AidSpace Blog

Take to the Air in the Smithsonian’s Balloon

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Visitors to our Innovations in Flight Family Day and Outdoor Aviation Display at the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center on June 18, are in for a real treat. In addition to the wide variety of aircraft that will fly in for the event and the other special programs planned, Andrew Richardson, the owner of Adams Balloons LLC of Albuquerque, New Mexico, will be making tethered flights with a new Smithsonian hot air balloon, weather permitting. Realizing that we have a beautiful example of a classic Adams wicker balloon basket on display at the Udvar-Hazy Center, Richardson asked if we would accept a modern hot air balloon envelope sporting the Smithsonian logo and colors into the collection. While the Museum has a world-class collection of balloon baskets and gondolas, we did not, in fact, have an envelope. Anxious to fill that gap, we quickly accepted Richardson’s generous offer.

rendering of Smithsonian balloon

A rendering of the Smithsonian’s balloon. Image: Adams Balloons, LLC

As a historian of lighter-than-air flight, I am quick to point out that this is not the first Smithsonian balloon. In May 1859, John Wise, the leading American aeronaut of the day and a friend of Smithsonian Secretary Joseph Henry, took to the air in a hydrogen filled balloon named SMITHSONIAN and decorated with the motto, “Pro Scientia et Arts.” For some time, Henry and Wise had been discussing the utility of balloons in the scientific exploration of the upper atmosphere. Wise first flew this new craft from the Centre Square of his hometown of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, rising into the teeth of a thunderstorm.


Wet-plate albumen portrait of noted American aeronaut, Professor John Wise. Photo. Image: National Air and Space Museum, NASM 7A47252

Having noticed some remarkable phenomena during this voyage, such as an incipient thundercloud – the formation of a water-spout hanging down from this cloud – the increase of the cloud into a regular thundergust, and while sailing in the trail of the storm, that is in the rear of the ascending vortex, encountering large drops of rain dashing against the balloon and scintillating fire as they struck the balloon, it is needless to say I hurried down upon that demonstration.

Upon reading Wise’s report of the inaugural voyage of the balloon SMITSHONIAN, Henry informed the balloonist that he would have “a few weeks of vacation” in the summer of 1859, and suggested that he “would be pleased to make some of the experiments with you which we contemplated last summer.” It was not to be, however. Wise spent the summer of 1859 preparing to fly a balloon from St. Louis to the Atlantic coast, while Henry, whatever his dreams of aerial adventure, continued to struggle with his administrative burdens. Addressing a scientific meeting in June 1859, the Secretary noted that the, “observations of Mr. Wise have been of very great value.”

No images of that first Smithsonian balloon have survived. You can bet, however, that visitors to Innovations in Flight Family Day will take a great many photos of this colorful new addition to the Museum’s collection.

Tom Crouch is senior curator in the Aeronautics Department of the National Air and Space Museum.

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The Long Journey of our Lunar Touchrock

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One of our most enduring and popular exhibits has been a piece of the Moon that you can touch. The rock, on loan from NASA, is one of only a few touchable lunar sample displays in the world. In fact, it was the very first touchable Moon rock exhibit when it opened to the public in 1976.

lunar touchrock

Our lunar touchrock in its original display.

Today, other touchable lunar rock displays can be found at the Kennedy Space Center, Space Center Houston, the Museum of Science of the National Autonomous University in Mexico City, and the MacMillan Space Centre in Vancouver, Canada.

Our touchrock is a slice from a rock collected in December 1972 on the Apollo 17 mission. Apollo 17 landed in the Taurus-Littrow Valley on the edge of Mare Serenitatis (the Sea of Serenity).

apollo 17 site

Apollo 17 landing site

The Apollo 17 landing site. Top: NASA/GSFC/Arizona State University, Bottom: NASA

Astronauts Harrison “Jack” Schmitt and Eugene Cernan brought back over 740 individual rock and soil samples and the touchrock was cut from the largest rock they gathered. Weighing in at 8 kilograms (18 pounds), it was collected at the end of their last traverse. Jack Schmitt, the only geologist who journeyed to the Moon, had noticed it earlier since it was large and located near the Lunar Module. But because of its size, he left it to pick up later.

