AidSpace Blog

A Most Interesting Man on the Moon: Remembering Edgar D. Mitchell

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On Thursday, February 4, the world lost the last of the Apollo 14 astronauts. Edgar Dean Mitchell, U.S. Navy test pilot and the sixth person to walk on the Moon, passed away in his sleep near his Florida home at the age of 85. Though it was his only flight into space, Apollo 14 provided the rather insightful Mitchell with an opportunity to test the bounds of the human mind in ways sometimes only he knew of at the time. Characterized later as the “Overview Effect,” he described the space travel experience as one that shifted his own beliefs about human existence, though having an openness to such a change was always a part of Mitchell’s way of life. In many respects, he could be considered the most unique human to walk on the Moon, having gone those 386,243 kilometers (240,000 miles) expecting a psychological and physical experience like no other, and returning satisfied in what he learned about himself.

Apollo 14 Crew Examine Lunar Samples

Ed Mitchell, Stu Roosa, and Alan Shepard examine lunar samples in the Lunar Receiving Laboratory in Houston, February 18, 1971. Image: NASA, s71-20373

Mission commander Alan Shepard was the consummate test pilot and astronaut: Our country’s first person in space had a big, brash personality, was a supposed ladies’ man, and spent years in charge in the Astronaut Office. His second and last spaceflight was highlighted by a golf shot with an improvised club he said went “miles and miles.” The quieter command module (CM) pilot, Stuart Roosa, started his professional life as a smokejumper in Colorado but was said to have thoroughly enjoyed his hours of quiet as his crewmates explored the Fra Mauro Highlands. Roosa, entirely at odds with Mitchell’s perspective, said space made no change to who he was. The odd duck of the group was certainly Mitchell, who at the time was already interested in UFOs, research on human consciousness and other phenomena, and ESP. He even attempted to conduct a few telepathy experiments during the trans-Earth portion of his mission, never telling his crewmates until the media carried the story after the flight. That was certainly atypical of an astronaut, and Shepard apparently did not appreciate being kept in the dark.

Mitchell spoke often in the last few decades of the effect seeing Earth and being in space had on his psyche. Here at the Museum, as we prepare for new exhibitions and at least one that addresses the astronaut view of Earth from space, his experience has come up in conversation and I regret we will not have the opportunity to talk to him directly about that. As a young curator here, I had little opportunity to interact with Captain Mitchell, and I was not even alive when he walked on the Moon. He never spoke at a lecture here or attended a program. As our curator for astronaut cameras, however, he and I did overlap. As an observer of space artifact auctions, his attempt to sell a J.A. Maurer 16mm camera used in the Apollo 14 lunar module (LM) to film surface activities was noteworthy to say the least. With only the LM Maurer from Apollo 12 in the collection because it was returned for having malfunctioned, I had assumed the other five missions left their movie cameras behind. NASA’s pursuit of the camera over the next few years resulted in our acquisition of it in 2012. This sale and a few others created a groundswell of political support for a law that allows early astronauts to retain such memorabilia, which was signed by President Obama later in 2012. My only word from Mitchell about the camera came months later in an email passed to me, his personal reflections on returning the camera from the Moon. According to him, in the rush to transfer equipment from the LM to CM, he grabbed the camera unit as a whole, not stopping to remove the film magazine as originally planned in order to save time. Taking it home after the mission as a keepsake, Mitchell held onto it for 40 years, and this Museum will diligently and proudly maintain it on his behalf for many decades to come.

Shepard and Mitchell explored where Apollo 13 was meant to visit. They spent little time photographing each other on the surface. They were the last crew not to enjoy the luxury of a lunar rover to travel and explore the Moon. And the crew was the last to endure quarantine when they returned from their journey. Mitchell and his crewmates trained hard, worked hard, and sacrificed family time to achieve what so few can even imagine today. We salute their efforts to enrich our knowledge of the Moon, and I thank Captain Mitchell for his service to our country and his open-minded perspective and encouragement for all of us to see ourselves as part of a larger, interconnected world.

