AidSpace Blog

Walking in Space: Our Favorite Facts about the First U.S. Spacewalk

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The first spacewalk by an American, which took place 50 years ago today, marked a new chapter in human exploration of space. Images of Edward White II floating in space with the backdrop of a beautiful blue and white Earth spread a sense of wonder around the world – humans could actually go to this place and it was amazing. While the spacewalk (or EVA, which stands for extra-vehicular activity) lasted less than 20 minutes, its significance for the future of human spaceflight in the American context cannot be underestimated. This was the start of how we understood human activity in the setting of space, and like a child, these first tentative and careful steps led to decades of new capabilities. Working in the vacuum of space, however, took years to make efficient and was dependent on the creation of tools like handholds, better gloves, and specially adapted equipment that would make building and maintaining vehicles possible.

During the five-month long exhibition Outside the Spacecraft: 50 Years of Extra-Vehicular Activity, I have awaited this last week of activity as (sadly) the end of a very successful exhibition, but also the moment we get to mark the anniversary of White’s spacewalk during the Gemini IV mission. Visitors to the Museum in DC now have a rare opportunity to see the capsule uncovered (without Plexiglass) while we renovate the Boeing Milestones of Flight Hall. For our visitors online, I wanted to share a few interesting facts about Gemini IV, its crew, and that game-changing spacewalk.

1. Commander James McDivitt and Ed White became fast friends during their time in the Aeronautical Engineering program at the University of Michigan, which they both graduated from in 1959. They both moved on after graduation to the test pilot school at Edwards Air Force Base, frequently flying together. This made them uniquely compatible for the second Gemini mission.

2. McDivitt and White were members of the “New Nine” class of astronauts, the second ever selected, and were both rookies. Their backup crew consisted of fellow “New Nine” classmates, and future Gemini VII crew members, Frank Borman and James Lovell.

3. McDivitt discovered a potential problem with the spacecraft hatch during a vacuum chamber test when a spring failed to compress correctly. Having studied the mechanism, he was well prepared with a work-around during the flight when the spring caused trouble during the opening and closing of the hatch for the spacewalk.

4. Communication circuits between the astronauts and the ground malfunctioned during the EVA, leading to the need for McDivitt to relay all ground communications to White. This was particularly complicated when mission control wanted White to return to the spacecraft and the faulty circuits, and two exuberant astronauts, delayed the end of the spacewalk.

White against the backdrop of the Earth.

5. For reasons I can only speculate about, the camera attached to the top of White’s maneuvering unit, a Zeiss Contarex, is owned by the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force, but the lens is in the Museum’s collection. My suspicion is that because the “zip gun,” as the maneuvering unit was called, was a contract through the Air Force, they likely supplied the camera as well. It was later transferred to their own museum, while the lens, presumably supplied by NASA, passed to the National Air and Space Museum with other Gemini IV equipment.

Zeiss Contarex camera and lens used by White.

6. The thermal gloves seen covering White’s hands in photographs were important to keeping his hands warm, but one snuck out of the hatch before the astronauts got it closed.

White’s glove can be seen at the top of this film clip. See it escape at minute 1:34 in the video above.

7. The spacesuit’s pressure gloves, underneath the thermal gloves during EVA, were designed with the clever feature of fingertip lights, which White could activate with a small button in order to see cabin controls better during the 45 minutes of dark on each orbit.

Ed White’s mission gloves.

Despite the accomplishments and lessons learned during Gemini IV, the success became somewhat bittersweet at NASA. White would lose his life just 18 months later when a fire started in the command module during a launch pad test for the first Apollo mission. McDivitt went on to command Apollo 9, the first test of the lunar module. The accomplishments and experiences of McDivitt and White during their Gemini IV mission, however, are more than just the story of a spaceflight. They illuminate for us the earliest moments of how we think about human work in space, the quick thinking it takes to overcome obstacles in low and zero gravity environments, and the teamwork needed to make space exploration a success.

Jennifer Levasseur is a museum specialist in the Space History Department of the National Air and Space Museum and is the curator of  Outside the Spacecraft: 50 Years of Extra-Vehicular Activity which will close on June 8, 2015. 

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Finding Treasures in the Arthur C. Clarke Collection

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Earlier this month, I wrote about some of the behind-the-scenes work it took to survey and pack the Arthur C. Clarke Collection for transfer to the National Air and Space Museum. In this post, I wanted to highlight the types of material that make up this wonderful collection. These were all found during my cursory survey of the material; who knows what wonderful items we will uncover as we start the in-depth processing!

