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Black space with stars, Earth, space capsule, astronaut model; also floating in space are bees, a brick, a die, and a Topo Chico bottle

Dan Winters surveys a shifting landscape—his own backyard. On a mid-August morning, the 59-year-old photographer, author, and filmmaker is in the kitchen of his Austin, Texas, home, detailing the impending relocation of his studio and workshop (headquartered in a converted post office, general store, and Texaco station 25 miles south in unincorporated Driftwood) to just steps from his front porch. Anyone who has worked with Winters—presidents, astronauts, publishers of the country’s most influential publications—could grasp the challenge, given Winters’ lifelong accumulation of equipment, archives, and personal collections, which range from apiaries (beehives) to pieces of Apollo spacecraft.


The shuffling of workspaces feels natural, almost expected, given the rotational history of his surroundings. Winters’ home, which he; his wife, Kathryn; and son, Dylan, moved to from Los Angeles in 2000, was built in downtown Austin in 1938 and later transported to this quiet enclave on the north side of town circa 1975. Their detached garage will soon supplant the Driftwood studio. It was originally Winters’ model-building workshop, but that migrated a decade ago to a pitched-roof room on the second floor. The model shop is a place of refuge cocooned in paint sets, kit parts, and books on the artistry of 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Man in fedora sits in a workshop crowded with models (mostly space-related), books, and other items
Dan Winters’ first serious profession was that of a motion picture special effects model builder. He still builds miniatures today, finding the act of creating for the sake of creating rewarding. / Photo by Dan Winters

Winters vividly recalls the first model he ever built (a British SE5a biplane), around age 6, with his father, Larry Winters—a welder from Ohio who moved the family to Ventura, California, in 1959. “I would ask him to draw me something, an airplane or a rocket, and it would be on the breakfast table when I’d get up in the morning for school,” Winters said from his own breakfast table. “He would also make little spaceships out of wine corks and put screws in them or paper clips for skids. He’d leave them as little surprises.”

Seeing Possibility


Model-building has been a constant in Winters’ life. “When you start a model,” he explained, “the only thing that exists is your intent and whatever tools and materials you need. You work through the thing, create it, and then it exists. You will it into being. There’s an unbelievable satisfaction in that. In the ability to see what the model is going to be before it gets to a point of unification.”

Growing up, Winters remembers the yard on the working farm where he was raised as always strewn with spare parts, and he was often tasked with repurposing them. “The engine in our Volkswagen threw a rod, and we had to rebuild the whole thing,” he recalled. He assisted his father on nights and weekends, staving off resentment for missing idle time with his friends. “I remember the weekend we put the motor back in. We had it on a jack, and my dad slid it in, and I had to balance it until it speared the spline of the transaxle. He got in and pushed the clutch and it started up—I mean, right up. We took it for a drive, even though the bumper and deck lid were off. I remember driving down the street and reflecting on what it took to do that. As a kid, it was way out of my wheelhouse. But seeing that it was possible to do that was massive.”

In 1978, Winters’ father drove his 16-year-old son 50 miles to Van Nuys to visit Apogee, a special-effects company operated by John Dykstra, the Oscar-winning effects supervisor on Star Wars. Winters had cold-called Steve Sperling, who ran the office, and sent several photographs of his model spaceships by mail. A tour with Grant McCune, chief model maker on Star Wars and Battlestar Galactica, was arranged. As Winters wrote in his 2014 book, Road to Seeing, “Once inside, it was surreal to see the same model shop firsthand that I’d studied in dozens of photographs published in movie magazines. I was captivated by the artistry I witnessed at every turn…. I cannot describe the profound inspiration and affirmation this visit gave me.”

Gray book cover with white text and photo of person's head and torso in landscape
Road to Seeing by Dan Winters explores his journey to becoming a photographer and significant moments in his career.

In the months that followed, Winters’ mailbox remained packed with special-order plastics, and his fleet of scratch-built spaceships grew. The photos of his progress eventually led two Apogee veterans to recommend him for employment at Design Setters, an effects house in Burbank. Through a work-experience program during his senior year, Winters attended two classes in the morning, then drove to the San Fernando Valley to build models, including one for the Neil Young film Human Highway. It was a creative utopia disguised as a pass/fail.

Man in suit sits with hands on thighs in room with skewed perspective
This portrait of actor Denzel Washington, seated in a set singlehandedly constructed by Dan Winters and published in the New York Times Magazine in 1992, was an inflection point in Winters’ career, opening the door to decades of world-class editorial and portrait work. / Photo by Dan Winters

After attending college at Moorpark, studying abroad in Munich, and assisting for photographer Chris Callis in New York City, Winters began incorporating his skills as a model builder and production designer into his portraiture, creating fictitious worlds unique to each image. An assignment to photograph Denzel Washington for the New York Times Magazine in 1992 was instrumental. Winters stayed up through the night and singlehandedly built a forced-perspective set that evoked the rural outposts documented by photographer Walker Evans during the Depression. The set also emphasized the body position of a seated Washington, whose hands were resting against his dark suit, causing his fingertips to pop. The secret, in a sense, was the human touch.

Man sits behind machine with magnifying glass in front of one eye, enlarging it, in front of architectural details and lit-up doll's head
Winters’ subjects have included Ryan Gosling (above), the Dalai Lama, Tupac Shakur, Helen Mirren, and Fred Rogers, who, according to Winters, “treated the photo shoot sacredly.” He’s also photographed two presidents, George W. Bush and Barack Obama; his portrait of Obama is featured prominently as the back jacket of the president’s memoir, A Promised Land. / Photo by Dan Winters

Another World


This approach carries through Winters’ latest and most immersive project, the film Tone, which he wrote, directed, and photographed. It’s a love story set in a dystopian future where a laborer—the eponymous Tone, whose vocal cords have been stripped by a surveillance state—returns to Earth from Mars and helps heal another broken soul. At nearly 40 minutes, the project far exceeds the scope of Winters’ previous short-subject documentaries and music videos, and visualizing both the earthbound and cosmic elements of the story demanded extensive model and miniature work.

The majority of those Mars miniatures, both piecemeal and whole, still reside in Winters’ Driftwood studio. (Before driving from his home for a studio tour, he cautioned not to crush a box of spare plastics on the car seat, which a hobby shop owner had recently reserved for him. It was an F/A-18C Hornet kit affixed with a handwritten Post-it note that read: WINTERS DAN PARTS GIFT.) Built in 1903 as a post office and general store, the sandstone building in Driftwood expanded in 1942 to accommodate a feed store. A subsequent owner extended that addition, turning a water cistern out back into an interior structure, surrounded by closets, one of which Winters converted to a darkroom. The facade is adorned with a defunct fire-engine-red Texaco gravity pump, occasionally confusing gas-strapped passers-by on the highway.

A Photographer’s Thoughts on a Photograph

 Man bows his head, eyes closed, among three illuminated light bulbs

Portrait of Charles Batchelor, "First Photograph Made with Incandescent Light," 1880 / THF253728

“As a practitioner of the craft of photography, I frequently employ the use of artificial light when making my photographs, the distinction being that the light emanates from a manmade source and not from the sun.

One artifact among The Henry Ford’s vast holdings that I feel a kinship to is an otherworldly black-and-white portrait of Thomas Edison’s longtime collaborator Charles Batchelor. The text on the border of the photograph informs us that it is the first-ever photograph taken using an incandescent bulb.

Though it is widely thought that the incandescent bulb was Edison’s invention, his work stood firmly on the shoulders of over 20 inventors who had success in the development of the light bulb before him; however, none to the degree Edison achieved. The use of incandescent light in photography would eventually prove to be almost as significant a tool as film and camera. As the technology evolved and higher-output lighting was developed, filmmakers and photographers alike would discover the benefits of their ability to control not only where they could make images but also when.”