Apollo 14 Crew Speak to an Audience

Shepard, Roosa, and Mitchell (from left to right) stand amongst their families and talk to a gathered crowd at the Johnson Space Center, 26 February 1971. Image: NASA, s71-22028

Jennifer Levasseur is a museum curator and responsible for the astronaut personal equipment and camera collections.

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The Monkey Who Nearly Flew Around the World

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Happy Chinese New Year! To celebrate the Year of the Monkey we wanted to share one special monkey from our collection. Maggie, a stuffed spider monkey, has an especially interesting story. She was a part of the U.S. Army’s attempt to become the first to circumnavigate the world by airplane in 1924. Unwilling to hand over this first to the U.S., five other countries— Great Britain, Italy, France, Portugal and Argentina —set the same goal. And the race was on!

William J. Powell

Maggie is on display at the Museum in Washington, DC. Boston pilot First Lieutenant Leigh Wade signed his name on her side.

Four Douglas World Cruisers, each with a pilot and a mechanic, set off from Seattle and traveled West on April 6. Each airplane was named for an American city—Chicago, Seattle, New Orleans, and Boston. The World Fliers, as they would become known, traveled extremely light; only two changes of clothes! But their supply lists included stuffed spider monkeys weighing two pounds each.

Why a stuffed animal? Before the eight aviators began their trip, they attended a ball and reception at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles. The hotel manager removed eight stuffed monkeys from atop imitation palm trees and gave them to the aviators as a mascot. He offered to pay $50 for each monkey that was returned safely. Maggie, who is now safely displayed in our Pioneers of Flight gallery, was taken on board the Boston with pilot Leigh Wade.

Fliers with Monkeys

An unidentified woman holding two monkeys poses with Chicago pilot First Lt. Lowell Smith (left) and Boston mechanic Staff Sergeant Henry Ogden. Image: NASM-9A11670-158TR

First Lt. Leigh Wade with two monkeys.

First Lt. Leigh Wade with two monkeys.

Fliers with Monkeys

Lt. John Harding (left) and First Lt. Erik Nelson with monkeys.

There was no guarantee that the flights would be successful. There were many challenges including extreme weather, limited landing fields, small fuel tanks, and unfamiliar cultures. The World Fliers encountered a variety of animals on their adventure. They spotted whales in Alaskan waters, commented on shaggy-haired horses in Japan, and saw elephants at work in teak yards near Rangoon, Burma. In present-day Vietnam, they were surrounded by curious crocodiles while stranded in a lagoon, hiked through tiger country, and were amused by water buffalo. In India, they were surprised that monkeys were as common as birds in the U.S., and that cows roamed the streets. In the Middle East they were amused by the prevalence of camels.

In the end only two of the four airplanes made it around the world. The Seattle crashed into a mountain in Alaska and the Boston sank in the North Sea. Since Maggie traveled aboard the Boston, she was clearly saved from a watery end. While only two airplanes completed the trip, all of the eight Fliers survived and the people of the United States showered them with adulation. The United States won the race and claimed the honor of the first around the world trip by airplane.

Two questions remain: We know what happened to Maggie, but what about the other monkeys? Do all the stuffed monkeys still exist today? Did the Fliers ever claim their $50 reward from the hotel manager? If only Maggie could talk. If you think you know what happened to all eight spider monkeys let us know in the comments.

11198_640If you’d like to learn more about the first trip around the world, I recently wrote a book for children ages 10 to 14 (First Flight Around the World). It’s filled with 115 photos from our Archives and is based on the journal of First Lt. Leslie Arnold. You can also try your own luck at flying a Douglas World Cruiser in our online interactive!