The arrow points to the rock on the lunar surface.  All the touchable samples were cut from this rock. NASA photo

The arrow points to the rock on the lunar surface. All the touchable samples were cut from this rock. Image: NASA

The touchrock is a type of rock called basalt. It is a fine-grained, dark-colored, igneous rock rich in iron, magnesium, and plagioclase feldspar, a common rock-forming mineral on Earth. Like many lunar basalts, the touchrock contains more titanium than normal Earth basalts.

touchrock in the lab

The lunar rock in the lab. The scale numbers above the sample mark centimeters. Image: NASA

Our little Moon rock has had quite a journey. It formed 3.8 billion years ago in hot lava that poured out onto the terrain. Then, 100 million to 125 million years ago it was exposed on the surface, probably by a crater impact. In 1972, a geologist picked it up and brought it back to Earth. Finally, it found a home in the Museum in 1976. This July, with the opening of our new Boeing Milestones of Flight Hall, the touchrock will receive a newly designed display right next to the Lunar Module (LM-2).

If you get a chance to visit the Boeing Milestones of Flight Hall, be sure to take to moment to touch a piece of another world.

Priscilla Strain is a program manager in the Museum’s Center for Earth and Planetary Studies and the curator for the Museum’s lunar samples.

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Capturing the Early History of Aeronautics

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Among the treasures found within the special collections of the DeWitt Clinton Ramsey Room, a branch of the Smithsonian Libraries located at the National Air and Space Museum, is a collection of oversized scrapbooks with an interesting and complicated history. Originally bound in one volume, William Upcott’s Scrapbook of Early Aeronautica captures the history of lighter-than-air aircraft and aeronautics from 1783 to the 1840s through a rich collection of newspaper clippings, articles, illustrations, and letters.

As a source for researchers, the scrapbooks have proven invaluable due to the quantity and quality of the primary resources Upcott accumulated. For example, the first portion of the scrapbook contains articles, clippings, and illustrations relating to the Montgolfier brothers’ first successful public demonstration of using hot air balloons. The scrapbooks go on to chronicle other events in the early history of hot air balloons, along with experiments involving the use of parachutes.

By modern-day standards, Upcott would be considered a hoarder—a quality he inherited from his father, Ozias Humphrey, along with Humphrey’s collection of illustrations, correspondence, and miniatures. Beyond his interest in collecting, Upcott worked as a bookdealer and, later, a librarian. These two careers provided Upcott with the experience and skills to further increase the size of his collection and develop a means for organizing its contents. One of the fruits of his labors was a 455-page, folio-sized scrapbook focusing on ballooning and early aeronautics.



After Upcott’s death, Sotheby’s auctioned his collection in 1846. The single-volume scrapbook would disappear from the public eye until it was donated to the Smithsonian in the late 1950s. Before officially entering the Smithsonian’s collection it was delivered to the Government Printing Office where the book was broken down and rebound into three smaller volumes.

Decades later, curatorial staff at the Museum noticed possible conservation issues with the scrapbooks and alerted the Smithsonian Libraries and its Book Conservation Laboratory. In addition to rebinding the pages of Upcott’s scrapbooks in sturdier material and acid-free paper, the conservation team also recommended that the scrapbooks be digitized to boost access to the information it contained and protect the original copies from heavy use. The digitized copies can be found in the Smithsonian Libraries’ Digital Library. Complete transcriptions for the scrapbooks can be found online here.

For more information on the history of the scrapbooks and the conservation process, please see the article, Aloft in a Balloon by Janice Stagnitto Ellis.

Sharad J. Shah is a library technician at Smithsonian Libraries.

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Inventing the Apollo Spaceflight Biomedical Sensors

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During the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo missions, one of NASA’s concerns was the safety of its crews, something it monitored rigorously through the use of biomedical instrumentation. As initial flight planning commenced in 1959, biomedical equipment capable of transmitting from space did not exist. NASA quickly brought together medical staff and hardware engineers to develop biomedical technology. As they blasted off from Earth, the first American astronauts were wearing electrodes to collect electrocardiograms (ECGs, measuring the classic heartbeat waveform); a heated thermistor that detected breathing by cooling due to air movement in and out of the mouth; and, most unfortunately for them, a rectal probe that captured highly accurate body temperature readings. No wonder that astronauts, accustomed to self-sufficiency and relative isolation during their test pilot days, chafed at this literal and metaphorical intrusion.

