AidSpace Blog

Obscure Objects: Gene Kranz’s Apollo 13 Vest

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Gene Kranz is best known for his stellar performance as flight director for the ill-fated Apollo 13 mission. But Kranz is also known for another thing: his white vests.

Kranz’s vests had legendary status around mission control, and also in the minds of the public after actor Ed Harris wore an exact replica of Kranz’s most famous vest in the 1995 movie, Apollo 13. Kranz’s vests represented the strong and can-do approach that pervaded his mission control team, especially during the Apollo 13 mission in which the astronauts’ lives were at stake.

Gene Kranz in mission control wearing one of his white vests. Kranz was also known for his flat-top haircut. Photo: NASA

Kranz started wearing a different white vest for each mission beginning with the first time he served as flight controller, Gemini IV, on June 3, 1965. Knowing Kranz’s penchant for wearing three-piece suits, his wife, Marta, a skilled seamstress, came up with the idea. She told Smithsonian magazine in April 2010, “There were three Mission Control teams—red, white and blue—and Gene’s was the white team, so his vests were always white.”

From that first Gemini mission onward, Marta made a white vest for every launch, plus a second celebratory vest to wear for the splashdown. According to his book, Failure Is Not an Option (2000), Kranz recalled, “I felt like a matador donning his suit as I put on the vest [for the first time].”

The splashdown vests were much flashier than the mission versions. However, after Apollo 13 Kranz continued to wear his work vest.

You can watch the scene from Apollo 13 where Ed Harris, playing Kranz, puts on the white vest to his team’s applause (fast-forward to 3:24). At the end, you will hear one of the team say, “Hey, Gene, I guess we can go now!”

Eugene F. Kranz

A red, white, and blue sequined vest worn for the splashdown of Apollo 17, the last Moon landing mission. Photo: NASA STS41C-3228

The off-white vest worn by Gene Kranz during the Apollo 13 mission is on display in the Apollo to the Moon exhibition in the Museum in Washington, DC. It is made of a fabric called faille. Photo: National Air and Space Museum

The story of how the vest came into the Museum’s collection is interesting. Before his appearance as speaker at the John H. Glenn Lecture in 2005, curator Margaret Weitekamp asked Kranz about donating a vest to the national collection. Kranz said he would loan a vest, but not donate one. At the end of the lecture, during the question-and-answer period, a Museum docent in the audience asked him when the Smithsonian Institution would get a vest. Put on the spot, standing next to the Museum’s director and faced with enthusiastic applause from the audience, Kranz announced he had just been talking to a curator about donating one of the vests. Weitekamp, giving an Ask an Expert lecture on the topic later, said, “I didn’t plant the question, but I might have led the applause.”

Weitekamp said the Kranz’s thought the Museum would want one of the fancy splashdown vests, but she had another one in mind: the vest from Apollo 13, which she calls “a symbol of how he helped get Apollo 13 back.” Kranz also donated the button he wore on the vest, a duplicate of the mission patch.

Kranz wore this pin, a replica of the Apollo 13 mission patch, on his vest during the flight.

Listen to Weitekamp’s Ask an Expert lecture (13:36), which is accompanied by many photos of Kranz’s vests.

After the Gemini program, Kranz served as flight controller for odd-numbered Apollo missions. He was on duty for the thrilling moment when the Apollo 11 lunar lander touched down on the Moon on July 20, 1969. His last shift as flight director was Apollo 17 in 1972. He went on to become deputy director of NASA Mission Operations, then director. He retired in 1994.

In retirement, Kranz wrote his memoir, Failure Is Not an Option, which was adapted for television on the History Channel in 2003. In 2008, he appeared throughout the Discovery Channel mini-series, When We Left Earth. Kranz is now a motivational speaker, using his experiences with Apollo 13 as the basis for his talks. He continues to wear white vests.

As is the tradition at NASA, the color white was retired as a team color from NASA mission control upon Kranz’s departure.

Kathleen Hanser is a writer-editor in the Office of Communications at the National Air and Space Museum

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SpaceShipOne Folds Its Wing

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For the past decade, SpaceShipOne has been on display as one of the hanging artifacts in the Boeing Milestones of Flight Hall. It was specifically positioned to depict the aircraft in its initial stage of powered flight (30 degrees, nose up attitude) just after release from its White Knight mother ship, which carried it aloft to an altitude of about 14,326 meters (47,000 feet).