— Dan Winters


Inside, Winters stands beside a bay of humming computer monitors with a Topo Chico. The cold bottle of sparkling water is perfect for slaking thirst and, as tradition holds, providing the next building block in a backyard pile of empties he’s dubbed Mount Topo. Through hundreds of annual deposits, the glass mountain now hosts a rotating colony of pill bugs, snakes, silverfish, and eleodes (beetles). It’s another world within worlds on the studio grounds, where nature and Winters’ collection of artifacts from nearly two centuries of photographic history meet the realities of an increasingly digitized future.

The encroachment of the elements proved calamitous in 2020, when winds clocking 75 mph tore at the metal roof and rainfall destroyed thousands of negatives in storage lockers below. While taking solace that well over a million negatives were safe, including those amassed from anonymous collections he’d found at junk stores and paper-goods shows, the incident nonetheless prompted the decampment for his Austin backyard, where proximity alleviates the increasing sense of vulnerability.

With another Topo tossed to the beetles out back, Winters begins detailing the international origins of the books on the shelves lining the original exterior wall of the post office. It called to mind the 1931 essay “Unpacking My Library,” in which German theorist Walter Benjamin wrote, “I have made my most memorable purchases on trips, as a transient.… How many cities have revealed themselves to me in the marches I undertook in the pursuit of books!”

Winters settles on Photography Album 1, edited by Pierre de Fenoyl, purchased at 23 while biking across Australia. “There’s amazing work in it, work that made me feel like photography was boundless,” Winters said. “I was riding from Sydney to Adelaide, and I had two panniers on my bike for storage. I rode that book for 1,300 miles, in a brown paper bag. I still have the bike; it’s at the house.” A casual flip through the book revealed a preserved leaf tucked inside. “We want to have a memory,” Winters added. “Certain objects will anchor us to a place and time.”

Desk littered with models, framed images, knickknacks, and more, with even more items hanging on wall above desk
Dan Winters considers his desk, an old drafting table, the anchor of his studio. Littered with objects collected over time, he said of this space, “Sitting at the desk provides a connection to my history.” / Photo by Dan Winters

The undisputed anchor of the studio is Winters’ work desk, an old drafting table festooned with his full range of interests. “Sitting at the desk provides a connection to my history,” he said. “I’m inspired by the intrinsic value of these objects. Some have historical significance, certainly, and some are significant to me and my own path in life. Oftentimes they’re just beautiful objects I like to contemplate. One of the drawbacks of the collection is I feel it would be pretty quickly marginalized by whoever was settling my estate. At first glance, it probably looks like junk.”

According to theorist Benjamin, “the most distinguished trait of a collection will always be its transmissibility.” Winters senses the necessity of cataloging these objects in the moment and imparting their meaning. There’s the National Supply badge that belonged to his grandfather, whose company made transmissions for Sherman tanks. Or a rivet from the Golden Gate Bridge, flecks of international orange paint still visible. (Ironworkers presented the rivet ceremoniously to Winters after a photo shoot.)

Lost in Space

 Silver cylinder with hexagonal shape on top and writing on body

Photo by Dan Winters

Bag with printed label filled in with handwritten text 

Photo by Dan Winters

Among Dan Winters’ desktop mementos are two pieces of equipment from the Apollo program: a pressure transducer (left above) and an RCS check valve assembly, still bagged (right above. Both were procured from a Los Angeles scrap dealer who capitalized on the closure of a Van Nuys plant operated by Rocketdyne, manufacturer of the Saturn V engines. The keepsakes have remained within reach ever since.

Winters’ childhood love of the space program carried over into his career as a photographer, beginning with a portrait in the late 1990s of Harrison Schmitt, the first geologist on the moon. Other subjects include Roald Sagdeev, former director of the Soviet Space Research Institute; American astronauts Buzz Aldrin and Pete Conrad; Neil Armstrong’s spacesuit for Smithsonian Magazine; and a package of images for National Geographic’s 50th anniversary celebration of the Apollo program, which included a trip to Kazakhstan in 2019 to photograph a Soyuz spaceflight to the International Space Station.

Winters was granted close-range access by NASA to document the final launches of Discovery, Atlantis, and Endeavour, all captured in his 2012 book Last Launch. His contributions to the literature and historical record of space exploration began humbly, with a childhood fixation on Ham, the first chimpanzee in space, which he spotted on the cover of a back issue of Life published the year before his birth.


There’s also a swab attached to a wine cork, which is in fact a vital tool, one that facilitated a series of portraits for National Geographic that quickly became among Winters’ most widely seen images. Published in May 2021 and intended to draw attention to World Bee Day, the subject was actress Angelina Jolie covered in bees. Before the shoot, Winters and friend Konrad Bouffard contacted Ronald Fischer, an entomologist now in his 90s, who was “bearded” in bees for an iconic Richard Avedon portrait in Davis, California, in 1981. They also reached Avedon’s on-set beekeeper, who still had the cork swab he’d used to dot Fischer’s skin with queen-bee pheromone, thus attracting a swarm. As a lifelong beekeeper, Winters was honored to use the very same swab for his shoot and to be told he could keep the cork among his treasures.

It was hard not to draw a line to the cork-and-paper-clip spaceships Winters’ father left for him in the mornings, the ones that inspired him both to build and to collect. Asked if a cork ship was docked on his desk, Winter was convinced, though he couldn’t pinpoint one. “I know I have one in these boxes,” he said, sifting through cardboard stacks. He reminded himself to check later. For now, the day was still young, and the sun was out. In the shadow of Mount Topo, this message in a bottle would remain open, awaiting its cork.


James Hughes is a writer and editor based in Chicago. This post was adapted from an article in the January–May 2022 issue of The Henry Ford Magazine.

books, movies, space, making, photographs, photography, The Henry Ford Magazine, by James Hughes

Three children in yellow t-shirts sit in front of a old-fashioned traffic light and small brick gatehouse in a larger building; one holds a blue and white "handicapped" parking sign

From left: Inventors Claire Kinnaman, Anna Gareau, and Cooper Dyson are Team Scandicapped, the winner of the President’s Choice award at the 2019 Invention Convention U.S. Nationals. The team was led by Nancy Ernstes, Cobb County Schools K-12 InVenture, in Georgia. / Photo by Nick Hagen

Invention Convention Worldwide invites students to solve problems and invent through hands-on, real-world, project-based learning activities. In 2019, more than 100,000 K-12 inventors competed at the school level. Winners advanced to state competitions, hoping to be one of the 492 granted access to Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation for Invention Convention U.S. Nationals. A trio of young inventors and their invention, Scandicapped, won the competition’s coveted 2019 President’s Choice award from The Henry Ford’s President and CEO Patricia Mooradian.

Scandicapped, invented by fifth-graders Anna Gareau, Claire Kinnaman, and Cooper Dyson, has a simple premise. Using an accessible parking sign fitted with LED lights and RFID technology found in pet microchips, drivers would be discouraged from illegally parking in reserved spaces.

According to the trio, it’s an idea that came to life in their classroom at Cheatham Hill Elementary in Marietta, Georgia. First proposed by Anna, Scandicapped’s inspiration is personal, a problem she identified within her own family, since her sister has hydrocephalus and uses a wheelchair. Her family’s frustration in parking lots is constant, Anna said.

For five months, the three fifth-graders brainstormed after school to define the problem and outline their design solution and concepts—all under their teacher’s guidance. Final iterations of Scandicapped allow a fitted solar-powered sign to read a chip embedded in a driver’s placard or license plate. When the plate’s chip is verified, the parking sign’s LED lights glow green to indicate legal parking. When a car is parked illegally, the sign’s LED lights glow red to alert drivers of their mistake. If ignored, the continued red flashes also alert the public and law enforcement of the infraction.

