Yeah, but ...' and he'd say, 'No.'”

“His hot button, if you wanted to have a good conversation, was the stock market,” remembers Davidson, who says Armstrong liked sharing his investment strategy. “I couldn't shut him up for three hours.”

  A model of the Apollo 11 lunar module is one souvenir Rolling Meadows engineer Bob Davidson has of his decade at NASA, where he helped design the spacesuits astronauts wore when man first set foot on the moon. Brian Hill/

Armstrong generally let his actions speak for him.

“He was the go-to guy. He was cool under fire and smart as a whip,” Davidson says, adding that even on the moon landing, Armstrong had to shut off the computer and land the module manually with his fuel nearly gone.

The spacesuits were tested in a 32-story water tower, in the desert and in a plane known as the “vomit comet” that soared and dipped to provide moments of weightlessness. With so many materials and tests, Davidson traveled to facilities in Texas, California, New York, Alabama, Florida, Arizona and Dover, Delaware, and also took the suit on public relations visits to schools and civic organizations around the nation. Traveling with a big blue box that read “Critical Space Flight Item,” Davidson flew first class and was the last passenger on the plane and the first one off.

  Holding a coin made from metal that went to the moon, Bob Davidson of Rolling Meadows has lots of memories from his years with NASA. Davidson got to know astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin and helped design the spacesuits they wore to the moon. Burt Constable/

“I was making $17,000 a year and I figured out I was making 22 cents an hour,” Davidson says. He left NASA in 1972 to work in technical sales with several companies before founding his own control systems company called Enternet in Naperville. While at NASA, Davidson also worked on Apollo 9 and the memorable Apollo 13, which featured an explosion and a miraculous return to Earth that was made into a movie starring Tom Hanks.

The new movie about Armstrong, “First Man,” does a good job of capturing Armstrong's courage, bravery, smarts and coolness under pressure and shows the sacrifices many made to make good on the promise to put a man on the moon, Davidson says.

“We're human and we knew the odds were against us, but we also knew it was doable,” Davidson says, proud of his contribution. “The only two things that made it back from the moon are the man and the spacesuit on his back.”

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