In March of this year, SpaceShipOne was lowered to the floor as part of a major renovation of the Milestones gallery. During this time, it received a thorough condition assessment and photo documentation by conservator Sharon Norquest. After surface cleaning and minor conservation work is completed, it is scheduled to be rehung this week and will be one of the major artifacts in the new Boeing Milestones of Flight Hall, scheduled to open in July 2016.

The renovation project provided us with a unique opportunity to consider how we showcase SpaceShipOne in the future. In discussions with curator Valerie Neal, the Milestones project team decided to pursue a new display orientation for SpaceShipOne. The team wanted to depict the aircraft as if it were in its initial reentry flight, when its unique “feather system” is deployed.


SpaceShipOne’s feathering is only deployed for reentry. Once the aircraft is back in the atmosphere, the feather is returned to a stowed “down” position. The aircraft becomes a glider for the landing phase of the flight. Photo: Dane Penland, Smithsonian

To accomplish this, a dialog was initiated with Scaled Composites project engineer Matt Stinemetze and crew chief Steve Losey. Both Stinemetze and Losey had been with the program from the beginning to design, build, test, and fly the vehicle that would eventually win the $10 million X-Prize competition. Consulting with these key team members gave us the insight we needed to understand how SpaceShipOne’s onboard feather system functioned; the rear half of the wing, along with both tail booms, are raised to a 65 degree angle by using two redundant pneumatic actuators.

The feather was Burt Rutan’s, an American aerospace engineer, novel approach to the problem of heat build-up during the reentry phase of flight. It allowed for an aerodynamically stable and controlled craft to drop back into the atmosphere without generating surface temperatures that could have melted the resin that bonds the carbon fiber skin together.

For a successful display in our museum environment, a few specific challenges had to be met. First, the shift in the aircraft’s vertical and longitudinal center of gravity in the proposed display configuration had to be assessed before a new hanging scheme could be designed. The new rigging elements will display the craft in a 20 degree, nose down (pitch) attitude while remaining perfectly balanced.

Our next challenge was how to keep the configuration locked. While in operation, the feather is held in the raised position by air pressure only; there are no “up” locks. Since we will display the artifact in the reentry configuration for years, we needed to provide a mechanical means of keeping the feather deployed. Gary Gordon, our collections department in-house machinist, fabricated aluminum collars that fit over the actuator pistons to keep them from retracting back into their cylinders should a loss of system pressure occur over time. We performed two trial deployments of the feather to ensure the proper design and fit of the collars, and we also verified the volume of space the aircraft needs in the gallery to be suspended in this configuration. The artifact takes up about 6 meters (20 feet) of vertical height in the new configuration.

We operated the feather system by following the normal flight procedure using levers and gauges in the cockpit. This meant pressuring the system via a quick-connect service port, which services all four onboard air bottles simultaneously. However, I did not recognize the quick-connect fitting as standard aerospace hardware. As it turns out, and owing to the experimental nature of the craft, the fitting is the same type as used for a paintball marker!

SpaceShipOne with feather deployed. Photo: Mark Avino, Smithsonian

The revamped display will provide visitors with a new perspective on the most distinctive feature of this one-of-a-kind artifact.

Tony Carp is a restoration specialist and artifact rigger in the Collections Department at the National Air and Space Museum

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Inside Look: Celebrating New Horizons With the Mission Team

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On July 13 and 14, I was invited to visit the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland, for the New Horizons Pluto Flyby Events. These included various panels and speakers including Tom Krimigis, the only person to have been a part of a mission to visit all nine major bodies in our solar system; Ann Druyan; Dava Sobel; and Amy Teitel whose Pluto in a Minute series is a great way to get caught up on the New Horizons mission. Also in attendance were Annette and Alden Tombaugh, children of Clyde Tombaugh. Clyde Tombaugh originally discovered Pluto in 1930, and his ashes were attached to the New Horizons spacecraft. Annette and Alden were thrilled to watch as their father got to finally explore Pluto up-close. (The instrument Tombaugh used to discover Pluto is currently on display at the Museum in Washington, DC in Exploring the Planets. Learn more about Tombaugh’s discovery with the blink comparator.)

The party really began on Tuesday, July 14, the day of closest approach. As we arrived at 7:00 am, the New Horizons team and guests (me and hundreds of team, friends, and family) were all handed tiny American flags and crammed into a ballroom in the Kossiakoff Center, at John Hopkins, to count down to the closest approach. At 7:49 am, the whole crowd and New Horizons team erupted into cheers, shouts, and applause, all furiously waving our flags celebrating the moment New Horizons passed 10,000 km (6,200 mi.) from Pluto’s surface!