The team’s research shows those infractions would get noticed. Within just 35 minutes of observing their elementary school’s retrofitted accessible parking signs one school morning, nine violations occurred. “They were mostly younger, teenagers,” said Claire. “They don’t really know how much their actions can affect people.” What’s also interesting about their test, she added, was how half of drivers who did park illegally moved their vehicle when the prototype sign glowed red.

Team Scandicapped followed much of the protocol The Henry Ford has applied to its own innovation learning framework, Model i, when working on their ideation. Model i connects habits of innovators and actions of innovation to provide an interdisciplinary language and approach to learning. Habits such as empathy and collaboration, along with actions such as defining the problem, designing solutions, and optimizing through feedback and iteration, are within the framework. All of these practices and processes were a major reason why the Scandicapped inventors won the competition’s President’s Choice award. “I was shocked and amazed,” said Cooper of the honor.

Leadership at The Henry Ford was equally amazed at the resourcefulness of Team Scandicapped. “The work of Cooper, Claire and Anna so closely embodies the mission of this great institution,” said Patricia Mooradian, president and CEO of The Henry Ford, “reflecting on the fact that 10 percent of the population is disabled in some way and we have to do what we can to make the world more accessible to everyone.”

Since 2019, the Invention Convention Worldwide program has grown to support 147,000 K-12 student inventors. To ensure the safety of students, their families, and everyone involved, the competition was hosted virtually in 2020 and 2021. After two years, Invention Convention Worldwide is excited to welcome students back to The Henry Ford June 1–3, 2022, for Raytheon Technologies Invention Convention U.S. Nationals 2022. We are looking forward to celebrating the creativity and ingenuity of these students this summer!


This post was adapted from an article by Susan Zweig in the January–May 2020 issue of The Henry Ford Magazine.

education, accessibility, Model i, by Susan Zweig, innovation learning, cars, childhood, inventors, Invention Convention Worldwide, The Henry Ford Magazine

Man in leather jacket and cap sits beside woman in hat, veil, and long coat among the structure of an apparatus
Katharine Wright and Wilbur Wright Preparing to Fly, Pau, France, February 15, 1909 / adapted from THF112388


It’s an old story: women keeping the home fires burning for their loved ones. Katharine Wright handled household responsibilities for her family, giving her brothers, Wilbur and Orville, the freedom to focus on achieving the first heavier-than-air flight in 1903. Yet along the way, she pushed a few boundaries of her own—experiencing things most women of her era did not.

After her mother’s death in 1889, Katharine took over running the Wright home for her father and older brothers at age 15. Later, after Wilbur and Orville had established their aircraft company, she also handled much of their business correspondence.

Two women wash dishes among tubs of water in front of a window with a closed blind
Katharine Wright and Harriet Silliman Washing Dishes, Wright Home, Dayton, Ohio, 1896 / THF243313

Unlike her quiet mother, Katharine was spunky, encouraged by her father to seek education and a profession. She did, graduating not only from high school—something most people, men or women, didn’t do at this time—but college as well, which was even rarer. She was, in fact, the only Wright child to complete college.

A Latin teacher at Dayton’s Steele High School, she walked away from her beloved profession to help Orville convalesce after a plane crash in 1908. A year later, she would join her two brothers in France as they held public demonstrations of their latest airplane. Unafraid and heedless of the February cold, she made several flights with Wilbur at the controls, flying longer and farther than any American woman at that time. Witty and extroverted, she also delighted foreign reporters with her unaffected Midwestern manner and quickly became a celebrity in her own right—the only woman ever invited to a dinner at the Aéro-Club de France during aviation’s early years.

Matted photograph of woman in dress and hat walking between two men in coats and bowlers
Orville Wright, Katharine Wright, and Wilbur Wright in France, 1909 / THF112379

She later would serve on the board of Oberlin College, devote time to causes such as women’s suffrage, and eventually marry for the first time at age 52. With domestic responsibilities always tugging, she never stopped pushing boundaries.


Jeanine Head Miller is Curator of Domestic Life at The Henry Ford. This post was adapted from an article in the June–December 2019 issue of The Henry Ford Magazine.

flying, Wright Brothers, home life, women's history, The Henry Ford Magazine, by Jeanine Head Miller

Man in t-shirt and shorts stands under a sign reading "PitFit Training"Jim Leo of PitFit Training / Photo by Walter Kuhn


You’ve probably heard this one before, and maybe you’ve even wondered it yourself: Are race car drivers really athletes? After all, isn’t the car doing all of the work? And how much different can it be than driving down the interstate, if only a lot faster?

Anyone in the business of motorsports will answer unequivocally “yes” to the first question and a resounding “no” to the second. So, too, will just about anyone who has spent time driving a race car or go-kart at speed on a racetrack.

Jim Leo, the founder and owner of PitFit Training in Indianapolis, is one of those who wholeheartedly endorses the fact that race car drivers are indeed athletes; however, his arrival at that answer came in a very methodical and hands-on way.

Leo has a degree in exercise physiology and biomechanics and early in his postgraduate career set up a health and wellness program for the employees of Detroit Diesel (now Detroit) in the early 1990s. At the time, the majority shareholder and CEO of Detroit Diesel was one Roger Penske of Penske Racing fame and an 18-time winner of the Indianapolis 500 as a team owner. At the time, Leo was not involved with motorsports and had only a passing interest in them when he approached Penske about creating a fitness regimen for his race teams—specifically, the pit crew members.

Soon after, PitFit Training was born, and Leo found himself training not only the Penske Racing crew members but crew members from other teams as well. This coincided with an increased emphasis on athletes across nearly every sport training more scientifically and specifically for the demands of their particular sport. It wasn’t long after that that drivers were coming to Leo for advanced fitness training.

Man in shorts and t-shirt prepares to throw a medicine ball to another man in shorts and a hoodie
Driver James Hinchcliffe (left) training. At PitFit, it’s common practice for physical exercise to be immediately followed by mental acuity challenges. / Photo by Walter Kuhn

Pilot Parallels


Now, after more than 20 years in the sector, Leo has honed and refined the techniques he uses to keep drivers physically and mentally performing at their peak. “There’s no question that race car drivers are athletes,” said Leo. “But I’ll take it one step further and say that they are more akin to fighter pilots.”

“If you look at a driver’s physical requirements, such as the elevated heart and breath rates, enduring g-forces (the force of gravity or acceleration on a body) and near-instantaneous reflexes in addition to the high demand on cognitive ability, they align closely to the traits of combat pilots. Every athlete has to make split-second decisions on the field of play that have ramifications that may end in a game-losing situation, which is true of race car drivers as well. But drivers have the added weight that their decisions can not only affect the outcome of their race result but could also cause themselves or a fellow competitor potentially grave harm or their team hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of car damage.”

Two men in t-shirts stand on either side of a fitness machine in a gym
At PitFit, driver James Hinchcliffe (right) completes strength training for his shoulders and arms, key areas of concentration for Indy car drivers since they endure high cornering g-forces without the benefit of power steering. / Photo by Walter Kuhn

Added Leo for further clarification: “Physiologically, we know that a driver’s blood lactate levels rise while in the car as well as cardiovascular demands that are similar to running a 10K at an elite pace.”

Drivers’ Training


Jim Leo likens the cognitive prowess, aka mind conditioning, of a race car driver to that of a combat pilot. It makes sense. Like a fighter pilot, a race car driver must be able to withstand the effects of sustained g-forces on the human body for long periods of time. Consider: An Indy 500 race can sometimes last up to five hours, with drivers often experiencing g’s spiking to three or more. And these drivers, like those pilots, consistently need to have unbelievably quick reaction times and sensorimotor functions, not only to succeed in their mission but to survive.