Throughout the 1960s, NASA continued to tinker with its bioinstrumentation to find an ideal balance between obtaining accurate, important information and astronaut comfort. The assembly in the picture below is one of their early test models for the Apollo program. This object was featured in an earlier blog post on conservation, which you can find here. This time, I’d like to explore the function of these components.

biomedical equipment

The fully assembled test model for Apollo’s biomedical monitoring capabilities.

The most interesting variable to NASA’s medical division was cardiovascular function. Did the heart’s ventricles, normally ready to pump blood to the body every second, have trouble filling with blood in the weightlessness of space? Did fluids reach the lower extremities sufficiently without gravity? What about adaptations to space—werethey detrimental to an astronaut upon his return to Earth?

ECG electrodes were the first tool to gauge heart health. Readings from Mercury flights were often thwarted by movement, vibrations, and bumps. For Apollo, NASA contracted Spacelabs, Inc. to develop more reliable and accurate readings by use of a signal conditioner. Electrodes transmitted their raw signal via the orange wires to the two black conditioners on the left in this picture, which consisted of complex circuitry to identify and reject unwanted noise so the output was more representative of the astronaut’s state of being.

signal conditioners

The signal conditioners for the measurements coming from the ECG electrodes (the two left boxes), as well as signal conditioners for temperature and an unidentified sensor.

In addition to heart rhythm, NASA wanted to measure blood pressure. They initially introduced a semiautomatic sphygmomanometer (blood pressure cuff with pressure transducer and microphone) during Mercury and, for the most part, it remained similar for the Gemini and Apollo missions. The pressure cuff would slowly deflate, and the microphone would record pulse sounds to pinpoint the systolic (during heartbeats) and diastolic (in between heartbeats) blood pressures. This information was transferred to a signal conditioner, shown in the picture and diagram below. For this signal conditioner, NASA’s contractors designed a tiny pressure transducer (converting pressure to voltage), built a filter to precisely pick up noise at the systolic and diastolic blood pressures, and managed to make the entire signal conditioner small, lightweight, and low on power usage.

microphone conditioner and chart

The microphone (top) and its unique signal conditioner specially engineered to read in both sound and pressure. The diagram is a representation of its internal mechanisms.

Beyond the heart, NASA wanted to keep tabs on astronaut breathing. Because the thermistor of Mercury days (a resistor that changed its resistance at different temperatures) did not reliably track respiration, NASA moved to an impedance pneumograph technique. At the time, impedance pneumography was a little known technique, yet through NASA’s research and development it was eventually found to be a very successful tool, even in a demanding flight environment. When a constant electric current is introduced into a human’s chest tissues, the fat, muscle, lungs, air, and fluid all create a natural impedance (or opposition to current flow), which can be measured via voltage. As the subject draws in air and stretches the body tissues, the impedance changes which subsequently changes the voltage drop. NASA stuck an electrode close to the astronauts’ sixth ribs (the optimal spot) and used results from a Baylor University study to correlate impedance to the amount of air in lungs. Spacelabs, Inc. built another signal conditioner for the impedance sensor shown below. The end result was so good that flight surgeons in Houston watched every deep breath as astronauts hopped onto the surface of the Moon or headed out the hatch for a deep space extravehicular activity or EVA.

The impedance pneumograph signal conditioner.

The impedance pneumograph signal conditioner.

Finally, NASA came to understand that temperature monitoring via the rectum was not optimal for astronauts on long journeys to the Moon and back. They replaced it with an oral sensor for the Gemini and Apollo flights shown below, built with a Velcro patch for attachment inside the astronaut’s helmet. The black neoprene sleeve on the probe was simply for traction, as the probe itself, coated in Teflon, proved to be slippery and difficult to hold in the mouth. Intermittently, astronauts would place the sensor beneath their tongue for up to five minutes to produce a reading.

