AidSpace Blog

Blazing the Trail in Space

Posted on

The first successful American “astronaut” is on display at the Smithsonian in the Apollo to the Moon exhibition. It’s not Alan Shepard, but Able, a rhesus monkey.


Able sometime before her flight at the U.S. Navy Aviation Medical School where she trained for her flight. (U.S. Army)

Able and a squirrel monkey named Baker were the first American animals to enter space and return safely. On May 28, 1959 at Cape Canaveral, Able was placed in the nose cone of Jupiter AM-18 secured by a contour cradle made of fiberglass with sponge rubber lining specifically built for her body. Included in the cradle were multiple electrodes used to collect information on Able’s reaction to noise, acceleration, deceleration, vibration, rotation, and weightlessness. The cradle was then placed in a capsule with a life support system that included oxygen, moisture and CO2 absorbers, and electrical heating and cooling systems to keep the monkey alive. Baker was placed her in own separate capsule in the nose cone.


Able being secured in her specially designed contour cradle before launch. Able’s position in the cradle mimics how the first human astronauts would be seated. (NASA)


Able seated in her cradle being placed inside the life support capsule before launch. (NASA)


Jupiter AM-18, the rocket that took Able and Baker into space, pre-launch.

Able and Baker’s mission lasted for approximately 16 minutes, nine of which they experienced weightlessness. The two monkeys traveled to an altitude of over 300 miles and 1,700 ground miles south of the launching point. After recovery by the naval ship USS Kiowa, the primate space travelers were reported as unhurt and in good spirits.


Able being extracted from her contour cradle after the successful flight. (NASA)


Able and Baker being shown off aboard the USS Kiowa after their flight. (U.S. Army)

After recovery, the two monkeys were flown to Washington, DC for a press conference, where they were treated like celebrities. They even appeared on the cover of LIFE magazine on June 15, 1959. Able was awarded a medal and Certificate of Merit from the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

Able at a Press Conference

The press conference held in Washington D.C. for the suddenly famous space monkeys. (U.S. Army)

Able was not the first choice for this mission. Another rhesus monkey had been extensively trained for the flight, but was replaced with Able only two weeks before the launch. The first candidate was born in India, and President Eisenhower determined that this might offend the Indian people who view rhesus monkeys as sacred animals. Therefore, American-born Able from Independence, Kansas was the new choice.


Able undergoing a flight test to prepare her for her flight into space with Baker.


Able, seated in her cradle, on top of her life support capsule on display at the National Air and Space Museum in the Apollo to the Moon exhibition.

Unfortunately, Able died on the operating table at Armored Medical Research Laboratory (AMRL) in Fort Knox  just four days after her space flight. She was having an Electroencephalography (EED) electrode removed, a routine procedure. An EED measures electrical activity of the brain. The incision site was a shallow half inch, but anesthesia was used to save Able from discomfort. While under the anesthesia, her heart abruptly stopped. Extensive measures were taken to save her, to no avail. On March 22, 1960, Able’s body was transferred to the National Air and Space Museum and the National Museum of Natural History preserved her.

Able’s space partner Baker, or Miss Baker as she has been known since her flight, lived out her days first at the Naval Aerospace Medical Center in Pensacola, Florida and then at the U.S. Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville, Alabama. On November 29, 1984, Miss Baker died of kidney failure at Auburn University, making her the oldest living squirrel monkey in captivity. Miss Baker’s grave can be seen at the U.S. Space & Rocket Center frequently with a banana or two on top.


Miss Baker sitting on a model of the rocket she and Able rode into space. (NASA)

Thanks to Able and Miss Baker, NASA and the U.S. military were assured that humans could survive in space. These two monkeys paved the way to human exploration in space.

Caroline Elpers was an intern in the Space History Department at the National Air and Space Museum.

Where is Flak-Bait?

Posted on

The Museum’s Martin B-26B-25-MA Marauder Flak-Bait and its crews survived 207 operational missions over Europe, more than any other American aircraft during World War II. Recognizing that significance, the U.S. Army Air Forces saved it from destruction after the war. The newly-created U.S. Air Force transferred it to the Smithsonian in 1949 and the B-26 joined the collection in 1960. Flak-Bait’s forward fuselage section went on display in Gallery 205-World War II Aviation when the Museum opened in July 1976. Museum specialists have transported it, along with the rest of the artifact that has been in storage at the Paul E. Garber Facility, to the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center.


Flak Bait

Millions of visitors have been able to enjoy seeing the forward fuselage section of Flak-Bait during its thirty-eight years of display in Gallery 205-World War II Aviation. You can see where in earlier years visitor’s hands wore off the olive drab paint just past the Plexiglas nose.