Man in t-shirt and shorts sits in front of lighted device in gym with hands raised as another man kneels next to him
For a race car driver, reaction times and mental focus are paramount. Driver Charlie Kimball (sitting) tries to keep up with randomized light patterns during a training session at the PitFit facility. / Photo by Walter Kuhn

Imagine yourself having to react to a car that crosses your path at more than 200 miles per hour or to be constantly battered by continuous braking and accelerating forces in a cockpit where temperatures are likely above 100 degrees. Due to the high speeds and g’s alone, the average human on a racing oval would black out.

Where PitFit takes its motorsports training to the next level, and further parallels combat pilot training, is with its approach to incorporating neurocognitive (having to do with the ability to think and reason) elements with physical fitness. PitFit’s brain training is three-pronged, targeting vision, reaction time, and sensorimotor functions to give racing’s athletes the greatest developmental improvements that will lead to success on the tracks.

Pair of thick gray glasses or goggles with an elastic band
PitFit incorporates Senaptec’s strobe glasses as part of its neurocognitive exercises. Using liquid crystal technology, the lenses flicker between clear and opaque, removing visual information and forcing an individual to process more efficiently. / Photo courtesy Senaptec

That means workouts are often a combination of neck-centric strengthening exercises matched with ladder-type movements to improve hand-eye-foot coordination that are then paired with high-end virtual- and augmented-reality games and tasks based upon advanced biometrics, artificial intelligence, and data analytics.

PitFit has a custom-built sensory station, for example, created by Oregon-based Senaptec, a startup that’s bringing new visual training technologies to market that are specific to improving eye-to-brain connectivity. (Senaptec has the New York Yankees, Red Bull, and the Air Force on its client list.) PitFit’s station requires drivers to interact with moving images on a screen through activities that an article on thedrive.com compared to the arcade game Whac-A-Mole. Skill levels are then measured to help indicate the driver’s ability to make quick decisions under pressure.

Woman stands with hand up to a black digital board with lighted circles, triangles, and squares within white circles
Through high-end virtual and augmented reality games and tasks at the sensory station, you can assess your hand’s reactions to visual signals and find out how well you can see through distractions, judge depth, and track multiple objects in space. / Photo courtesy Senaptec

Race Trainer, another PitFit exclusive, is a homemade steering-resistance machine centered around a weighted steering wheel paired to pedals. A lighted control board behind the wheel prompts the driver to simulate a turn on the track, which then prompts the trainer to pull on resistance bands strapped to weighted headgear worn by the athlete. The exercise, according to PitFit, mimics the effects of those lateral g’s.

Man wearing large oblong headpiece sits holding what looks like a video game controller in front of a digital dashboard
The light on PitFit’s Race Trainer serves as a reaction trainer—green means turn now—and it’s all about how the driver responds when the steering wheel and headgear are weighted. / Photo by Walter Kuhn

There are also low-tech training exercises. For instance, a trainer drops playing cards from chest height, and the driver has to try and grab one before the card hits the ground. The cards may fall in different directions, and this builds reaction-time skills that result in better, safer results on the track.

Mind + Matter


To get a sense of what a race car driver deals with, imagine this: You are out in the parking lot of your local shopping center in full sun at high noon in July wearing a pair of thick flannel sweatpants and sweatshirt, with gloves, shoes, and socks, atop an exercise bicycle that you must pedal hard enough to maintain a heart rate above 130 beats per minute. On your head is a helmet that has bungee cords attached, pulling your head randomly in four directions. With your left hand, you’re doing 15-pound bicep curls, while with your right hand you are throwing darts at a board every two seconds and each must hit the bull’s-eye. Meanwhile, a tennis ball machine is firing balls at you from 10 feet away, so you must duck out of the way to avoid being hit. To top it all off, through a set of earphones, you are being fed complex math problems that you must solve instantly or face the possibility of an electric shock if you answer incorrectly or if you miss the bullseye.

Taken as a whole, this hypothetical may border on the absurd, but each element gives us a sense, through ordinary tasks that we can all identify with, of the physical, reflexive, and mental rigors of driving a race car, along with the physical jeopardy that can result from bad decision-making.

“Drivers are always analyzing what they see on track or what information they are being fed from a spotter about track position or an engineer about strategy,” said Leo. “We spend a lot of time training a driver’s neuropathways to better cope with the physical and cognitive demands of racing by having them train at specific intensities, immediately followed by a cognitive skills test like repeating a pattern on a light board or visual recognition test, even sometimes adding some kind of auditory distraction to really create a chaotic environment while their heart and breath rates are still high.

Man in t-shirt and shorts sits with hands and one foot raised in front of a piece of lighted equipment in a gym
Driver Zach Veach spends time at PitFit doing exercises designed to perfect hand-eye-foot coordination, which is part of the program’s brain training to improve success on the track. / Photo by Walter Kuhn

“The idea is to have them practice focusing on the task at hand to push beyond the physical stress,” elaborated Leo. “This trains a driver to cope with both the physical and mental demands they are required to exercise on track in competition.”

Consistency Is Key


That kind of focus may not be apparent to the spectator trackside or on television, but one need only look at the consistency of a top driver’s lap times to get the real picture. Over the course of a race, discounting laps where there is a yellow flag or a pit stop, it’s common to see a string of 25 or more lap times that never vary by more than half a second—the equivalent of throwing 25 darts in quick succession all within the bullseye.

While the romantic lore around a race car driver may be of a brazen daredevil driving by the seat of his or her pants, the reality is far from it. Drivers are highly fit athletes with astounding cognitive ability—meaning there is far more to winning a race than standing on the gas.

A Fitting Connection


Early in 2019, Matt Anderson, Curator of Transportation for The Henry Ford, along with other staffers, was on the phone with racing legend Lyn St. James. They were talking about themes and stories for Driven to Win: Racing in America, The Henry Ford’s permanent racing exhibition, then in progress. St. James, a longtime supporter and partner of The Henry Ford, was an integral source of ideas and insights related to Driven to Win since its conception—and she is one of the drivers showcased within the exhibit.

Two women, one holding a piece of equipment in her hand, stand in a gym looking leftward
Lyn St. James (left), photographed by Michelle Andonian, instructs a student at her Complete Driver Academy in 2008. / THF58776

It was during this call that St. James recommended The Henry Ford investigate Jim Leo’s story of entrepreneurship and innovation. A who’s-who of auto racing had been having great success on the tracks using Leo’s PitFit Training approach, including drivers such as Scott Dixon, Tony Kanaan, Dario Franchitti, Will Power, Kasey Kahne, Sam Hornish, Jr., Larry Dixon, Morgan Lucas, Pippa Mann, Levi Jones, and James Hinchcliffe.

Soon after that call, Anderson and team were in Indianapolis, meeting Leo and touring his industry-leading motorsports training facility. “Jim couldn’t have been friendlier. He opened his doors and gave us an up-close look at his methods and machines,” noted Anderson, who admitted to being a bit starstruck when driver Pippa Mann walked into Leo’s gym to work out while The Henry Ford team was on-site.

“Jim had us try some of the physical and mental workouts,” Anderson continued. “We did our best, but, needless to say, none of us will be starting in the Indy 500 anytime soon.” The team decided then and there to incorporate elements of the PitFit program into the exhibition. Leo enthusiastically agreed to help adapt some of the training machines he uses into interactives for visitors to experience in Driven to Win. We also received assistance from Senaptec, who customized their app specifically for museum visitors.