We found 27 linear feet of correspondence dating from the 1950s until the 2000s with the preponderance from the late 1960s on. Correspondents varied greatly and included family and friends, literary agents, editors, fellow science fiction writers, scientists, and even teenage fans. You can read one of Clarke’s letters from Stanley Kubrick about the Dawn of Man sequence in 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Just one box of Clarke’s saved correspondence. NASM2014-06985

There are also Clarke’s diaries and address books as well as videotapes and film, including footage relating to Clarke’s scuba diving interests and interviews about space topics. We also found albums of photographs, including one of Clarke as a baby and one of the author with cosmonaut Aleksei Leonov. And, of course, there were manuscript materials for all of his works including page proofstyped manuscripts, and handwritten notes and outlines.

Arthur C. Clarke with cosmonaut Aleksei Leonov.

One of my absolute favorite finds was the handwritten notes and outline of one of my favorite Clarke books, The Fountains of Paradise. I read this book, set in a fictionalized Sri Lanka, while I was in Sri Lanka packing up the collection. To have the pleasure of reading the published book and then to be able to hold Clarke’s original notes and outline while in his home was almost overwhelming and one of the most rewarding moments of my professional life.

Clarke’s handwritten notes for The Fountains of Paradise. NASM2014-07009

Patti Williams is the acquisition archivist for the National Air and Space Museum.

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Obscure Objects: Glenn Curtiss Motorcycle

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You may know the name Glenn Curtiss in association with early aviation, but did you know he was a pioneer in motorcycle design too?

Curtiss was born in Hammondsport, New York, in 1878, and from a young age exhibited strong mechanical ability. In his teens he was a champion bicycle racer with a keen interest in all things fast. By the time he was in his mid-20s, Curtiss was manufacturing his own motorcycle designs under the name, “Hercules.” The G. H. Curtiss Manufacturing Company competed with the likes of motorcycle powerhouses Harley Davidson and Indian, and Curtiss often defeated them in races. He quickly earned a reputation for designing powerful, lightweight motorcycle engines.

In 1903, a famous balloonist at the time, Thomas Baldwin, was building a dirigible and bought a Curtiss five horsepower motor to power it. In 1904, Baldwin’s California Arrow became the first American dirigible to fly. This was Curtiss’ first direct association with the field of aviation.

The Curtiss 4-cylinder engine is shown here on Thomas Baldwin’s California Arrow. The soldiers are probably present to protect the engine while on display. NASM 84-18637

In response to several requests from early aeronautical experimenters for engines, Curtiss designed his first V-8 engine. He asked his team to build a motorcycle frame strong enough to hold it, and made plans to see how fast the machine could go. On January 23, 1907, at the Florida Speed Carnival at Ormond Beach, Florida, Curtiss drove the V-8 powered motorcycle to a speed of 218 kilometers per hour (136 miles per hour), a motorcycle land speed record that stood until 1930. Curtiss was dubbed by the newspapers as “the fastest man on Earth.”

For detailed technical information on Curtiss’ V-8-powered motorcycle, read its collections entry on the Museum’s website.

The motorcycle Curtiss rode to a land speed record in 1907. It is on display in the Early Flight gallery in the Museum in Washington, DC. 98-15441

Glenn Curtiss in his airplane, June Bug, 1909. NASM 2001-554

Glenn Curtiss went on to make countless contributions to the field of aviation. He contributed to the development of ailerons, retractable landing gear, tricycle landing gear, and dual pilot controls. He designed and built the first successful pontoon aircraft in America. Curtiss aircraft were the first to take off and land on the deck of a ship. Curtiss built the first U.S. Navy aircraft and trained the first two naval pilots. He was a leading producer of aircraft engines. In 1919, a Curtiss flying boat became the first aircraft to fly across the Atlantic Ocean. During World War I, The Curtiss Aeroplane and Motor Company built 2,000 seaplanes, over 7,000 JN-4D Jenny training aircraft, and over 15,000 engines.

The Glenn H. Curtiss Museum in Hammondsport is dedicated to Curtiss’ life, and its website is an excellent source for more detailed information about him.

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

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Three Pilots – One War: Commemorating World War I

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One-hundred years ago, World War I was raging in Europe. In the end, over 17 million lives were lost, among them seven million civilians. More than 40 countries were involved in the most widespread war the world had ever seen, a war that was fought in Europe, the Near East, Africa, East Asia, and on the world’s oceans.

Starting just 11 years after the invention of powered flight, the Great War was the first major conflict in which pilots and airplanes were involved, experiencing their baptism by fire. At the beginning of the war, military applications of the new technology were barely known. At the end of the war, there was a vast array of fighter planes, reconnaissance planes, and bombers. Dogfighting tactics and bombing strategies had been developed, with weapons and armaments now essential elements in military aircraft. World War I transformed fragile flying contraptions, made of wood and fabric, into reliable killing tools, performing at parameters the world could not have imagined just a few years earlier. The image of pilots took on a similar transformation: The intrepid, adventurous birdmen of pre-war years became romantically adored “knights of the air” like Manfred von Richthofen (Germany), Albert Ball (Great Britain), George Guynemer (France), and Eddie Rickenbacker (USA). The lives and kills of these pilot-aces became material for legendary folklore and national propaganda.

