Joseph W. Schmitt was present when Chuck Yeager broke the sound barrier the first time. John Glenn gave him a keepsake after the Friendship 7 orbit around the Earth. He dressed Neil Armstrong for his moon landing. Norman Rockwell immortalized him in two illustrations.
As NASA’s first space suit technician, the O’Fallon native had an integral role in the small steps and giant leaps of the U.S. Space Program. He experienced many firsts during the 1960s and his last assignment was with the Space Shuttle program in 1983.
Schmitt, 101, who still lives on his own at his house in Texas, was responsible for designing and constructing the suits that Alan Shepard and John Glenn wore on their first historic flights, as well as all the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo astronauts.
He strapped the astronauts into the capsules, the last person to see the pilot on Earth. He checked the suits’ pressure, mobility, straps, looked for leaks, and kept the suits in airtight ship-shape for both the dry runs and live launches.
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I have been bragging about my grandfather for a very long time, ever since he came to my elementary school in the mid-70s and did a ‘show and tell’ presentation on the space suits.
Susan Alexander, Joe Schmitt’s granddaughter
He was responsible for suiting them up over their long-john underwear, putting on their gloves and boots, and placed the 5-pound bubble helmet on their head, linking their headgear to a sophisticated communications system.
“Joe’s story is amazing. He’s like a real-life Forrest Gump. His life could be a movie,” said friend Tom Tolen, who works as a community planner in Kokomo, Indiana.
But the centenarian has always been humble.
“I always say I’m not famous, but I sure was around a lot of people who were,” Schmitt told author Billy Watkins in the book, “Apollo Moon Missions: The Unsung Heroes.”
So how does a guy go from cleaning out spittoons and shining shoes in his brother-in-law’s barbershop in downtown O’Fallon to being part of NASA’s legendary space race?
Because of some recent health issues, Schmitt was unavailable for a phone interview. However, his granddaughter Susan Alexander, who lives in Kokomo, Indiana and Tolen supplied information, as did Schmitt himself, who was interviewed for NASA’s Oral History Project in 1997 and 1998. Those archives also provided details.
Growing up in O’Fallon
Hard work and ingenuity was something Schmitt was used to growing up in O’Fallon.
His extended family settled in O’Fallon after arriving from Germany in the late 19th Century. In 1916, when he was just 10 weeks old, his father, Benjamin Schmitt, an O’Fallon police officer, was murdered. The father of seven was on duty at the town’s train station when a World War I veteran got off the train and shot the first person he saw, which was Joe’s father.
Joe’s story is amazing. He’s like a real-life Forrest Gump. His life could be a movie.
Tom Tolen, friend of Joe Schmitt
Joe’s mother Addie never remarried and supported her family by washing other people’s clothes. Joe would deliver clean clothes back to customers in his wagon. He worked in the barbershop, earning a dime a shoeshine, which he saved to buy his mother a stove, to replace the broken one. That cost $30 back then.
“All of us kids did whatever we could to make it easier on our mother,” Joe said in Watkins’ book.
A career takes flight
After he graduated from O’Fallon Township High School, Schmitt said jobs were scarce, because it was the Depression. The school allowed the recent unemployed graduates to take several courses. Schmitt took typing and a business course.
The principal had noticed he was mechanically inclined. After all, he had built a motorized Ferris wheel out of Tinker Toys. So, the principal asked him if he would be interested in joining the Army Air Corps. Schmitt said yes, and the principal wrote a recommendation letter to Chanute Air Field in Rantoul, Illinois. He was accepted in 1936.
He later worked as an aircraft mechanic, installing flight measurement instruments then for the precursor to NASA, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics.
That’s how he was present when Chuck Yeager broke the sound barrier for the first time in the Mojave Desert, where the Dryden Air Force Base would later be located. NACA did its flight testing there.
Schmitt worked on the first rocket plane, called the XS-1 — the Experimental Supersonic Airplane. When Yeager flew on Oct. 14, 1947, Schmitt’s duties were to read the instruments and gather the data.