“Our visitors will be able to use some of the same training machines, and some of the same sensory performance devices, that top drivers use,” Anderson said. “Once you realize the physical strength and mental acuity required of these racers, you’ll never doubt their athletic abilities again.”


George Tamayo is Creative Director at RACER Studio and has more than 20 years of experience in motorsports communications and marketing. This post was adapted from an article first published in the January–May 2020 issue of The Henry Ford Magazine.

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Page with spiral binding at left edge, text, and image of human figure with interlinked circles similar to Da Vinci's Vitruvian Man

Cover of "Habitability Study, Earth Orbital Space Stations," 1968 / THF109188

In 1967, late in his storied career, industrial designer Raymond Loewy and a small team were contracted as NASA “space habitability” experts, producing a series of reports that focused on long-duration missions and the problem of how to exist as a “whole human” in outer space.

These reports acknowledged the restrictive parameters of spacecraft interiors yet stressed the ability of human-centered design to boost crew morale. They considered sleeping arrangements, modular storage, communal dining, mental decompression spaces, and entertainment in zero gravity—including a “one man theatre” helmet and a weighted “space dart” game.

Woman holds box labeled "cream of tomato soup" with plastic spout to her mouth
"Habitability Study, Earth Orbital Space Stations,” Figure 6B, page 15B / THF701089, detail from THF701085

Loewy’s plans underscored the most “human” of all space travel design problems: the intake of food and disposal of body waste. The images above and below may look quaint to us now, but it is important to note that at the time that Loewy was considering how an astronaut might eat tomato soup in space, plastic squeeze-tube packaging was still considered experimental. As for the inevitable issue of waste collection, Loewy provided several ergonomic space toilet designs, underlining bathroom privacy for crew members.

Space with arc-shaped plastic enclosure, geometric pattern on walls, and silhouette on wall of figure squatting piece of equipment or furniture
"Habitability Study, Earth Orbital Space Stations,” Figure 55, page 112 / THF701090, detail from THF701086

While not all of Loewy’s ideas were adopted, several suggestions were implemented in the Skylab space station, including the biggest astronaut perk of all—a window to gaze at the stars while floating in space.

Visit our Digital Collections to browse selected pages and images from one of Raymond Loewy’s habitability studies.


Kristen Gallerneaux is Curator of Communications and Information Technology at The Henry Ford. This post was adapted from an article in the January–May 2022 issue of The Henry Ford Magazine.

by Kristen Gallerneaux, The Henry Ford Magazine, design, space

Tight shot of a man in racing helmet and jumpsuit sitting in race car sunlit from behind

Vaughn Gittin, Jr. / Photo by Larry Chen

Deconstructing Drifting


Drifting is one of the fastest growing forms of motorsports in the world. It is the sport of losing traction, a driving technique where a driver purposely oversteers and causes the rear tires (or sometimes all the tires) to lose grip on the road. A car is said to be drifting when the rear slip angle is greater than the front slip angle, and the front wheels are pointing in the opposite direction to the turn. Basically, the car is turning left, but the wheels are pointed right. What’s extreme here is that the driver is controlling these factors the entire time. Drifters don’t cause a car to drift and then try to straighten things out. They just over-counter so the car goes into another drift. That’s the whole point.

Two race cars drift and spew smoke on a racetrack surrounded by fencing, palm trees, and spectators in stands
Drifter Vaughn Gittin, Jr., demonstrates skill and showmanship in his No. 25 Mustang during the 2019 Formula Drift championship series. / Photo by Larry Chen

In a drift turn, the frictional force acts centripetally, meaning that it pulls the car in a circular motion, precisely the motion that is required to maneuver a turn. During a drift, you essentially make a turn too fast, causing the rear tires to lose their grip on the road. As a result, the rear tires over-rotate in the direction of the turn, which makes them go into a spin. To compensate for this over-rotation and spinning of the rear tires, you have to turn the front tires in the opposite direction of the turn that you were originally making. Drifters balance the amount of traction they lose on the rear wheels by constantly balancing the wheel speed and the slide.

Composite illustration of car "drifting" with inset showing aerial turning
Drifting. / Illustration by T.M. Detwiler

Drifting is not about being the fastest or crossing the finish line first. Drifting is all about skill and showmanship, with each driver being assessed and awarded points for things like speed, angle, line, and personality X factor.

One of those drifter personalities, Vaughn Gittin, Jr., is living a gearhead’s dream. The 2010 Formula D champion is a regular winner on the drifting circuit in his Monster Energy Nitto Tire Ford Mustang RTR. He has expanded his motorsports activities into road racing and off-road racing, where he won the 2018 Ultra4 4500 East Coast Championship. The star of viral videos, television, and video games, Gittin also became involved in the 2000s in the creation of custom Mustangs under the RTR—Ready to Rock—brand. In late 2019, The Henry Ford Magazine interrupted his busy schedule to get the answers to some burning questions.

Two men in racing jumpsuits and baseball caps stand by cars in front of a track and spectators in grandstands
Vaughn Gittin, Jr. (right), with RTR Motorsports teammate and fellow Spec 5-D driver Chelsea DeNofa at Formula Drift New Jersey 2019. Gittin finished fourth. / Photo by Larry Chen

1) How did you first become attracted to drifting and what makes you so good?

Vaughn Gittin, Jr.: My love for cars in general stems back to being a child. My dad was a used-car salesman, and he was a warm-blooded hotrodder. He was always bringing unique, cool cars home. At four years old, I got a go-kart. I vividly remember going out, going as fast as I could and pulling the little brake and making the go-kart slide. Fast forward through skateboarding, riding BMX, motocross…. When I was 18, I got my first rear-wheel-drive car, and I would go to the industrial parks and parking lots where I used to ride my go-kart and do donuts, burnouts, powerslides. Eventually, I saw videos of this sport called drifting, and my perspective was that it was about showing your style and personality with really awesome cars. It was something I just really, really enjoyed.

Right about that time, drifting was coming to the U.S. from Japan. I went to my first organized drift event in 2001 or 2002 and immediately realized that all these things I’ve done—the playing around, the motocross, the skateboarding—really taught me good car control. And I was pretty good, naturally, at drifting. I fell in love with the culture, the scene, the people, and the camaraderie.

2) You describe yourself as a “professional fun haver.” What is a professional fun haver?

Vaughn Gittin, Jr.: To me, fun and fun-having is a mindset. We all have our bad days, and we all have the things we have to do that we don’t necessarily want to do to achieve our goals and dreams.

But I always find something fun in just about everything I’m doing. It’s very similar to what kind of person you are: an optimist or a pessimist? Is the glass half full or half empty? I think a fun haver always looks at life and challenges with the glass half full and creates fun out of it. I truly believe that my purpose is to put smiles on faces and hopefully inspire people to have fun on a daily basis because I think it’s important. And anybody can be a fun haver. I’ve dubbed myself a professional one, but it’s a very inclusive movement and something the world needs more of.

Woman holding umbrella stands with man in racing jumpsuit in front of racecar on track with spectators in grandstands behind them
Drifter Vaughn Gittin, Jr., with tire model Christen Dye. / Photo by Larry Chen

3) What’s next for you in motorsports?

Vaughn Gittin, Jr.: I’m really torn because I have only so much time, and there are so many cool opportunities and things that I’m excited to be a part of. You’re going to continue seeing me having some fun in drifting and competing. I’m definitely focused on doing more festival events, like GRIDLIFE, where I can go and get my fix on the track and have fun and perform and then chat with fans and get people in the passenger seat. Certainly, I have taken a liking to off-road, not just the racing, but the culture and being outdoors. Ultra4 is what I’ve kind of just fallen into the last couple of years, and my perspective is that it’s the most challenging type of off-road racing there is. You race in the desert, you race on the short course, you’re going over massive boulders and driving up waterfalls. It’s an absolutely incredible challenge, and it’s so beautiful when you’re out there.