My badge, celebratory flag, and the latest sticker inspired by the closest approach. Photo: Emily Martin. Smithsonian Institution

Then we waited! Pluto is a 4.8-billion kilometer (3-billion mile) journey away. It takes at least 4.5 hours for New Horizons to receive a message from Earth. We had to wait nine long hours to receive the “phone home” signal from New Horizons to know whether the closest approach (that we all had just celebrated) was successful. Was the spacecraft still healthy? Did it collect all the data?

The Kossiakoff Center Auditorium, congratulating the Mission Operations team after the successful flyby and subsequent “phone home” signal. Photo: Emily Martin, Smithsonian Institution

After more panels and lectures, it was time for another countdown. We watched live as Alice Bowman, the Applied Physics Laboratory’s first female mission operations manager, began receiving data on the health of New Horizons and the success of the mission. New Horizons was healthy and had recorded all the expected data! This was the moment for Mission Operations, who are to be credited with the successful nine-year cruise to Pluto and encounter. The parade of Mission Operations from their workstations into the Kossiakoff Center Auditorium was the NASA version of a New York City ticker-tape parade. They really are rockstars. The image above captures it all! An even more emotional moment than the flyby if you can imagine!

Pluto and its five moons continue to surprise, shock, inspire, and excite us. Over the next 16 months, the data will be steadily beamed back to Earth by New Horizons. Keep your eyes on New Horizons, there is much, much more to come!


The author celebrating New Horizon’s successful mission. Photo: Emily Martin, Smithsonian Institution

Emily Martin is a postdoctoral fellow in the Center for Earth and Planetary Studies.

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New Horizons: The Gift That Keeps Giving

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On July 14, the New Horizons spacecraft completed a 9.5-year-long, 4.8-billion kilometer (3-billion mile) journey to the object furthest from the Sun to be visited by a spacecraft. It is somehow fitting that the Pluto fly-by occurred 50 years, to the day, after Mariner 4 took the first images of Mars, obtained during a spacecraft encounter. New Horizons provided the first close-up views of the dwarf planet Pluto, and also the first “Kuiper Belt Object” to be visited by a robotic emissary from Earth. When New Horizons launched in 2006, it was headed toward the ninth planet, discovered by American astronomer Clyde Tombaugh in 1930. Later that same year, the International Astronomical Union (IAU), the organization representing astronomers from around the world, reached a historic but contentious decision to define what it means to be a ”planet.“ Pluto was considered to be small enough that its gravitational pull was insufficient to ”clear out” the zone of space through which it orbited the Sun, leading the IAU to state that Pluto was now the type example of a ”dwarf planet” and representative of the numerous large, icy bodies then known to orbit the Sun beyond Neptune in a doughnut-shaped zone first hypothesized by astronomer Gerard Kuiper. There remains a vocal group of planetary scientists (including Alan Stern, the principle investigator of New Horizons), along with a large portion of the American public, who disagree with the IAU decision about the status of Pluto. In spite of this ”nomenclature” debate, New Horizons is revealing what the denizens of the Kuiper Belt actually look like, with startling revelations presented at each New Horizons press conference.

As New Horizons made its closest approach to Pluto, the dwarf planet and its large moon Charon (half the size of Pluto) were transformed from fuzzy spots visible to the largest telescopes on Earth into objects with unique geologic histories. The best New Horizons image of Pluto sent to Earth prior to the closest approach revealed a surface with many circular features thought to be large craters produced by impacts (something that had been expected), but the enormous variation in how much sunlight was reflected from the surface, along with the complex patterns of the brightness differences, were a hint that Pluto had much to tell us about its history. Hubble Space Telescope images indicated that the brightness of Pluto was spatially variable, but there was no indication of how those variations were produced. The pre-encounter image showed Pluto has both very dark and very bright regions close together, with the brightest equatorial area found in a heart-shaped region. High resolution images released after the encounter have revealed that Pluto has mountains that rise >3.5 km (>11,000 feet) above the surrounding plains. The bright plains of the ”heart” lack obvious craters (suggesting a young age) but are broken into polygonal patterns >15 km (>10 mi.) wide, the bright plains are made up of ices of methane, nitrogen, and carbon monoxide, and flows of nitrogen ice extend from the bright plains into and around the surrounding mountains and rough terrain. It will take 16 months to send to Earth all of the uncompressed (full-resolution) data collected during the 22-hour-long close encounter phase, due to the great distance over which the data must be transmitted. However, during this time New Horizons will be the ”gift that keeps on giving” as these precious data arrive on Earth, are assessed by the science team, and released to the public. Stay tuned!