Shooting for the stars
In 1958, while at Langley Research Center, the Space Task Group sought applicants to work on the space suits. Schmitt had taken an aircraft clothing repair course and applied. Thus, began his connection to some of the greatest moments in U.S. history.
NASA sent him to a special class conducted by the manufacturer, B.F. Goodrich in Akron, Ohio, which had been awarded the contract in 1959.
Schmitt had already worked for NACA for 17 years. Now, he would be part of a grand, thrilling new adventure that captivated the country.
In the NASA oral history, Schmitt explained preparations for Shepard to be part of the first manned U.S. flight on May 5, 1961.
“I went down to Cape Kennedy. The time I went down there they were still putting monkeys in the spacecraft and launching them. I did get a chance to see their pens. They had trainers there that would walk these monkeys up and down. That was kind of interesting. What we were really doing down there was we were getting ready for our first manned space flight, which was with Alan Shepard,” he said.
“I had to set up my space suit shop. By the way, I made the first, well not the first, but the first one that we used on a manned space flight — an instrument panel for checking out the space suit. I made that out of a 3-quarter-inch plywood board, and I mounted various flow meters and pressure gauges on there and valves of various kinds. I was kind of proud of that. But it is very crude compared to today’s instrumentation. We got the job done with it.”
Armstrong is a very cool type of pilot. He was really the top choice when they picked out a man to go to the moon.
Joe Schmitt, NASA space suit technician and O’Fallon native
In a St. Louis Post-Dispatch Everyday Magazine article dated Jan. 21, 1962, Schmitt described the first seven astronauts selected for the space program.
“They’re about as fine a group of fellows as you’d ever want to meet. They are easy-going, take things in stride and never seem to lose their temper,” he told the paper. “We joke a bit and they kid me a lot, but during a launch day, everything’s pretty much business.”
The article was a month before Glenn would orbit the Earth.
Schmitt received an unexpected token of appreciation afterward.
“After John had made his flight — I was at Cape Kennedy at that time — John said, ‘Come here Joe. I got something for you.’ I went over there and I had no idea what he was talking about. He gave me a gold medal with my name imprinted on the back of it, or my initials rather, on the back of it. I was real proud of that but, I was more proud of that when I found out who he had given these to. He had about 10 of these medals. He gave one to the president to the United States, one to each of the six astronauts that were there, and to some of the really big high wigs. And me, being a suit tech, which is kind of a low man on the pole, I was real, real proud of that. I still have that today. Those would be quite valuable today if you wanted to sell them, I guess. I plan on keeping that in the family,” he said.
To the moon
The last Apollo flight Schmitt worked on was 15, the first one with a Lunar Rover.
“The big one,” however — Apollo 11 — is one loaded with memories. He recalled all the little details from July 16, 1969.
“We came to work at 3 a.m. in the morning. We passed hundreds of trailers, tents and vans parked along the roadside outside the gates. Some had been there for days. Four lanes of visitor’s cars were lined up waiting for the gates to open at 7 a.m. We had to zigzag around them to get to the gate. Security was especially high, but with our special passes we sailed right through,” he said.
“The crew arrived at the suiting room at about 5:30 in the morning. But we suit technicians had been working in the suit room since 3:30, turning on the air and oxygen supply, making leak checks on the suit consoles, checking out the communications systems, laying out suit equipment, making sure suit pockets were loaded in correct order with pens, flashlights and so forth,” he said.
Schmitt praised Armstrong’s steadiness under pressure.
“Armstrong is a very cool type of pilot. He was really the top choice when they picked out a man to go to the moon. He had been in so many different serious situations and gotten himself out of them. Like over here at Ellington Field, we had the first lunar landing training vehicle, called the LLTV. There were only three of those made. I think that one is still in a museum somewhere. The second one is the one that Armstrong was flying one day and something went wrong, and he had to eject from that. He did it all very cool. He did OK. Same thing happened with this Agena situation. The spacecraft started rolling, and he very cautiously and coolly figured out what to do, getting them back on their course again,” Schmitt said.
Armstrong is a very cool type of pilot. He was really the top choice when they picked out a man to go to the moon.