4) Where do drifting and racing come together?

Vaughn Gittin, Jr.: Drifting is the epitome of car control, arguably one of the most challenging sports—the precision required and the commitment and the mental capacity to be the absolute best you have ever been in your life in that moment, because there are no chances to make mistakes. When you take that focus that has been built from drifting, and the car control and the feeling of the vehicle, it really translates to just about every other single motorsport or anything you could ever do that involves managing the vehicle, managing weight, and pushing yourself outside perceived limits.

Aerial shot of gray race car with text and logos turning on racetrack and trailing smoke
Drifter Vaughn Gittin, Jr., demonstrates skill and showmanship in his No. 25 Mustang during the 2019 Formula Drift championship series. / Photo by Larry Chen

5) What’s harder, being behind the wheel or in front of the camera?

Vaughn Gittin, Jr.: I’ve always been in front of the camera. My mom used to have a camera on us all the time, and I was always a little ham with it. I was never shy of the camera and love being in the car. I would say both are equally as easy!

6) What led to your love of and loyalty to Ford?

Vaughn Gittin, Jr.: Growing up, I wouldn’t have considered myself a Ford guy; I was an import guy. But when Ford came out with that ’05 Mustang, I just fell in love with the look. I thought: “Man, I’d love to bring some American muscle into this import-dominated sport.” I’ve been working with Ford since 2007, and I beat the door down for a couple of years before I got an answer. Since then, I’ve met some really great people that speak my language and love the things that I do.

Gray and white race car turns on racetrack and trails smoke
Vaughn Gittin, Jr.’s Mustang RTR race car. / Photo by Larry Chen

7) How did you come to launch your own brand of customized Mustang?

Vaughn Gittin, Jr.: When I first got into Mustangs in 2005, I was looking for a way to customize it and personalize it, but there was nothing that spoke to me. It inspired me to launch a new generation of Mustang. Ford was doing a phenomenal job building cars for everybody, and I wanted to build something that was for me. That’s when I conceptualized the idea of RTR. I wanted to have a Mustang that was Ready to Rock—it was representative of me from the exterior, and the performance was ready for anything I might want to do.

 

Mustang Matchup

Take a side-by-side look at what more than 50 years of evolution and a passion for high performance can bring to an iconic vehicle brand. We’re comparing, spec for spec, the 1965 Ford Mustang Convertible Serial Number One, which is part of The Henry Ford’s collections, against Vaughn Gittin, Jr.’s 2019 Mustang RTR Spec 3.

 

1965 Ford Mustang Convertible, Serial Number One

Vaughn Gittin Jr.’s 2019 Mustang RTR Spec 3

Looks

White convertible car
 
THF90619

Side view of sleek white car parked on road in front of desert and mountains

Photo by Larry Chen

Engine

V-8, overhead valves, 260 cubic inches

V-8, Supercharged 5.0L

Horsepower

164 at 4,400 rpm

700 and 610 lb-ft of torque at 12psi with 91-octane fuel

Transmission

3-speed automatic

6-speed manual

Front Suspension

Independent coil springs

RTR tactical performance adjustable front struts with RTR tactical performance lowering springs

Rear Suspension

Semi-elliptic leaf springs

 

RTR tactical performance adjustable rear shocks

Tires

6.50” x 13” four-ply rayon

RTR 20” Tech 7 wheels with Nitto NT555 G2 ultra-high-performance tires (275/35R20)

Weight

2,740 lbs.

3,532-3,825 lbs.

Top Speed

110 mph (estimate)

165 mph (estimate)

Price

$3,334

$47,395 (starting)

 

8) Do you have any advice for those who would like to follow your path?

Vaughn Gittin, Jr.: I think it’s very important to keep your reality and passion in check. These things that we’re passionate about can very easily suck us in and make us forget reality. I maxed out credit cards that took me years to pay off. I think it’s important to pay attention and enjoy your passion, but always keep your reality one foot forward so you don’t get yourself in trouble. Most importantly, have fun!


Richard S. James is a Southern California–based writer, photographer, and content producer. This post was adapted from an article first published in the January–May 2020 issue of The Henry Ford Magazine.

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In each new issue of The Henry Ford Magazine, our staff recommend books and other media that have recently caught their attention. In the January–May 2020 issue, we celebrated the upcoming opening of our Driven to Win: Racing in America exhibit with a featured recommendation from Curator of Transportation Matt Anderson, as well as racing-related resources from our collections and library. In addition, staff recommended titles on precision engineering, the 1936 U.S. Olympics rowing team, and communicating in the Internet age.

American Auto Racing: The Milestones and Personalities of a Century of Speed by J.A. Martin and Thomas F. Saal


Black book cover with images of race cars and text

You can read American Auto Racing from cover to cover, but the handbook-like format makes it more rewarding when taken a chapter or two at a time. The book’s many topics are split into 87 short chapters, each generally two or three pages long. All of the key races, faces, and places are here, from the first Vanderbilt Cup competition in 1904 and Harry Miller’s design dominance at the Indianapolis 500 in the 1920s to breaking the sound barrier at Bonneville in 1997.

This is not the sort of book that’ll quickly tell you who won NASCAR’s Cup Series championship in 1988, but if you want a concise overview of Bill Elliott’s career and his impact on stock car racing, it’s inside. In other words, American Auto Racing is a perfect primer for those wanting to study up before or after a visit to our permanent exhibition Driven to Win: Racing in America.

--Matt Anderson, Curator of Transportation

The Perfectionists: How Precision Engineers Created the Modern World by Simon Winchester


Blue and white book cover with text, line drawing of gears, and image of space

Occasionally, when holding some object or other, I find myself musing about its creation, about design decisions, and whether it was manufactured by hand or machine. The Perfectionists takes this mentality a step further, probing the realm of precision—the exactness with which something is measured—and how precision engineering and manufacturing have changed the world. Simon Winchester’s beautifully written account covers the advent of precision all the way to today’s ultra-precise electronics, divided into chapters based on the ever-exacting and now near-infinitesimal tolerances demanded. His thought-provoking questions about the nature and necessity of precision, and of the balance between precision and craft, will add another layer to my contemplation of, and admiration for, the materials that surround all of us.

--Louise Stewart Beck, former Senior Conservator

The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics by Daniel James Brown


In The Boys in the Boat, author Daniel James Brown interweaves multiple stories of passion and drive. Rower Joe Rantz overcame tremendous personal obstacles on his way to becoming an integral member of the University of Washington rowing team. That group of young men struggled to gain respect in their sport, ultimately beating the elite U.S. teams on both coasts on their way to the 1936 national title. And at the Berlin Olympics that year, the team faced the powerhouse German crew in the finals and, digging deep, found a way to succeed when everything was against them.

--Janice Unger, Processing Archivist

Because Internet: Understanding the New Rules of Language by Gretchen McCulloch


Yellow book cover with text, some highlighted

Congratulations! If you’re reading this, you are participating in humanity’s biggest experiment: language. And if you’ve ever accessed the internet, typed an email, or sent a text message, you have contributed to the massive evolution language has undergone in the digital age. In Because Internet, author and linguist Gretchen McCulloch expertly dissects the complex nuances and development of our modern electronic communications. From GIFs and emoticons (or “emotion icons”) to the abbreviation “LOL” (“laugh out loud”), her book is part history, part linguistics, and part realization that the informal language of our digital spaces is an expressive landscape that is neither single nor finite.