The oral temperature sensor, reminiscent of oral thermometers back on Earth.

The oral temperature sensor, reminiscent of oral thermometers back on Earth.

While far more complex biomedical information has been collected on astronauts since the 1960s, the instruments seen here were the pioneering designs, compiling information about the influence of weightlessness on essential bodily functions. The astronauts themselves may have been irritated with NASA’s meticulous cataloging of their body’s performance, but it came in handy in many instances, like when Gene Cernan physically struggled to perform his EVA tasks during Gemini IX-A, and when Dave Scott and Jim Irwin had heart irregularities on the surface of the Moon during Apollo 15. Biomedical monitoring allowed NASA to identify problems in real time and devise solutions for current and future astronauts, and today we continue to probe human health in space so that one day we might prepare for the challenges of sending astronauts to Mars and other celestial targets.

John Miller is a biomedical artifacts intern in the Space History department at the National Air and Space Museum. He is working towards his M.S. degree in Biomedical Engineering at the University of Virginia.

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The First Pictures from the Moon’s Surface

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Half a century ago, in February and June 1966, robotic spacecraft first landed on the Moon. I vividly remember those events from my days as a 14-year-old space buff. On February 3, the Soviet Union’s Luna 9 thumped down on the vast lava plain known as Oceanus Procellarum (Ocean of Storms), after a number of failed attempts. A Soviet stamp shows its landing configuration, which used air bags to cushion its fall. On the right is the first picture transmitted, from the turret camera in the cylinder on top.


The Soviet Union 1966 CPA 3317 stamp feature the first images of the Moon’s surface taken by the Luna 9 spacecraft.

This image was intercepted by the Jodrell Bank observatory in England, which beat the Soviets to releasing it. The quality in this version was less than ideal, but it was the one that made the newspapers like my hometown Calgary Herald.


The first image of the Moon’s surface intercepted and released by the Jodrell Bank observatory in England.

Luna 9, which was only powered by batteries, lasted three days, enough to transmit a panorama from very close to the surface

The United States’ first successful landing on the Moon came on June 2, when NASA’s Surveyor 1 touched down on another part of Oceanus Procellarum, which is the large dark area on the right side of the full Moon. That landing, I remember especially well, as it was carried live on TV from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. It unfolded around midnight, Calgary time, and no one knew whether it would work or not. One of the first pictures Surveyor 1 took was of its foot pad.

The first picture captured by Surveyor 1 of its foot pad.

The first picture captured by Surveyor 1 of its foot pad.

This image, along with data transmitted from strain gauges in the three landing legs, gave valuable information to NASA about the bearing strength of the lunar surface, vital for planning the Apollo missions that were to follow.

Surveyor was a more sophisticated, solar-powered spacecraft. The Museum has a test vehicle made to look like the second successful lander, Surveyor 3. The solar panel is on top and the flat panel for the main antenna to transmit to Earth is behind it. The TV camera is located in the white cylinder with the oval mirror under the solar panel. The Surveyor 3 had a scoop (lower right) for testing the soil’s characteristics, but it was not on Surveyor 1.

Surveyor 3

The Museum’s test vehicle made to look like the second successful lander, Surveyor 3.

Surveyor 1 shut down during the 14-day lunar night but revived and transmitted pictures until July 14. Even after that it was able to send back engineering data during lunar days until January 1967. Its panoramas have been processed more recently by Philip J. Stooke of the University of Western Ontario.

Moon panoramas

Panoramas captured by Surveyor 1 and recently published by Philip J. Stooke of the University of Western Ontario.

Those were exciting days for space enthusiasts and for the general public. We were witnessing the first pictures taken from the surface of another world. That same summer, spacecraft also went into orbit around the Moon for the first time. Luna 10 and Lunar Orbiter 1 transmitted many more images, as did their successors. Three years later, humans walked on the Moon, helped in no small part by their robotic precursors.

Michael J. Neufeld is a senior curator in the Space History Department of the National Air and Space Museum. He is the lead curator for Destination Moon, a new exhibition on lunar exploration that is scheduled to open in late 2020.

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