Joe Schmitt, NASA space suit technician and O’Fallon native
But space suit mobility and glove tactility needed improvement for future space programs, and Joe was on it. The suits were even more high-tech for the moon landing.
“On Neil’s suit, a small folding shovel with plastic sample bags were placed in the special pocket. These were to be used in the event that their stay on the moon was to be cut short for any reason, so at least they would come back with a few lunar soil samples,” he said.
“Two types of space suits were used. Mike Collins wore an intravehicular suit, which means that these suits were only to be used inside the spacecraft. While Neil and Buzz wore extravehicular space suits. The extravehicular space suits cost about $100,000, and three were purchased for each crewman — one for training, one for flight and one back-up flight suit. It seems like a lot of money, but when you consider that the extravehicular suits were designed to operate in a minus-250 degree Fahrenheit to a plus-310 degree Fahrenheit temperature range, and that it has ultraviolet radiation and a certain amount of micro meteorite protection, well, I guess that was a fair price for a 28-layer space suit,” he said.
“With ventilation air flowing through the torso, the crew would be comfortable while the crew was given current weather conditions and a briefing on the status of the countdown by Deke Slayton, who is another one of our astronauts. At this time, I always made it a point of letting the crew know where all of their pocket accessories were stowed. They personally stowed their personal preference kits which contained personal rings, medals and other memorabilia which they wanted to carry along. Also a ham on rye sandwich was carried along as a quick snack,” he said.
With the countdown going smoothly, we proceeded with the final phases of suiting. COM carriers were donned and a communications check was made. Nylon comfort gloves followed by the suit gloves were donned and locked to the suit arms. Next the fishbowl helmets were locked into the suit neckrings,” he said.
The last thing he did before leaving the capsule, he made a quick check of everyone’s equipment, asking them if everything was OK and wish them good luck.
The three weren’t nervous, he said.
“It looked like another training exercise. Everybody did their job. It just seemed very normal to me,” he said.
Schmitt has a flag that was flown on that flight. It wasn’t flown on the moon, but it was in that spacecraft.
When the trio returned, Schmitt had to vacuum out all the moon dust. The suits had to be evaluated.
“A lot of the people at that time, contractors mostly, they would take some of that dust and try and give it to their friends. There was an order that came out that we weren’t allowed to have that. All samples of the lunar samples had to go to the storage area there. So we didn’t get any of that. Although I did get some of it on some of the things that were retrieved from the flight,” he said.
Life after Apollo
After Apollo 15, he moved on to the Skylab program, then the other NASA projects, retiring after the fifth Space Shuttle flight in 1983.
“After the Skylab program, we had the ASTP program, which was the Russian program. That was very short-lived. Lots of publicity, though. Then we went on to the shuttle program,” he said.
New ejection space suits were used, and they had ejection seats in the cockpit of the shuttle.
“They had special doors that would open up if they needed to get out of there. They could just blow those doors and eject themselves from the space seats and then they would be free of the spacecraft and they would come back on their parachutes. This would be for a land or launch if something were to go wrong,” he said. Nothing went wrong then.
“The first five flights we just used those ejection escape suits, which were just regular type Air Force suits. But then after that, we went into a new type of space suit, which had a large belly ring. We had a lot of trouble with the zippers on the space suits leaking. But we never did have any leaks on the gloves, because they were O-rings, and that’s why we went to the big O-ring around the belly. Also we had an O-ring around the helmet. So that was the reason for making that like that,” he said.
A portrait of history
Schmitt and his wife, Libby, moved to Friendswood, Texas, in 1963, relocating from Virginia. He appeared on an episode of the game show, “What’s My Line?” on May 19, 1963. He tells host John Daly that he is from “O’Fallon, Illinois” but recently moved to Texas. He shared that he had a daughter who was married and a son still in high school. (The show can be watched on YouTube.com.)
Proudly on display at his Texas home is Rockwell’s “Earth to Moon” painting, which features Schmitt next to astronaut Michael Collins. Rockwell deliberately placed Schmitt next to the astronauts.
