CAPE CANAVERAL — Ron Woods draws — literally — from his decades of experience at NASA. He paints from them, too. His subjects are the spacesuits, gloves and helmets of astronauts past.
For more than 40 years, Woods has had an intimate relationship with "extravehicular mobility units" as the suits are called. He has sewn them, modeled them, escorted them on classified missions to be repaired, and zipped them on Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin for a historic journey to the moon.
As NASA celebrates its 50th anniversary, Woods' paintings and career offer a glimpse into the agency's greatest moments and are a celebration of one of the space program's achievements: the spacesuit, the most personal rocket ship of all.
Now 62 and still working as an equipment specialist at NASA, Woods continues to look after spacesuits, but his real passion is immortalizing them in watercolors and oils.
His paintings — one depicts the glove worn by Eugene Cernan, the last man to have walked on the moon — adorn the walls of NASA buildings and offices across the country.
Many artists who paint subjects from the history of space exploration focus on the rockets. Others concentrate on the astronauts themselves.
But Woods' paintings are a bridge between the hardware and people, painted in such a way that they bring out both the technical wonder and the humanity of the space program.
"It's not just a piece of cold hardware when you think of all the people who worked on it and in it," he says. And Woods knows both the high-tech garments and the heroes who wore them.
Woods got into painting — and into NASA — by accident.
It was 1967. Woods, a parachute rigger in the Army, had six months of service left when his mother in Houston noticed an ad in the paper that NASA was hiring "survival technicians" to help design and make life-support equipment for astronauts. His experience with a sewing machine made him ideal for the job. The day after he left the Army he walked into a strange new world.
At the time, NASA was pulling out all the stops to get to the moon. The Apollo effort, almost scrapped a few months earlier by the tragic fire that killed its first crew during a launchpad test, was lurching forward.
Woods worked mostly on spacesuits. Unlike the pressurized aluminum-coated nylon and rubber garments worn by the astronauts on the first spaceflights, the suits for Apollo needed to be more complex.
Walking on the moon presented a new set of problems. Not only did the suits have to offer protection from jagged rocks and the searing heat of the lunar day, they had to be flexible enough to permit bending so crewmen could gather soil samples, set up scientific equipment and, eventually, ride an electric-powered dune buggy, the lunar rover.
All around Woods, people were testing materials that had never been used before: neoprene, Velcro, nylon and flame-retardant cotton and synthetics.
His work put him in close contact with the astronauts, and within a year he was asked to join them as "insertion engineer" — a job that was part astronaut dresser and part roadie.
Often that meant dragging the suits across the country. The Apollo suits were considered top secret, which meant Woods had to travel in the middle of the night.
Soon after joining NASA, Woods decided to go to college and study art, thinking he would be an architect. But as he studied, he realized that he loved his job.
He moved to Florida, where much of the Apollo training was done.
Woods was called to the Smithsonian two years ago to help curators prepare some suits for a museum exhibition. They wanted histories and information about the suits as well as a trained eye to look them over. As soon as he saw them, the memories came flooding back.