AidSpace Blog

Thanksgiving Day in Space

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“Pass the turkey, please.”

“Do you have room for dessert?”

The elements of a traditional Thanksgiving meal are passed around in plastic pouches instead of platters and bowls, but the spirit of this holiday in space is the same as at home. Gathered around (or over!) a makeshift table, crewmates have celebrated Thanksgiving on Skylab, the Space Shuttle, the Russian Mir space station, and the International Space Station (ISS). It may be harder to resist the tug of tradition than the tug of gravity; Thanksgiving is a holiday, wherever you are.

This turkey (maybe the first in space?) flew on the ISS in 2001. (NASA)

No one in space spends hours preparing the feast. The food is ready in minutes, simply by adding hot water or placing it in a small warming oven. Food scientists in Houston prepared everything months in advance, then dehydrated or radiated or thermostabilized (“canned”) it to prevent spoilage, and put individual servings in vacuum-sealed packages to be carried into orbit and kept in a stowage locker until the big day. The space station has no refrigerator or freezer to keep food fresh, and serving sizes are calculated to provide a balanced nutritional diet.

Mmmm, mmmm good! Traditional Thanksgiving favorites packaged for the 2013 holiday in space. (NASA)

Crewmembers take turns preparing meals, which are bundled together by day. There are no tantalizing aromas to whet the appetite while foods are warming, no plates heaped with servings of this and that, and little clean-up to do after the meal. Imagine a small tray Velcroed to your thigh and six little packages of food Velcroed to the tray. You snip each one open with scissors, dip your spoon or fork in, and finally savor the tastes. Maybe you are dangling from the ceiling or anchored to foot loops on the floor; your posture really doesn’t matter.

Fitting ten floating astronauts around a small table, as shown at this 2008 Thanksgiving meal on ISS, can be a challenge. (NASA)

Twice, groups of ten shared Thanksgiving dinner in space: the combined crews of ISS Expedition 18 and shuttle mission STS-126 in 2008, and the next year’s Expedition 21 and STS-129 crews. This year, six people—two Americans, three Russians, and one Italian—are dining together about 250 miles above the planet.

The menu for their Thanksgiving meal is similar to most Americans’. They will enjoy smoked turkey, cornbread dressing, green bean casserole, candied yams, and fruit cobbler, along with powdered beverages (no alcohol or sodas allowed in orbit). They won’t be watching football after dinner but will have time off duty to relax after their portion-controlled feast. There are no seconds or left-overs to snack on.

Many people like to take a long walk or play touch football on Thanksgiving Day to work up an appetite while waiting for the turkey to roast. One space station crew, Expedition 5 in 2002, took a novel approach to pre-dinner exercise: a spacewalk! It wasn’t for recreation; they had a job to do outside first.

To learn more about celebrating holidays in space, you will find quite a few accounts by doing a Google search, as well as this collection of photos: Holidays in Space, An Astronauts Photo Album, and information on the history of food in space. Meanwhile, enjoy your own feast with friends and family, and be sure to appreciate having leftovers.

Expedition 42 commander Barry “Butch” Wilmore delivers a special Thanksgiving message from the International Space Station.

Valerie Neal is Space History curator for the Space Shuttle and International Space Station era.

The Art of the Wooden Scrapbook

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Although many photos and memories are going digital, scrapbooking is still a big pastime in America.  You can go to any craft store and find an aisle devoted to paper, stickers, and pre-made scrapbooks.  Although many of the scrapbooks in the National Air and Space Museum Archives’ collections are of the premade store-bought variety, we have a few personalized wooden scrapbook covers that are works of art.

Operation Crossroads was the name for the series of atmospheric nuclear weapon tests conducted in the summer of 1946 at Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands.  To commemorate these events, Col. Donald Putt was given a large scrapbook with the photo and documentary history of the Task Group T-2, the group responsible for the overall supervision of the AAF Airborne installation and a large part of the photography.  The wooden cover features a painting of an atomic mushroom cloud originating from the task group insignia.  And it was made from airplane veneer!

Wooden cover of Operation Crossroads scrapbook. NASM 9A08395

Mary Charles participated in the 1931 National Air Races in Cleveland, Ohio, where she came in last due to engine problems.  She owned three scrapbooks commemorating the 1931 race.  The most memorable of these scrapbooks features a wooden cover painted to reproduce artist Charles Hubbell’s cover design for the Official Program.  Charles added her name and pilots’ license number 17050 at bottom and altered the number on the plane on the left.

Wooden cover of Mary Charles scrapbook for the 1931 National Air Races, Cleveland, Ohio. NASM 9A06412 

My favorite wooden works of art are the John E. Parker scrapbooks.  Parker was the president of Northwestern Aeronautical Corporation (NAC), which made wooden gliders for the war effort. Allied forces used the unpowered gliders at the Normandy D-Day invasion and at other battles to silently carry troops into enemy territory.  Parker designed four scrapbooks to include newspaper clippings and photographs of company activities.  The covers feature incredible woodworking.