See for updates and regular data releases from New Horizons.

Pluto in True Color

Mosaic of four images of Pluto, released July 24, 2015. Photo: NASA/JHUAPL/SWRI


Jim Zimbelman is a geologist in the Center for Earth and Planetary Studies at the National Air and Space Museum.

Check back tomorrow for a first-hand account of what it was like to be at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory for the Pluto flyby.


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Zvezda Service Module Celebrates 15 Years in Orbit

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Through the commotion of a very successful July which included the New Horizons mission to Pluto, the 40th anniversary of the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project, the 46th anniversary of Apollo 11, and the Museum’s very first Kickstarter project, there is one anniversary that we may have inadvertently overlooked. In July, the Zvezda (Russian for “star”) module of the International Space Station (ISS) celebrated 15years in orbit. It is now the longest-serving piece of hardware in orbit that has supported human spaceflight. The Russian Zvezda component was the third module launched to the ISS, but first module that was inhabitable. Today it orbits the Earth while providing life support for up to six crewmembers. Its next milestone will be this November as it celebrates 15 years of continuous occupation.

The Russian Rocket and Space Corporation Energia, launched Zvezda on July 12, 2000. At the time, the press noted the launch as the first use of advertisement on a launch vehicle. The Proton rocket that launched Zvezda displayed a Pizza Hut logo on the outside. The module permanently docked with the Russian powerhouse, Zarya (“Dawn,” launched November 1998). NASA astronauts had previously docked the American-built passive module, Unity, to Zarya. With the addition of Zvezda, the space station became habitable with the long-term life support needed to host international crews. Today, Zvezda still forms the basis of the habitable portion of the ISS. Zvezda consists of two cylindrical compartments: a work compartment where the crews work and live, and a cylindrical transfer chamber which has one docking port—an unpressurized assembly compartment surrounding the transfer chamber and a spherical transfer compartment with three docking ports. Zvezda weighs about 18,051 kilograms (39,796 pounds) and is 13.1 meters (43 feet) long. Its solar panels extend its width to 29.7 meters (97 feet) wide.

View of the bottom of the Zvezda module. Photo: NASA STS097-702-061

The module provides station living quarters, life support systems, electrical power distribution, data processing systems, flight control systems, and propulsion systems. It also provides a communications system that includes remote command capabilities from ground flight controllers. Zvezda also serves as the main docking port for Russian Soyuz and Progress spacecraft as well as the European Automated Transfer Vehicle.

Zvezda has a history that predates its orbital history by almost as long as it has been in orbit. The basic structural frame of Zvezda is known as “DOS-8.” This means that it is the eighth design in a series of Soviet and Russian long-term orbiting space stations. The air frame (internal structure) was initially built in the mid-1980s to be the core of the Mir-2 space station that was proposed to replace the Soviet-launched Mir space station in the late 1980s. This origin means that Zvezda has a similar layout to the core module (DOS-7) of the Mir space station. It was in fact, labeled as “Mir-2” for quite some time in the factory. This also links its design lineage to the original Salyut stations (1971-1987). Engineers at the Khrunichev Design Bureau completed the space frame in February 1985 and installed major internal equipment by October 1986. From then, the structure remained in storage for 14 years amid repeated program cancellations and the prolonged negotiations among the member states of the International Space Station program.

An overall interior view of the Zvezda Service Module photographed by an Expedition 17 crewmember on the International Space Station August 2008. Photo: NASA ISS017-E-015059

The space station that the Zvezda module was to replace was the space station Mir. Mir was the world’s first modular space station. The USSR launched its base module in 1986, Mir became the first continually-inhabited modular space station. When it approached its 15th anniversary, the space station found itself in competition with NASA and other countries for Russian human spaceflight funding. Unable to inhabit and maintain two stations at once, the Russian government de-orbited Mir into the Pacific Ocean in 2001.

If you happen to look up in the night sky at a time when the ISS is visible in your area, wish it a happy birthday and many more to come.

Cathleen Lewis is a curator in the Space History Department

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