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How Henry VIII helped put man on the moon

Why Nasa turned to Tudor armourers for spacesuit inspiration

He was a king. He was a lover and he was a fighter. He cut England off from 1,000 years of Catholic religion just so he could dump a wife, then developed a penchant for cutting off his spouses’ heads as well.

Among many, many others – two wives, a cardinal, 20 lords, six attendants, four public servants and three abbots found themselves about a foot (well, a head) shorter thanks to Henry VIII. He changed the face of England forever and today is as much a legend as an historical reality.

But did you know he also helped Nasa put a man on the Moon?

How can a monarch from half a millennia ago possibly have influenced an event that was orchestrated by another (and, at that time, undiscovered) country and which took place on the face of another world?

[Above: In the 1970s Nasa sent a replica Apollo suit to London where it was photographed next to Henry’s field armour. Image: Royal Armouries]

Well, it turns out, in 1520 our battle-thirsty king was due to compete in a little tournament in France and, being a bit of a dandy and wanting to stand out, he commissioned a rather special suit of armour.

The armour he had built is, even today, recognised as one of the most remarkable examples of the armourers’ art ever made. It was so well engineered it perfectly enclosed his entire body – buttocks and groin included – with scarcely a millimetre’s gap, whilst still allowing him a full range of movements.

[Above: Close-ups of the armour show just how well engineered the articulated joints are and how closely they fit. Image: Royal Armouries]

Nearly 450 years later and the folks at Nasa are having a problem with their moon suits.

The space suits used by the Mercury astronauts were essentially a modification of the pressurised flight suits used by US navy jet pilots of the 1950s. Joint mobility at the elbows and knees was provided by a simple fabric break line sewn into the nylon suit. Pilots found it very difficult to bend their legs and arms. Even Nasa engineers referred to them as ‘quick fix’ suits. Designed for orbital flight, the suits were useless for lunar operations.

The trouble is, to put a man on the Moon, they needed a spacesuit that was rigid and durable enough to cope with the lunar terrain but also flexible enough to allow the astronauts to perform complex tasks.

Early designs weren’t too promising and looked more like washing machines with arms than sophisticated spacesuits. Then it occurred to the engineers this need for rigidity and flexibility had been encountered before: by medieval armourers. And so began an urgent hunt for the finest examples of the armourers’ art and, in 1962, that search brought them to the Tower of London and Henry’s foot combat armour from 1520.

[Graphic: Early moon suit designs were... well, a bit crude. Click graphic to make biggerer]

They found the suit’s construction was truly incredible and were amazed at the way each plate linked flawlessly to the next while still allowing total flexibility. It was exactly what they needed for the Apollo Moon suits. In fact, when they saw the armour, one of the Nasa team commented he wished they’d seen it sooner, since it would have saved them a lot of time and money.

And that is how the church-destroying, wife-beheading king of England helped to put a man on the Moon.

Sadly, Henry never did get to wear his new armour because, three months before the tournament, the French changed the rules and the suit was never finished.

*Cosm revisted – This story was first published in March 2009