--Ryan Jelso, Associate Curator, Digital Content

More Reading about Racing


Black-and-white two-page book layout with four images of long, sleek race cars, with and without people standing next to them
Plate of illustrations from The Fastest Men in the World—On Wheels. / THF126226

The Benson Ford Research Center at The Henry Ford can put you on the right track if you’re interested in learning more about auto racing in America. For assistance with access, contact the Research Center.

Serials
Auto Racing: Magazine of the World’s Greatest Sport
Auto Racing Digest

Books
The Complete Book of Auto Racing by Lyle Kenyon Engel
The New York Times Complete Guide to Auto Racing by John S. Radosta
Auto Racing Yearbook by Eugene Jaderquist
The Fastest Men in the World—On Wheels by Deke Houlgate
Where They Raced, Lap 2: Auto Racing Venues in Southern California, 1900–2000 by Harold L. Osmer
Dirt Track Auto Racing, 1919–1941: A Pictorial History by Don Radbruch
Famous Auto Racing Thrills by George Sullivan

Archival Collections
Dave Friedman Collection, 1946–2009: Materials covering 60 years of automobile racing
Phil Harms Collection, 1896–2003: Collection documenting the history of open-wheel automobile racing in the United States


This post was adapted from an article first published in the January–May 2020 issue of The Henry Ford Magazine.

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Engine mounted on stand

1932 Ford V-8 Engine, No. 1. / THF101039

It’s been said that when the Ford flathead V-8 went into production in 1932, Ford Motor Company revolutionized the automobile industry—again. And the engine put the hot rod movement into high gear.

What made this engine revolutionary? It was the first V-8 light enough and cheap enough to go into a mass-produced vehicle. The block was cast in one piece, and the design was conducive to backyard mechanics’ and gearheads’ modifications.

Illustration of two engines, one without and one with protrusions; also contains text
This 1932 brochure illustrates the difference between the Ford V-8, with the cylinders and crankcase cast as a single block of iron, and a traditional V-8, built by bolting separate cylinders onto the crankcase. / THF125666

With so much at stake, you would think Henry Ford would set up his engineers tasked with the engine’s design in the most state-of-the-art facility he had at his disposal.

Not so. Instead, Ford sent a handpicked crew to Greenfield Village to gather in Thomas Edison’s Fort Myers Laboratory, which had been moved from Fort Myers, Florida, to Dearborn not long before.

Two men in suits, one wearing a hat, stand in front of a wooden building partially obscured by vegetation
Henry Ford and Thomas Edison with Fort Myers Laboratory at its original site, Fort Myers, Florida, circa 1925. / adapted from THF115782

“Henry Ford likely used the building because it provided his engineers with privacy and freedom from distraction,” said Matt Anderson, Curator of Transportation at The Henry Ford. “I imagine he also thought the team might be inspired by the surroundings.”

Ford’s plan worked. In just two years, Ford’s engineering crew left the lab in Greenfield Village with a final design.

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Screen Shot 2021-11-30 at 11.39.00 AM
The mangled wreck of driver David “Salt” Walther’s 1972 McLaren M16A is on exhibit in
Driven to Win: Racing in America in Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation.

Search the 1973 Indianapolis 500 on the Internet, and you won’t find a bunch of happy headlines. Words like “fatal,” “tragedy,” “cursed,” and “unforgettable” pop up.

Three deaths and multiple crashes are attached to the ill-fated race. One of the day’s most dramatic headlines, and still considered one of the worst crashes in Indy 500 history, involved driver David “Salt” Walther and his 1972 McLaren M16A, an artifact on display in Driven to Win: Racing in America in Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation.

On the race’s first lap, Walther’s car crashed into the outside wall, exploded, and overturned. Images of the ripped-apart vehicle with Walther’s feet dangling outside of it are disturbing, but although badly burned, Walther did survive the accident. Miraculously, he didn’t lose his passion for auto racing either, coming back to the sport to drive again in 1974. In fact, Walther started in seven Indianapolis 500s, five of which occurred after his terrible crash (his best finish was ninth place in 1976).

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Person in spacesuit stands on the lunar surface with black space behind themCocooned within 21 layers of synthetics, neoprene rubber, and metalized polyester films, Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin was well protected from the airless moon’s extremes of heat and cold, deadly solar ultraviolet radiation, and even the off chance of a hurtling micrometeorite. / Photo by Neil Armstrong/NASA


It’s possibly the most recognizable image in all of human history: Buzz Aldrin on the surface of the moon, his left arm drifting up as if checking the time during a stroll through the park.

The photo sticks in the imagination more than any image of sleek rockets on the launchpad or metallic modules landing on an inhospitable world. Perhaps it’s the casual, individual bravado oozing off Aldrin’s puffed-up frame that truly captures the essence of humans pushing past the ultimate boundary: space.

And yet the spacesuit is rarely the star of the human spaceflight epic. Which is a shame, since this was the most intimate component of the engineering endeavor that landed man on the moon 50 years ago—intimate also because the surprising winner of NASA’s spacesuit contract was a spinoff of Playtex, the underwear manufacturer which still makes items from bras to feminine products to this day.

Composite black-and-white image of a woman in bra and girdle leaping through four positions
Playtex made everyday women’s girdles like those shown in this ad before making an unlikely jump to producing clothing for space travel to the moon in the 1960s. / Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

“The suits that other companies provided were stiff, they were bulky, they couldn’t fit the narrow confines of the mission parameters,” said Nicholas de Monchaux, professor of architecture at University of California Berkeley’s College of Environmental Design and writer of a deeply researched book called Spacesuit: Fashioning Apollo.

At the core is the idea of the “human factor,” often overlooked by engineers in their quest to reach the lunar surface. The Saturn V rocket and the lunar module were exquisitely engineered, with sharp, clean lines governed by the unchanging forces of physics: thrust, gravity, air resistance. But the same equations are blurred when dealing with the human form. “The human body doesn’t operate from first principles,” said de Monchaux.

In the race to win the initial suit contract, companies such as David Clark Company, which made the Mercury mission spacesuits, and Hamilton Standard, a division of conglomerate United Aircraft, produced concepts informed by their decades-long experience with high-altitude pressure suits. These options proved much more difficult to maneuver than the suit produced by ILC Dover, the Playtex spinoff whose patented “convolutes” included rubber identical to that filling Playtex’s girdle molds, as well as nylon tricot and webbing taken from the supplies feeding its brassiere assembly lines.

Graphic with circled "21" at center with spokes each with a material written at the end against a backdrop of stars in space
The Apollo spacesuit designed by ILC Dover and worn on the moon had 21 layers, 20 of which were created with synthetics made by chemical giant DuPont. Familiar household names like nylon, Lycra, and Teflon were found in various layers, a fact DuPont proudly advertised at the time.

In 1966, events came to a head when a new ILC spacesuit had to compete once more against prototypes from Hamilton Standard and David Clark. Test subjects using the competing suits had trouble moving around, operating switches, and fitting in and out of the mock landing module. Imagine if Aldrin and Neil Armstrong had touched down successfully on the moon only to not fit through the hatch to step on the surface!

Though each competing suit was custom fitted, only the 21-layer ILC Dover soft suit was sewn by hand by a hotshot crew of the best seamstresses taken from Playtex’s sewing floor—eschewing paint-by-numbers engineering in favor of highly personalized, artisanal craftsmanship. Each spacesuit created by the ILC Dover team bore a laminated photograph of the astronaut it belonged to in order to create a connection to the person whom they were literally keeping alive with their craftsmanship.