Flak Bait Cockpit

This is the view of the radio (left) and navigator positions inside Flak-Bait’s forward fuselage section as you look toward the cockpit. [Photo by Eric Long, Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum (NASM 2014-02562).]

Martin factory workers completed the B-26 in April 1943 and the Army Air Forces assigned it to the 449th Bombardment Squadron of the 322nd Bombardment Group. Lt. James J. Farrell gave the bomber its name by combining the word for German anti-aircraft artillery, “flak,” with his brother’s nickname for their family dog, “Flea Bait.” Between August 1943 and the end of the war, Flak-Bait and its crews accumulated 725 hours of combat time against Nazi Germany. Over the entire artifact, there are over 1,000 patched flak holes earned in missions that included sorties in support of Allied operations during the D-Day Invasion and the Battle of the Bulge.

Flak Bait on its 200th Mission

On April 17, 1945, Flak-Bait’s 200th mission was leading the entire 322nd Bombardment Group on a mission to bomb Magdeburg, Germany. [Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum (NASM A-42346)]


Flak-Bait’s Crew

Flak-Bait’s crew poses with the bomber after the April 17, 1945 mission. The celebratory 200 Missions “bomb” just under the pilot’s cockpit is not the one found on the artifact today. This one was either superimposed on the aircraft or the photograph. [Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum (NASM 77-2694)]

Few Marauders survive today out of the 5,266 produced by Martin. The National Museum of the U.S. Air Force, the Musée de l’Air et de l’Espace, and a private collector in Florida retain complete Marauders in their collections. There are three others undergoing rebuilding and restoration at museums in the United States.

Flak-Bait’s history, provenance, rarity, and original condition make it an extraordinary World War II artifact. The Mary Baker Engen Restoration Hangar, Emil Buehler Conservation Laboratory, and the vast space of the Boeing Aviation Hangar of the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center make it possible to treat Flak-Bait and put it on display as a complete airplane. The overall treatment theme is to preserve the artifact’s structural, mechanical, and cosmetic features, but the project will require a combination of techniques ranging from conservation to, when warranted, restoration. The project’s completion will mark the first time Flak-Bait will be fully assembled since the end of World War II.

Jeremy Kinney is the curator for the Martin B-26B-25-MA Marauder Flak-Bait.

“Buzz Bomb”: 70th Anniversary of the V-1 Campaign

Posted on

On June 13, 1944, exactly one week after the Allied landings in Normandy, Britain came under attack from a strange new Nazi weapon, a flying bomb. The English called it the “buzz bomb” or “doodlebug,” among other nicknames, because its pulsejet engine, based on rapid, intermittent combustion, produced a very loud buzzing sound. Known to its Luftwaffe developers as the Fieseler Fi 103, Hitler’s Propaganda Ministry soon relabeled it Vergeltungswaffe 1 (Vengeance Weapon 1), or V-1. Essentially a small unmanned airplane with an autopilot and a cut-off device, it was what we now call a cruise missile–the world’s first operational cruise missile.


The German V-1 was the world’s first operational cruise missile. This one is on display in the Space Race exhibition at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, DC.

The V-1 came in low, between 1,000 and 3,000 ft., and the effect of its one-ton high-explosive warhead was considerable, causing many deaths and injuries. Soon, as many as a couple hundred per day were launched against London, causing anxiety in the Allied leadership and an exodus of over a million Londoners, mostly children and family members. Prime Minister Winston Churchill even advocated retaliating with poison-gas warfare against German cities, but cooler heads prevailed, and World War II did not turn into a chemical war. By late summer, British air defenses were reorganized with increasing effectiveness, resulting in most being shot down or crashing on the way to the target. When the Allied armies broke out of Normandy and overran the Channel coast up to Belgium in late August and early September, they captured the catapults used to launch most of them. The attacks from France stopped. But V-1s air-launched by Heinkel He 111 bombers based in the Netherlands kept coming, if in rather smaller numbers.

In the fall, the Wehrmacht shifted the V-1 offensive primarily against Belgium, which the Allies had liberated. The northwest European offensive had ground to a halt roughly along the Dutch-Belgian border, due in significant part to Allied logistics problems. Clearing the Scheldt estuary and opening the large port of Antwerp became critical. Hitler ordered a refocusing of the V-1, and also the new V-2 ballistic missile, on the Belgian port. Launching areas were built up in far northwest Germany and in the Netherlands. Antwerp came under intensive attack, forcing the Allies to deploy American and British anti-aircraft artillery in large numbers to ring the city in defense against the buzz bomb (nothing could be done against the rocket). Antwerp was also the objective of Hitler’s doomed Ardennes offensive, launched December 16, which the Allies called the Battle of the Bulge. When Western forces broke through the Rhine barrier in late March 1945, the V-weapons offensive ended.