Wood carved cover on John E. Parker scrapbook. NASM 2013-00434

Wood carved cover on John E. Parker scrapbook. NASM 2013-00435 

Wood carved cover on John E. Parker scrapbook. NASM 2013-00436

Wood carved cover on John E. Parker scrapbook. NASM 2013-00437

Wood can be a tricky medium to preserve.  We keep our scrapbooks in custom-sized boxes in our temperature and humidity controlled storage room and, as in all archives, keep an eye out for pests.  The other thing we have to look out for is potential off-gassing from the wood.  Museums and archives are wary of wooden storage furniture and need to be cautious with wood in our collections.  For now, the scrapbooks have been taken apart, if possible, though the wooden covers are stored with the corresponding scrapbook material.  We’ll keep an eye on them.

Elizabeth C. Borja is an archivist in the Museum’s Archives Department.


Seeing Apollo 12

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On November 19, 1969, 45 years ago and three short months after the landing of Apollo 11, Commander Charles “Pete” Conrad and Lunar Module Pilot Alan Bean landed their lunar module “Intrepid” on the Ocean of Storms, just walking distance from the Surveyor III spacecraft. Their near pinpoint landing showed that Moon landings could continue, and with such accuracy that specific objects could be targeted for research. Conrad and Bean proceeded to spend a day and a half including two extra-vehicular walks on the surface retrieving rock and soil samples, taking photographs, and detaching a piece of Surveyor III to return to Earth. What few expected is that no more than the first few moments of the mission would be seen live back on Earth.

Pete Conrad stands next to Surveyor III, November 20, 1969 NASA Photo AS12-48-7136

The Apollo 11 mission set an expectation for how our proxies in space, the astronauts trained to fly to the Moon, would show us their accomplishments, experiences, and work. Unfortunately, relocating the television camera to a stand away from the lunar module presented an unconsidered problem. By accident, Bean tilted the lens towards the Sun, damaging the optical components of the camera. It became unusable. Instead, their handy Hasselblad cameras and the 16mm movie camera in the lunar module were all that remained to record their experience visually. Following the mission, Bean developed his experiences and impression into an incredible series of paintings that evoke some of those lost moments not seen on television.

Home Sweet Home, Alan Bean, 1983, acrylic on masonite. National Air and Space Museum, Smithsonian Institution

The public reaction to the loss of television coverage is largely anecdotal. Television viewing of Apollo missions declined without mission coverage, only to spike again during the program when Apollo 13 was known to have mechanical problems in April 1970. One particularly bothered citizen wrote to NASA on November 25, 1969, the day after the mission landed back on Earth, to complain that the loss of the television disturbed him. He felt the visual impact and value for the public was lost, and that the cavalier attitude he perceived from audio transmissions from Commander Conrad were inappropriate. The Missourian wrote that, “Astronaut Conrad gives the impression that he is on a joyride of no significance whatsoever.” In hopes of easing the apparent frustration of the writer, George Abbey – then assistant to the director of the Manned Spacecraft Center (later renamed the Johnson Space Center) – sent the gentleman copies of Apollo 12 photographs and assurance that corrections to the camera problem would be in place before the Apollo 13 mission. As for the attitudes of the astronauts, Abbey could only promise that the astronauts took their jobs quite seriously, and some enthusiasm should be expected.

So while the world missed out on seeing live coverage of “history in the making” as Abbey called it in his response letter, crew photography and unique perspectives offered by Bean’s later artwork give some comfort that even 45 years on, we know just what Conrad and Bean saw in their 34 hours on the Moon.

Jennifer Levasseur is a museum specialist in the Space History Department of the National Air and Space Museum, and is responsible curator for the Museum’s collection of space cameras and early human spaceflight astronaut equipment. She’s previously blogged about Apollo 8, John Glenn’s Camera, and more

Obscure Objects: Gus Grissom’s Glove Dip Forms

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This is the first in a series of blog posts on little-known artifacts in the Museum’s collection.

Of all the parts of a spacesuit, the gloves are the most difficult to make. They must allow for the “right amount of dexterity and a sense of touch to work with tools,” says Cathleen Lewis, Museum spacesuit curator. “They also need to be protective as well—so it’s a careful balance.”

Early spacesuits were custom-made, the gloves especially so. Part of the process of making intra-vehicular and extra-vehicular gloves for the Apollo program was creating an interior pressure bladder. They did this by making a cast of the astronaut’s hands in a neutral position, placing a nylon glove over each form, and then dipping them into a rubber/neoprene compound.

The black, hard rubber hand shapes below are molds made from Gus Grissom’s hand casts used in this process for his Apollo suit. NASA transferred them to the National Air and Space Museum in 1979.