Woman examines a thin mylar suit hanging in a rack of similar suits
Arlene Thalene of ILC Dover inspects a spacesuit’s mylar insulation layers. / Photo courtesy of ILC Dover, LP

Their knowledge, gained by fashioning bras and girdles for women’s activewear, proved indispensable to creating a superior product. The material itself was co-opted: “The rubber that made the suit was literally from the same tank that was, originally at least, supplying the girdle-making that had made Playtex’s fortune,” said de Monchaux.

Woman in a smock with nametag works with her hand inside a boot; a cup with a brush in it sits nearby
ILC Dover employee Velma Breeding installs a bladder into a boot. / Photo courtesy of ILC Dover, LP

The ILC Dover suit bested the others in official NASA tests, but the systems-engineering bureaucracy of the Apollo program was still skeptical of an untested spinoff holding such a critical contract. When again faced with competition for the last phase of Apollo’s missions (numbers 14-17), the ILC Dover team even resorted to filming a test subject playing football in a pressurized suit for several hours. “And, as became clear on watching the films, the suited subject’s attempts were at the very least equivalent to those of an engineer in shirtsleeves and slacks who joined him on the field,” wrote de Monchaux. “ILC Dover, née Playtex, had won the Apollo game.”

Three white line drawings of spacesuits against a black background
A composite of the final drawings from ILC Dover depicts (from right to left) an Apollo 11 spacesuit’s pressure garment assembly, a suit with its Thermal Micrometeoroid Garment (TMG) attached, and an astronaut wearing a suit with TMG outer cover, gloves, and helmet. Once securely attached to the spacesuit’s inner pressure garment, the multilayered TMG protected astronauts against micrometeoroid impacts, solar and galactic radiation, thermal conduction, and abrasion, and also provided fire protection. / Drawings courtesy of ILC Dover, LP

Dressed for Health


More than 50 years after the Apollo 11 astronauts donned their spacesuits on the moon, I’m sitting in an office at hygiene and health giant Essity’s facility in North Carolina trying to pull on what looks like your average thick knee-high black socks. Kevin Tucker, the global technical innovations manager for a division of Essity, chuckles while I struggle with the fabric as it tightens like a vice. Tucker is in charge of the company’s work with NASA to develop a compression suit for astronauts returning from space. He points out as he puts the socks away that future NASA astronauts will wear something with twice the compression power.

Essity’s bread and butter is making compression garments for people with venous and lymphatic diseases. That’s when the body has issues with pumping fluids against the pull of gravity, causing symptoms from lack of feeling in extremities to loss of consciousness. It’s something we have all experienced to some degree, said Tucker. “If you’re sick in bed with the flu and you’re lying down for a long period of time and you have to go run to the bathroom, the first step you usually take you end up on your nose.”

Astronauts also have trouble with fluid control. When they first get up into space and gravity is no longer a factor, fluids are pumped more into their torso and head. That’s why new arrivals to the International Space Station have puffy faces. After a while, the body adjusts and pumps less to accommodate the lack of gravity. But the problem rears its head again upon re-entry and the rapid reintroduction to gravity. At that point, the body’s fluid pumping is weakened, and astronauts often have to be carried out of the capsule. “This sudden rush of fluid away from the head and heart down into the legs can affect your consciousness,” said Tucker. That’s something his team is trying to change.

To help NASA, Essity is applying its expertise in designing compressive socks, sleeves, and girdles to create a compression suit future astronauts would wear on re-entry to prevent or avoid the sudden redistribution of fluids to the lower extremities upon return to Earth’s gravity. When Tucker lays out the current design on a table, it’s a crisscross of tight black fabric and a few zippers, woven in a way reminiscent of those fancy yoga pants that have sheer patterns.

Black overalls with shorts and long compression stockings with silver zipper pulls
Health giant Essity is currently working with NASA to create a compression suit that astronauts will wear upon re-entry to Earth. The garments, shown separately here for illustrative purposes, will prevent or avoid the sudden redistribution of fluids to the lower extremities upon return to Earth’s gravity. / Photo courtesy of Essity

It’s slated to be the first layer of gear NASA astronauts will put on as they prepare to splash down—so getting stuck as you pull on the suit is simply not an option. Another “soft” consideration is that the astronauts will have to wear these for hours in a seated, upside-down position, and tests of earlier designs irritated subjects’ bent knees. The newest version of the compression suit comes slightly pre-bent at the joint, making it more comfortable.

The Human Factor and What’s Next


The human body was not meant for space travel, and the soft problems it presents require innovative solutions with intimate knowledge of the human body. Some of those challenges (and ways suits can help) are listed below.

Circular graphic with rotund spacesuit on black background
Vacuum: Exposed to the vacuum of space, a body’s fluids would start boiling away as the body puffs up. A spacesuit protects you—but, be warned, it will puff up, too.

Circular graphic with white and blue thermometer on black background
Temperature: Outside the International Space Station, the temperature swings wildly from 250 to -250 degrees Fahrenheit. But with no atmosphere to transfer heat or cold, a well-insulated spacesuit keeps you comfy.

Circular graphic with blue and white arcing lines (sort of like lightning) on a black background
Radiation: Above the protection of the Earth’s atmosphere and magnetic field, cosmic radiation is the most consistent health concern. A spacesuit provides very limited protection—as does the space station.

Circular graphic with two blue and two white arrows on a black background
Lack of Gravity: Low or no gravity makes muscles atrophy, bones lose density, and fluids redistribute. NASA is working on it.

Unfortunately, the human body is not always something the engineering culture of rocket scientists takes into account. “We’re still thinking about the engineering and the propulsion systems and the vehicle, but we’re not thinking enough about the pink, squishy things that are in the middle of that vehicle,” said Diana Dayal, who did a year-long apprenticeship at the National Space Biomedical Research Institute (NSBRI). Funded by NASA’s Human Research Program, NSBRI, which closed in 2017, was NASA’s lead partner in space biomedical research and provided hands-on lab opportunities for young scientists, engineers, and physicians such as Dayal to access careers in human spaceflight.

On future, longer space missions, the human factor will be amplified. New challenges will arise from the long stint in low gravity. “The deconditioning of your bones and muscles is going to be an unavoidable problem on a three-year Mars mission,” said Dayal. “How are you supposed to send people to Mars and expect them to set up a habitat?”

Man in spacesuit smiles at camera with a panel of switches behind him
Astronaut Neil Armstrong—shown here aboard the Apollo 11 Lunar Module Eagle, the first crewed vehicle to land on the moon—later quipped that his spacesuit was one of the most widely photographed spacecrafts in history. Decades later, he sent a note to the team that designed the spacesuit, complementing it and calling it “tough, reliable and almost cuddly.” You can see the “cuddly” spacesuit worn by Armstrong, held by the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, on their collections website. / Photo by NASA / Edwin E. Aldrin Jr.

One of the solutions being explored is enhancing the spacesuit with an exoskeleton—essentially empowering the humans by linking them to a stronger robotic carapace. This is a good idea, but the prototype Dayal saw at NASA’s Johnson Space Center was so large and cumbersome, it was hard to imagine it on an average person.

“It’s so cool that you basically have all this circuitry that simulates nerves, but at the same time, who did you build this for? Who’s going to wear it?” They were questions posed by Dayal’s group, she said, pointing out that current designs lack sufficient modularity to adjust to different body types.

While the lessons learned in developing the soft Apollo spacesuit decades earlier may have to be revisited as we look to longer missions, it’s also an opportunity to push the boundaries of design. “All of your constraints are out the window; everything is a variable,” said Dayal. “If anything, designing for space should help us better design for Earth.”


Fedor Kossakovski is a freelance science writer and producer. This post was adapted from an article in the June–December 2019 issue of The Henry Ford Magazine.

The Henry Ford Magazine, making, women's history, engineering, design, fashion, by Fedor Kossakovski, space