Tim Grove is chief of Museum Learning at the National Air and Space Museum

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From the Archives: Celebrating a Super Helmet

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Through the history of aviation, pilots have worn many types of helmets.  Exhibits at the National Air and Space Museum range from Paul Studenski’s 1912 era leather flying helmet, to Apollo Soucek’s furry helmet, to Mike Melvill’s SpaceShipOne helmet. Today, however, in honor of Super Bowl 50, we will remember Robert “Bob” Eucker’s football helmet.

William J. Powell

Robert “Bob” Eucker holds a football helmet on the wing of his Bell P-63A Kingcobra (race number 55) at the National Air Races, Cleveland, Ohio, 1948. Image: NASM 9A02634

Not to be confused with baseball’s Bob Uecker, pilot Bob Eucker won the Sohio Handicap Trophy Race in the 1948 National Air Races in Cleveland, Ohio. This particular race was sponsored by the Standard Oil Company (Ohio) and was open to P-38, P-51, and P-63 aircraft only. The race was not a typical air race. A handicap was determined for each aircraft from speeds calculated during qualifying trials. The slowest plane was given a head start and then, one by one, the next slowest aircraft would take off. The first aircraft across the finish line was declared the winner. The rules did cover the possibility of pilots trying to cheat the event by flying a low qualifying timeif a winner’s average speeds were found to be in excess of their qualifying speeds, the plane would automatically be disqualified.

William J. Powell

Robert “Bob” Eucker, wearing a football helmet, stands on the wing of his Bell P-63A Kingcobra racer (race number 55) Spirit of “Tick.” Image: NASM 9A02667

A Cleveland local, Eucker’s P-63 was sponsored by Hosler Aircraft. He started in the middle of the pack, with a 137.5 second handicap, but finished the race with an elapsed time of 19:40.44 minutes and an average speed of 515.34 kph (320.220 mph). He won the $3,150 prize in style, sporting a football helmet borrowed from his local high school football team. While Eucker’s helmet is not a part of the Museum’s collections, the National Air and Space Museum Archives does have photos in the National Air Races Negatives Collection (Acc. No. XXXX-0555)!

While we probably wouldn’t recommend wearing a football helmet for your aviation exploits, you are free to wear one on your couch as you watch the Super Bowl!  Enjoy the game.

Elizabeth C. Borja is an archivist in the Museum’s Archives Department.  She is a fan of all sports, from football to baseball to hockey.


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Conserving a WWII Black Widow Compressor

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The Museum has been tackling a variety of artifact treatments through its Collections Care and Preservation Fund (CCPF) Triage Project. The goal of the project is to stabilize artifacts as they are moved from the Paul E. Garber Preservation, Restoration, and Storage Facility to state-of-the-art storage located at the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Virginia. The triage project addresses urgent issues affecting artifacts such as active corrosion, pest infestation, biological growth, and physical insecurities.

As a conservation intern with the Museum’s triage team this past summer, I treated objects from both the space and aeronautical collections. One of the more complex and extensive treatments I completed was on a General Electric compressor used in the turret of a WWII-era Northrop P-61C Black Widow, much like the one on view at the Udvar-Hazy Center. The Black Widow was the first of its kind, designed to intercept and attack enemy aircraft at night and in bad weather. After the war, the Museum’s Black Widow was used by the Army Air Forces for inclement weather testing, and consequently it had its top turret removed to make room for weather monitoring equipment. This compressor would have provided the turret with the charge needed to operate the automatic machine gun.

Even though researching the function of each component of this compressor was fascinating, fully grasping each mechanism was not necessary for treating it. The important considerations for treating the compressor were understanding its different corrosion types; determining if the corrosion was active and needed treatment; determining whether or not there were any hazards associated with treating the materials; and deciding how to stabilize the object to inhibit further degradation. Lastly, a support was created so that the object could be safely stored and handled after treatment.

GE Compressor After Conservation

Before Treatment: The compressor consists of a crankcase, low and high pressure cylinders, chromate coated mounting bracket, motor stator assembly, fan and fan guard, relay box, and detached intercooler.