Was the V-1 a “wonder weapon”? Not at all. It caused perhaps 10,000 deaths in Belgium and Britain, no small number, but the British and American air forces had learned how to burn down whole cities, causing tens of thousands of dead in a night or two. An old cliché about the new Nazi weapons was that they came “too late” to change the course of the war. In fact they came too early to be in any way decisive. They were too inaccurate–barely able to hit a huge urban area part of the time—and they lacked the blockbuster warhead needed: a nuclear weapon.

The V-1 had an interesting afterlife in the United States. In a rare American example of outright copying, the Army Air Forces and the Navy decided to mass produce a version for the attack on Japan. By the end of 1944, the first copy, which went by the AAF designation JB-2 (Jet Bomb 2) was launched from Eglin Field in Florida out over the Gulf of Mexico. After World War II suddenly ended in August 1945, mass production was stopped, but the U.S. Navy continued to use its version, called the Loon, to gain experience with firing missiles from ships and submarines. It was a precursor to larger, nuclear-armed cruise missiles like the Regulus the Navy deployed in the 1950s.


The Loon, also called the JB-2 or KUW-1, was an American copy of the German pulsejet-powered V-1 or “Buzz Bomb” of World War II. This one is on display at the Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Virginia.

On exhibit at the National Air and Space Museum are both German and American versions. Hanging in the downtown Space Race gallery is an original German V-1, about which we know little except that it came from Air Force collections of captured Axis weapons. Displayed at the Udvar-Hazy Center is a U.S. Navy Loon in its original test colors. It stands outside the entrance to the McDonnell Space Hangar, in which the Regulus and other U.S. Cold War cruise missiles can be found.

Michael J. Neufeld is a Senior Curator in the Space History Division, where he curates rockets and missiles to 1945, and Mercury and Gemini spacecraft. He is the author of Von Braun and The Rocket and the Reich, among other works. He recently contributed to, and edited, Milestones of Space: Eleven Iconic Objects from the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum (2014).

My Space Shuttle Memories, A Flickr Slideshow

Posted on

What was it like to witness a Space Shuttle launch or landing?

For the Moving Beyond Earth (MBE) exhibition about the Space Shuttle, the International Space Station, and future human spaceflight, the team wanted to show how shuttle launches and landings became cultural experiences, not just technological events. Thousands of people gathered, often after having traveled great distances to do so. Many took pictures to record their presence at these historic events. What story would those snapshots tell?

My Space Shuttle Memories

Photo by Flickr user prolost. Available on Flickr.

We created a Flickr group (bitly/myspaceshuttlememories) and invited people to submit photos of themselves (or others) at Space Shuttle launches and landings. Our goal was to build a slideshow that could be displayed next to an artifact case holding NASA guest pins. A version of the slideshow would also be on our website. We announced the Flickr group in late September 2013—and waited to see what people would post.

At the end of January 2014, we assembled a selection committee consisting of Paul (the MBE gallery manager), Sarah (the Museum’s Manager of Online Engagement) and me (a curator on the exhibit team). Reviewing 315 images submitted by 83 different contributors, we were really pleased to see how enthusiastically people had responded. That was actually our first filter: the self-selected images that people identified in captions as their memories of the Space Shuttle. There were so many great photos that it took the committee two separate meetings to view them all for an initial assessment.

Photo by Flickr user ChrisAstro. Available on Flickr.

Next, we sorted based on our primary criterion: people! The “My Space Shuttle Memories” Flickr group included many artistic, beautiful images of the orbiters (on the pad or launching) as well as the immense exhaust plumes after launches. But we needed people in the image, not just behind the camera. Some submitters had amazing behind-the-scenes access that most people never got (even us, we’re totally envious!). We wanted the slideshow to illustrate how the general public encountered shuttle launches and landings, so we oohed and ahhed but set those aside. With each image, we asked: can you tell easily that the people were at a shuttle event? (Sometimes waiting for a 4.5 million-pound spacecraft to launch doesn’t look that different that waiting for a concert or anything else.) Would the images “read” well on a small screen? Pretty quickly, categories emerged: people in front of an orbiter on the launch pad, the countdown clock, the telltale plume of smoke, or lawn chairs lined up amongst palm trees. But there were also some less common images: people next to the “days to launch” sign, the traffic clogging the Cape, people greeting the astrovan carrying the astronauts to the launch, professional photographers shooting the launch, and “selfies” with the shuttle.

