The technician who suited up NASA’s first astronauts
Joseph Schmitt 1916–2017
In the 1960s and ’70s, Joseph Schmitt was often the last ground crew member that astronauts saw before they rocketed into space. As NASA’s longtime leading “suit tech,” he helped design and develop the first astronauts’ space suits—and made sure they were functioning correctly before liftoff. Schmitt suited up Alan Shepard before he became the first American in space, in May 1961, and nine months later secured John Glenn’s straps, boots, and helmet for his mission to orbit the Earth. “Before getting out of the spacecraft,” Schmitt recalled, “I always made a quick check of everyone’s equipment, asking them if everything was OK and wishing them good luck.”
Born in O’Fallon, Ill., Schmitt was raised by his mother after his city marshal father “was killed in the line of duty,” said The New York Times. After high school Schmitt spent a few years in the Army Air Corps—where he took an aircraft clothing repair course—and joined NASA’s forerunner in 1939. “He started as an aircraft mechanic, working on the 1947 flight in which Chuck Yeager broke the sound barrier,” but was later transferred to the Space Task Group.
“When NASA was formed in 1958, Schmitt became the agency’s chief spacesuit technician,” said The Washington Post. Over the next 25 years, he helped create the first pressurized space suit—complete with “urine collection device”—and the 28-layer, $100,000 outfit used by Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin for the 1969 lunar landing. Schmitt amassed a collection of mementos from grateful astronauts, and in 1964 Norman Rockwell included Schmitt in a painting of astronauts preparing for a mission. When Schmitt asked why he was featured, the artist responded, “Because you were always there.”