Tailored for Space

A narrow two-lane highway meanders out of tiny Frederica, Del., and into the coastal countryside. High grassy fields, outbuildings and thick tree groves naturally take over the landscape. Then, suddenly, like something out of a 1960s sci-fi movie, a massive structure appears alongside the road, behind a sign bearing the unmistakable image of an astronaut in a spacesuit. Do not adjust your set. You have arrived at One Moonwalker Road, home of ILC Dover. In the 1950s, ILC Dover spun off from the International Latex Corp. – makers of girdles, swim caps, life rafts and Playtex rubber gloves, among other items – and soared into the stratosphere of government contracting. The company made a name for itself by supplying the Navy and Air Force with high-altitude pressure helmets and flight suits. The operation was then situated in Dover, Del., with only a warehouse in Frederica. In time, however, the sprawling rural property near the coast was a better fit for the company’s next big thing: to design and make Apollo spacesuits for NASA. ILC Dover’s workforce jumped from 50 to 700 in the 1960s and early ’70s as the Apollo missions grew and morphed into the Skylab project. The end of Skylab in 1974, however, led to a two-year workforce reduction at ILC Dover, down to 25, until the company redefined itself, building on a reputation for cutting-edge technology with the space program and as a proven producer of garments and equipment capable of withstanding “environments not conducive to human existence.” “We’re always improving the suits,” says William Ayrey, an ILC Dover quality manager and company historian. “We’re always trying to protect people from hostile environments and keep them comfortable.” Today’s suits are tough enough to deflect millions of micro-meteorites that fly around in space, and the visors must protect against the sun’s unfiltered intensity. They also have to be flexible for easy movement, especially at the joints. Space-shuttle suits have 11 layers, including five of aluminized mylar, and the ability to sustain life in temperature extremes from 200 degrees below zero to 300 above. The suits must also accommodate changes in body weight and growth for those who spend months in zero-gravity conditions. “The glove is the most important part of the space suit,” Ayrey explains. “You’re going to have to pick up rocks with it, repair the space station, and fix things. And every glove is custom-fit.”   More than 40 years since its first spacesuit, the company – which prides itself on patriotism and hangs a Blue Star Banner prominently at the main-office entrance – has a number of other products for national-security and military uses, including: • Personal protection suits and gas masks for chemical, biological and nuclear defense. • Massive blimps and other lighter-than-air vehicles used in border control, drug-interdiction operations and military surveillance. • Collapsible water and fuel tanks for the Army. • Helmets, suits, impact absorbers and wings for unmanned aerial vehicles. The spacesuit business remains steady, and ILC Dover is now partnering with another company to create the next-generation suit, due out at the end of the decade. The company’s patriotism and support of U.S. troops have led to a number of visits by American Legion national commanders over the years, usually at the behest of Past National Vice Commander Tom Burns of Delaware. “It really is a unique company with a special place in history, and in the future, too,” Burns said. “They are extremely supportive of our troops and the Legion.”