My Space Shuttle Memories

Photo by Flickr user ctboex. Available on Flickr.

Having made an initial selection of 63 photos from 315, each of the selecting committee members then individually reviewed those finalists, voting “yes” or “no” on each. Each image needed two or more votes to be selected. We thought that the committee might have to impose limits on how many images any one submitter could have in the final slideshow, but that turned out not to be an issue. We brought 54 images to the whole exhibit committee made final cuts based on their input, and wrote back to the image holders to ask for their final permissions to use the photos. In the end, we had 39 photos for the initial slideshow. It’s a nice group that tells a collective story about many aspects of experiencing a shuttle launch: anticipation, waiting, traffic, and the thrill of liftoff.

My Space Shuttle Memories.

Photo by Flickr user therealdjflux. Available on Flickr.

We hope you enjoy this collective snapshot of the cultural excitement that the Space Shuttle Program generated. We look forward to updating this slideshow with new images in the future, so if you have photos that tell the human story of shuttle launches and landings, please add them to the Flickr group. You might even hear from the Museum someday that your image is going on exhibit!

Margaret A. Weitekamp is a curator in the Space History Department at the National Air and Space Museum.




The Stripes of D-Day

Posted on

Lockheed P-38 Lightnings in flight. Image Number: SI-79-11023.


Seventy years ago, a formation of United States Army Air Forces Lockheed P-38 Lightning fighters was photographed as it roared over an unidentified foreign field. It’s hard to spot the familiar US insignia of the white star on a blue circle, but the black and white stripes the Lightnings wear stand out easily – which is a very good thing.

In 1944, in the months leading up to the invasion of Nazi occupied France, the Allied planners of Operation OVERLORD realized that on the day of the invasion – D-Day – the skies over the invasion zone would be filled with aircraft: waves of Allied fighters and photo reconnaissance planes, bombers, troop-carrying gliders and their tow planes. They were expected to be met by fierce Luftwaffe opposition. The planners feared friendly fire – anti-aircraft fire from Allied naval vessels and Allied troops – against their own air flotilla, and pilots mistakenly engaging in dogfights against their own comrades in arms. The existing system for identifying friendly aircraft, Identification Friend or Foe (IFF), would in all probability be overwhelmed by the sheer number of aircraft over the beaches.

To avoid fratricidal incidents, the D-Day planners called for paint and brushes, and ordered that the aircraft of the Allied Expeditionary Air Force and supporting units be painted with alternating black and white stripes on wings and fuselage – 18 inches wide on single-engine aircraft, and 24 inches wide for twin-engined craft. They were called invasion stripes. Tests showed that the stripes were easily visible on the ground and in the air – easier to see than the usual national markings that Allied aircraft bore, so a simple order  – if it ain’t got stripes, shoot it down – could be given out to Allied gunners and pilots. For fear of the Luftwaffe getting wind of the scheme and confusing the issue by painting their own stripes, the plan was a closely guarded secret.


North American P-51D Mustang, showing invasion stripes. Image Number: SI-88-10694


On the first of June, a small flight bearing the invasion stripes overflew the Allied fleet to familiarize the crews with the markings. The orders to paint the stripes were finally issued – on June 3 for troop carrier units, and on June 4 to the fighter and bomber squadrons. The harried ground crewmen scrambled for paint and brushes while they prepared their aircraft for their missions.


A Lockheed F-5B Photo Reconnaissance Lightning of the 31st Photo Reconnaissance Squadron, photograph by James K. Smith. Image Number: NASM-9A05313


In the early hours of June 6, thousands of aircraft, all bearing invasion stripes, headed for the skies over Normandy. As D-Day unfolded, friendly fire incidents were thankfully few. And, strangely, the Luftwaffe just didn’t show up – only three German aircraft overflew the beaches that day. Two of the pilots, ace Josef “Pips” Priller and his wingman Heinz Wodarczyk, were said to be hungover from some serious partying the night before. The black and white stripes had served their purpose, and by December 1944, air units had been ordered to remove them. But the photographs of the airplanes survive to remind us of one of the most striking symbols of that day 70 years ago. And, in commemoration of D-Day, the Royal Air Force has painted a Eurofighter Typhoon with invasion stripes, so once again the alternating black and white stripes will be seen over European skies.


Allan Janus is a museum specialist in the National Air and Space Museum’s Archives Department.