Rockwell also painted Schmitt while suiting up Virgil “Gus” Grissom in another work. He had taken photos at NASA, but wanted Schmitt to bring a suit to his Massachusetts home.
“The reason I had to go up was because the Gemini space suits at that time were classified. So they couldn’t just put them in the mail and ship them. And what Mr. Rockwell wanted to do with the suit and harness, he wanted to capture all of the colors like the silver suit, the gray straps from the parachute straps and all the buckles. He wanted to capture all those colors. So that’s the reason why I took the suit up there,” he said.
“What was interesting to me was the fact that Mr. Rockwell was so precise on exacting data. In the picture that he painted, it had a countdown clock. And he came back a day or so later on the telephone and he said, ‘Now, when you were suiting the crew up at this particular time, what time would be showing on the countdown clock?’ So I figured it up and got it to within a minute or so of what that would be. And he said, ‘Thank you very much.’ And yes, he was a very big stickler for details,” he said.
Rockwell and his wife Molly couldn’t have been more cordial during his visit at his Stockbridge, Massachusetts studio, Schmitt said. He picked Joe up in a chauffeured Lincoln Town Car and took him to dinner at a local country club while he was there for nearly a week.
“I have quite a lot of things that he had written to me. I have those on my file that have his signature on them, which will be nice for the family someday. Also, he gave me one of the early Norman Rockwell albums. The first page — well, before you got into the first page — he put a little dog at the top of the page. It said, ‘To Mr. Schmitt: Thank you for all of your help on the program.’ Then he had this dog along the edge there, he had a string. One end was tied to a dog’s tail and the other was tied to a tin can. He had his name signed at the bottom,” he said.
That inscription read: “My very best wishes to Joseph Schmitt of NASA: My advisor and friend. Cordially, Norman Rockwell. Nov. 15, 1964.”
That wasn’t the only record of Joe’s work. Topps, the trading card company, printed him placing a helmet on Grissom in one of the space card collectibles available during the 1960s.
When he retired in 1983, Schmitt was 67.
“I just thought it was time to quit. But I haven’t exactly been doing nothing. I have a lot of hobbies,” he told NASA in the last 1990s.
“I have overhauled my Model-A Ford for the second time. I did it once in Virginia where we lived. Then I drove it from Virginia down here to Texas. After the flood that we had here in Friendswood back in 1979, why I had to overhaul everything. So this time I think I have done a lot better job. It’s in pretty good shape now. I haven’t run it yet. I have to get a battery and a few other things. I’ve been keeping pretty busy with that and the house. That’s about all that retired folks do I guess,” he said.
His hobbies are legendary among his family, his granddaughter said.
“I have been bragging about my grandfather for a very long time, ever since he came to my elementary school in the mid-70s and did a ‘show and tell’ presentation on the space suits,” Alexander said.
Alexander said her grandfather built a hideout in his garage attic just for her, and shared such skills as woodworking, metal-working, painting and caning with her.
“With every visit to his house and garage, he would walk me through his latest project, whether it be restoring a riding lawnmower to reconditioning a found item. He could do or fix almost anything. He passed that artisan ability on to his children, because my father and aunt can both do or make anything too!” she said. “I think fixing and making things is a way Granddaddy expresses love and care, a trait he has passed to his children.”
In 2000, when she was expecting her first child, her grandfather and father came to Indiana to support her family. So did her aunt.
“I certainly felt loved when they fixed everything that needed to be fixed around the house including broken fence posts, frozen pocket doors, replacing rickety back steps with a deck and railing, refinishing furniture and decorated the baby’s room,” Alexander said.
Her grandfather’s skills have inspired her.
“I still enjoy being around creative people, so much so that I have helped start a non-profit makerspace in my community where members share equipment, tools and knowledge to make things. It’s almost as if I am back in my grandfather’s garage,” she said.
It’s certainly been an interesting journey. Not many have got to touch so many lives. Even fewer can say they helped touch the heavens.
“Like you asked me, it has been an interesting life all right,” Schmitt told the NASA interviewer two decades ago.
Indeed, it has been.