Grissom was slated to command Apollo 1 in March of 1966, but along with fellow astronauts Ed White and Roger Chafee, he perished in a fire during a pre-launch pad test.

This method of making space gloves is no longer used. While Gemini, Apollo, and Skylab suits were specially sized to each individual, present-day astronauts wear suits that are “off the rack”’ and available in only a few sizes. Thus, unique astronaut hand casts are a thing of the past.

Kathleen Hanser is a writer-editor in the Office of Communications. She has previously blogged about insect-powered planes, meeting a Communist defector, and more. Check back next month for another “obscure” object post from Kathleen.

A New High Altitude Jump

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On April 1, 2014, the National Air and Space Museum opened an exhibition featuring the pressurized Red Bull Stratos gondola that carried Felix Baumgartner to a record altitude of 39,045 meters (128,100 feet) over Roswell, New Mexico, and the pressure suit and parachute that protected him during the long fall back to Earth. Not long after, I had a visit from an old friend, balloonist Julian Nott, whose record-setting pressurized hot air balloon gondola was also coming into the Museum’s collection. One of the pioneers of modern ballooning, Julian has established 79 world ballooning records for altitude, distance, and time aloft during a long and extraordinary career. During our discussion of the Stratos project, I pointed out that the previous record for a high altitude parachute jump had stood from 1960 to 2012, and asked him if he thought Baumgartner’s record would last that long. With a patented Julian Nott smile, he responded that he did not think so. Now we know why.

Launching at 7:00 am on October 24, 2014, Alan Eustace, senior vice president of Knowledge at Google, Inc., broke Baumgartner’s record with a parachute jump from and altitude of 41,419 meters (135,890 feet). The project began in December 2011, when Eustace contacted Taber MacCallum of the Paragon Space Development Corporation, a firm specializing in providing life support systems for use in extreme environments. The two put together a project team and devised a meticulously detailed plan for project StratEx, an effort enabling Eustace to parachute from someplace close to the top of the stratosphere. The project, which Eustace funded with no help from Google, moved quietly forward for over three years. Unlike the Red Bull effort, which was surrounded by a frenzy of publicity, the StratEx team remained under the media radar.

Photos by Dave Jourdan / Paragon Space Development Corporation

Operating from a launch site near Roswell, New Mexico, they conducted several test flights, first with mannequins, then with Eustace himself.  The tests were life-savers. Eustace would have to deploy a small drogue chute at the outset to stabilize him during his long fall toward the thicker atmosphere. Attached to the center of the back of the suit on one test, the drogue chute sent the weighted mannequin into a rapid flat spin that would have killed Eustace. The attach point was repositioned.

On the big day, Alan Eustace was carried aloft by a plastic balloon that stood almost 137 meters (450 feet) tall at launch and which expanded to a diameter of 94.8 meters (311 feet) at altitude. Climbing at about 304.8-meters (1,000-feet) a minute, it took 2.5 hours to reach an altitude of 41,419 meters (135,890 feet). Eustace wore an advanced pressure suit designed and produced by ILC Dover Industries, coupled with a life support system developed by Paragon. United Parachute Technologies provided the drogue, main, and reserve parachutes. ADE Aerospace Consulting supplied the medical team and required training, with Dr. Jonathan Clark serving as medical consultant.  Julian Nott was the ballooning consultant and proposed a unique launch procedure. The Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, Hyderbad, India, produced all of the balloons used in the program.

From the outset, the team could see little point in spending a lot of money to develop a sophisticated pressurized balloon cabin, only to have to lift such a heavy craft to altitude. Instead, Eustace made the flight dangling beneath the balloon via a beam structure known as the Balloon Equipment Module, protected only by his pressure suit, for a total weight of just 450 pounds. During a high altitude parachute jump in 1960, the shroud lines of the drogue chute had wrapped around Col. Joe Kittinger’s neck. The StratEx team solved that problem by the use of (3.66-meter; 12-foot-long) carbon fiber tube that held the lines away from the suit. Not long after dropping from the balloon, Eustace reached a record top speed of 1,321 kilometers per hour (822 mph, Mach 1.23). In addition, he set new world records for the highest jump (41,419 meters; 135,890 feet), and for distance of fall using a drogue chute (36,617 meters; 123,414 feet).   He was safely back on the ground just 15 minutes after cutting loose from the balloon.

Photos by Dave Jourdan / Paragon Space Development Corporation

In the best National Air and Space Museum tradition, my colleague Cathleen Lewis, our curator of space and pressure suits, and I are negotiating to acquire this suit and related gear so that it can be preserved and displayed. The question now is, will the StratEx record stand longer than that of Red Bull Stratos?  Only time will tell. It is certainly possible to design a balloon that will rise to a higher altitude. If I were a betting man….

Tom Crouch is senior curator in the Aeronautics Department of the National Air and Space Museum. He’s previously blogged about Pilot Felix BaumgartnerCapt. Joseph W. Kittinger, and more