GE Compressor I.D. Plate

Before Treatment: Detail of magnesium and ferrous corrosion near I.D. plate.

A literature review of previous tests performed on similar objects provided a useful framework for approaching the conservation treatment of the compressor. For example, like other objects treated in the conservation laboratory, the magnesium corrosion appeared in abundance on the crankcase and pressure cylinders of the compressor as white, fluffy, powdery particulates. To treat the magnesium corrosion, I applied successive grades of metal polish, being sure to clear away the polish between applications. This was followed by many hours of mechanical removal of the corrosion products under magnification using a scalpel and other small hand tools. Due to its elemental properties, magnesium is highly reactive and corrodes very quickly; some of the more deeply pitted areas seemed to regrow the white corrosion overnight!

Cleaning GE Compressor

Carefully cleaning magnesium corrosion under magnification.

Other corrosion types I addressed were ferrous corrosion and cadmium corrosion. The ferrous metal fittings had once been plated using cadmium, however the plating had largely failed due to corrosion of the underlying metal. It was useful to visually characterize this under long-wave UV illumination as cadmium fluoresces orange under UV light and it is considered hazardous and should be handled with caution.

GE Compressor Under UV Light

Before Treatment: Compressor viewed under long-wave UV illumination. Magnesium corrosion appears as bright white (crank case, cylinders, and fan mount), ferrous corrosion as dark red (motor housing and fan cage), and cadmium can fluoresce orange (nuts, screws, and bolts, as well as trace amounts hidden on the fan mount.)

In the areas where cadmium was most likely present, careful clearing (or cleaning away) was performed with deionized water before treating the ferrous corrosion. Reduction (reducing materials) was then completed using cleaning pads in multiple grades, steel wool, and a fiberglass bristle brush and disposed of afterwards in a safe manner.

Corrosion on GE Compressor

Before Treatment: Area of dark orange ferrous corrosion in need of reduction and stabilization.

Once the corrosion products on the compressor had been reduced, it was necessary to protect the surfaces from further degradation. A penetrating oil and a wax coating were applied as corrosion inhibitors to all the treated areas.

GE Compressor after treatment.

GE Compressor after treatment.

As a final measure, supportive housing was assembled using archival quality materials. This ensures that handling, examination, and potential research can be done without further damaging the object.

General Electric Compressor Archival Housing

Constructed housing for compressor’s protection.

Claire Taggart is a current graduate fellow at Winterthur/University of Delaware Program in Art Conservation and was a conservation intern with the Museum in summer 2015.

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Black Wings: The Life of African American Aviation Pioneer William Powell

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When African American pilot, engineer, and entrepreneur William Powell was a young adult, even the skies were segregated. Many would-be African American pilots, such as first licensed African American pilot Bessie Coleman, were forced to go to France for pilot training and licenses issued by the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale. According to a June 12, 2012 article in the online publication, Air Facts, in 1934 there were only 12 African Americans out of 18,041 pilots in the U.S., and out of 8,651 licensed mechanics, just two were African Americans. Airlines wouldn’t even allow African Americans as passengers. Powell set out to change that, becoming one of the most extraordinary figures in the Golden Age of Flight (1920s and 1930s) in the process. Only an early death brought his career as an aviation pioneer to an end.

Born in 1897, Powell grew up in a middle-class African American neighborhood in Chicago. He was a talented student working toward an electrical engineering degree at the University of Illinois when World War I broke out. He enlisted in the U.S. Army, and served as a lieutenant in the racially segregated 317th Engineers and the 365th Infantry Regiment. He returned home after being exposed to poison gas and finished his engineering degree.

William J. Powell

William J. Powell wearing his United States Army uniform and long coat during World War I. Image: Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum (NASM 2000-10698).

