The race to save U.S. aviation history

CHANTILLY, Va. -- In the early days of the U.S. space program, the spacesuits were life-saving technological marvels. But today, they're so brittle they're in danger of falling apart.

   "They were designed for that harsh environment, but they were not designed to last a very long time," says Cathy Lewis, a curator of space suits at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum's new $79 million facility in Virginia.

The suit worn by astronaut Owen Garriott in the Skylab space station in 1973 was designed to last only six months.   

"It's become very delicate over time," Lewis says. "We're trying to preserve this for 50 years, 100 years. … If we keep the suits at a stable, low-but-not-freezing temperature, about 60 degrees Fahrenheit, and a low humidity, we can stabilize, slow some of that deterioration."

 

 The mission is to slow the pace of inevitable decay of tens of thousands of U.S. aviation artifacts, a collection too big to house at the museum on the National Mall. 

  Those national treasures, from early flight attendant uniforms to vintage aircraft engines, are being moved from temporary storage facilities in Maryland, built after World War II, to their pristine, new climate-controlled home.

"As with all historic, technological objects, you can't just sort of park them," says chief conservator Malcolm Collum. "They require constant looking after."

 

 Collum is looking after everything from the space shuttle Discovery to navigation watches that belonged to Charles Lindbergh. He'll carefully remove the ravages of time before the watch is placed on display at the museum in Washington.

"I'm awed by the objects that I work on every single day, and I take it as a serious responsibility," Collum says. "I mean, I have our nation's heritage in my hands."

Hands that are meticulously preserving America's aviation history for future generations to enjoy.


  • Chip Reid

    Chip Reid is CBS News' national correspondent.

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