Obituaries

Joseph Schmitt, 101, spacesuit technician for early astronauts

Buzz Aldrin posed for a photograph taken by Neil Armstrong during an Apollo 11 extravehicular activity on the lunar surface in 1969. The first lunar landing was one of the many missions on which Mr. Schmitt worked.
NASA
Buzz Aldrin posed for a photograph taken by Neil Armstrong during an Apollo 11 extravehicular activity on the lunar surface in 1969. The first lunar landing was one of the many missions on which Mr. Schmitt worked.

NEW YORK — Joseph W. Schmitt, one of NASA’s earliest “suit techs” who was often the last person to have face-to-face contact with astronauts before they shot skyward on their historic missions, died Sept. 25 in Friendswood, Texas. He was 101.

His granddaughter, Susan Alexander, confirmed his death.

Mr. Schmitt put Alan Shepard into his Freedom 7 capsule for the United States’ first spaceflight in May 1961, and he was still suiting up astronauts more than 20 years later, making sure everything was sealed and connected properly. Before any flight, he would spend long hours in the testing laboratory with the astronauts, getting them accustomed to their suits and troubleshooting problems.

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He wrangled suits through the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo programs and into the space shuttle era, a span during which spacesuits went from being, essentially, modified military gear to high-tech creations that could protect an astronaut on a spacewalk or on a stroll on the moon.

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His longevity and roots from the very start of the space program were occasion for some ribbing by colleagues.

“Joe suited up Orville and Wilbur,” said Alan M. Rochford, a suit tech who worked with him beginning in 1960.

Joseph William Schmitt was born Jan. 2, 1916, in O’Fallon, Ill. His father, Benjamin, was a city marshal who was killed in the line of duty only a few weeks after Joseph’s birth. His mother, the former Apollonia Berkel, raised him and his siblings with the help of extended family.

In the 1930s, his high school principal, knowing the teenager was mechanically inclined, suggested he join the Army Air Corps. He first studied aircraft engines but, with World War II still in the future, found himself looking for more to do.

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“It was kind of a slow period,” Mr. Schmitt said in an oral history. “I asked if I could go back to take a parachute riggers course and also an aircraft clothing repair course.”

That proved pivotal when, after leaving the service in 1939, he found his way into the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, a forerunner of NASA. He started as an airplane mechanic, working on the 1947 flight in which Chuck Yeager broke the sound barrier, but was later put into its Space Task Group as the agency began thinking about manned space flights and what astronauts would need to wear.

As an equipment specialist, or a suit tech, Mr. Schmitt would accompany astronauts to the spacecraft and hook up the various connections that would keep them alive, monitor their health, and enable them to communicate during flight. It was a job that above all required a high level of attentiveness.

“Joe was a perfectionist in many respects,” James W. McBarron II, his supervisor, recalled in a telephone interview.

Mr. Schmitt suited up John Glenn for the 1962 flight in which he became the first American to orbit the Earth. The many missions he worked also included Apollo 11, the first lunar landing, and other Apollo missions, where a less-heralded part of the job — care of the suit after a flight — took on new significance.

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“We vacuumed out all the moon dust,” Mr. Schmitt said in the oral history. “A lot of people at that time, contractors mostly, they would take some of that dust and try and give it to their friends.” Officials eventually clamped down on that practice, he said.

Mr. Schmitt married Elizabeth Ann Rayfield in 1939; she died in 2008. He leaves a son, Joseph Michael; a daughter, Norma Jean Spencer; six grandchildren; and nine great-grandchildren.

Mr. Schmitt accumulated an enviable collection of mementos, including a medal with Mr. Schmitt’s initials on it that Glenn gave him after taking it with him into space.

He also made a game-show appearance: He was a mystery challenger on “What’s My Line?” in May 1963, just days after he had suited up Gordon Cooper for the final Mercury mission. (The celebrity panel surmised that he was part of the space program but failed to guess his role.)

He also became an artistic footnote during his NASA career: That’s him kneeling on the left in “Grissom and Young,” a 1965 painting Norman Rockwell made of the Gemini astronauts Gus Grissom and John Young as they’re being suited up. But Rochford said Schmitt is actually in the painting one and a half times.

Rockwell took photographs of the astronauts to work from, pictures that Schmitt posed for in his role as suit tech. Later, Rockwell asked NASA to send him a spacesuit so he could get the details just right. Mr. Schmitt brought a suit to Rockwell’s studio in Massachusetts and, Rochford said, told the artist that there were actually two suit techs for the Gemini 3 flight: He had dressed Young, while Rochford had dressed Grissom. So Rockwell obtained a photo of Rochford’s face and put a second suit tech into the painting, on the right.

“He took my head and put it on Joe’s neck,” said Rochford, who is 20 years Mr. Schmitt’s junior. “He put a young head on an old body.”