After graduation, he opened several successful gas stations and auto parts stores on the south side of Chicago, but sharing his generation’s infatuation with Charles Lindbergh and flight, he dreamt of going up in an airplane. In 1927, while attending a reunion with American veterans in Paris, France, he got his chance. Powell visited le Bourget Airport, the very place where Lindbergh had landed a few months earlier to conclude his solo flight across the Atlantic. A pilot took him on a tour over the city and he was quickly hooked on flying, making it his goal to become a pilot.

Doing so wouldn’t be easy. Flight school after flight school rejected him because of his race. He tried enlisting in the Army Air Corps, but was also turned down. He could have gone to France to train, but preferred getting licensed in his own country. Finally, in 1928 he was accepted at a flight school in Los Angeles, whose students were a mix of nationalities from across the globe. He sold his businesses, moved to California with his family, handed over the $1,000 tuition, and took to the skies. He received his pilot’s license in 1932.

Powell’s quest to become a pilot wasn’t the only thing that consumed him, however. He wanted to create opportunities for African Americans in aviation. He saw this budding industry as a way for African Americans to pull themselves out of the Great Depression. “I actually believe that with the proper leadership, Negroes can be systematically trained to the use of the airplane to such an extent that a great airplane industry might spring up,” Powell wrote in his book, Black Wings.

To this end, he helped form an aviation organization in 1929, naming it the Bessie Coleman Aero Club in tribute to the pioneering pilot who had died in an airplane accident in 1926. The club welcomed anyone, including women, but the members were almost all African Americans. Powell organized the first all-African American air show in 1931, which drew 15,000 attendees.

Bessie Coleman Aero Club

William J. Powell, far right, poses with members of the Bessie Coleman Aero Club in Los Angeles, California, circa 1931. Image: Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum (NASM 2004-62661).

Powell used many other methods to encourage African Americans to enter the aviation field. He started the Bessie Coleman Flying School; made a movie about a young man who wanted to fly; published a monthly journal about African American aviation; offered scholarships to African American students; and founded Bessie Coleman Aero, the first African American-owned airplane manufacturer. He was aided by many celebrities such as Duke Ellington and Joe Louis, who lent their names and donated money to the cause.

Lastly, Powell wrote a book, Black Wings, which was published in 1934. A thinly-veiled autobiography, it told of his own struggle and that of other African Americans to become pilots through the eyes of the fictional character, “Bill Brown.” He used real events and individuals as the basis, and provided portrayals of early African American pilots such as Hubert Fauntleroy Julian, James Herman Banning, and C. Alfred Anderson. He urged African American youth “to fill the air with black wings.” He encouraged them not only to be pilots but also airplane mechanics, aeronautical engineers, aircraft designers, and industry businessmen. Powell was firmly convinced aviation was filled with new opportunities for African American youth. He wrote, “There is a better job and a better future in aviation for Negroes than in any other industry, and the reason is this: aviation is just beginning its period of growth, and if we get into it now, while it is still uncrowded, we can grow as aviation grows.”

Black Wings

The front cover and inside flap of the Museum’s copy of Black Wings, by William Powell. On the inside is a photo of Bessie Coleman, to whom he dedicated the book. Images: NASM 2012-0026 (left) and NASM 2011-00117 (right), photographer Eric Long, Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum

Challenger Crew

An advertisement for Powell’s book, Black Wings.

Smithsonian Books republished Black Wings in 1994 as Black Aviator: The Story of William J. Powell, with new photos and historical background, plus an introductory essay by then-National Air and Space Museum Aeronautics Curator Von Hardesty. Used copies can still be found online.

Powell died in 1942 at age 45, his early death possibly brought on by after-effects of his exposure to poison gas in WWI. He had paved the way for hundreds of African Americans to enter the field of aviation. While discrimination was still rampant at the time of his death, he did live to see black aviators known as the Tuskegee Airmen play a vital role in World War II.

For more information on African Americans in aviation, read Black Wings: Courageous Stories of African Americans in Aviation and Space History by Von Hardesty and Dominick Pisano, or visit the Museum’s online exhibition on African Americans in aviation.

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

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