I recently returned from Germany where I met with the creators of an amazing online project that allows us to experience this metamorphosis of aviation through the eyes of three ordinary people involved: British pilot Bernard Rice, French pilot Jean Chaput, and German pilot Peter Falkenstein. Three Pilots – One War is a shared project of the Royal Air Force Museum in London, the Musée de l’Air et de l’Espace in Paris Airport/Le Bourget, and the Military History Museum of the German Armed Forces/Air Force in Berlin-Gatow. The website has published the letters of these three pilots exactly 100 years after they were first written. Transcribed and translated in all three languages (English, French, and German), the notes allow a glimpse into the everyday life of three young men who were thrown into the upheaval of war. We read about the banalities and dangers of war life, about them showing courage in battle and missing their loved ones. We experience the pride all three of them feel in being a wartime pilot. Enhanced by other personal documents and information, intimate images of the young men begin to emerge before our eyes as we follow their story. The project will continue until the end of 2018, a worthy endeavor to remember the birth of military aviation, and the lives of three young pilots in the Great War—a war that one of them would not survive.


From left: British pilot Bernard Rice, French pilot Jean Chaput, and German pilot Peter Falkenstein. Photos used with permission of the Three Pilots – One War.

The National Air and Space Museum holds a large collection of objects related to World War I aviation that complement the stories told in Three Pilots – One War. At the Museum in Washington, DC, our exhibition Legend, Memory, and the Great War in the Air reexamines the romantic notions about early aerial warfare and contrasts it with reality. The exhibition also holds a number of rare aircraft: from Germany the Pfalz D.XIIAlbatros D.Va, and Fokker D.VII fighters; from Great Britain the rare Sopwith 7F.1 Snipe fighter; and from France the Voisin Type 8 bomber, the oldest surviving aircraft specifically designed as a bomber. There’s also a SPAD XIII fighter, a type which had been flown by many of the famous Allied pilots of World War I. The SPAD XIII was purchased from its French manufacturer and thus is operationally an American airplane, exclusively flown by an American pilot in an American unit.

The Spad XIII “Smith IV” on display in Legend, Memory and the Great War in the Air.

Visitors to the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Virginia will find World War I aircraft there as well. Among them are a Caudron G.4, one of the very few remaining multi-engine aircraft of this early period; a Nieuport 28C.1, the first fighter aircraft to serve with an American fighter unit under American command in the war; and a Spad XVI, which was piloted by General William “Billy” Mitchell during many observation flights during the last months of the war. Udvar-Hazy holds a German aircraft of World War I, the Halberstadt CL.IV, one of the best ground attack aircraft of the war.

The 1917 French twin-engine Caudron G.4 has great significance as an early light bomber and reconnaissance aircraft. It was a principal type used when critical air power missions were being conceived and pioneered in World War I.

Studying these aircraft and exploring the personal stories of the pilots who flew them illuminates the rapid functional and technological development that military aircraft experienced between 1914 and 1918.

Evelyn Crellin is curator for European Aviation at the National Air and Space Museum. Many thanks to chief curator Peter Jakab for his significant contributions to this blog.

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Finding Pluto With the Blink Comparator

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It all started at a special public lecture at the Museum in July 2014 given by Alan Stern, the lead scientist for the New Horizons mission, which will fly past Pluto this July. Among the attendees was William Lowell Putnam IV, sole trustee of the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona—the place where Pluto was found in 1930 by Clyde Tombaugh. It was an exciting evening, not only to learn about the impending flyby but also having a chance to speak with Putnam and the director of the Lowell Observatory, Jeff Hall. I shared with them the Museum’s plans for an upcoming display of a full-scale, mock-up of the New Horizons spacecraft. We had acquired the model from the Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Laboratory in late 2007. It was initially on temporary display at the Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Virginia, but at the time of our conversation it was slated for transfer to the Museum in Washington, DC in an upgraded Exploring the Planets gallery, in time for the flyby. Upon hearing of our plans, Putnam suggested that we might like to juxtapose New Horizons with the instrument that Tombaugh used at Lowell to find Pluto in the first place. After all, a portion of Tombaugh’s ashes were sent aboard New Horizons to meet the planet he discovered. Why not commemorate the link by placing the device he used to make the discovery next to the full-scale model?

We excitedly agreed to the generous offer, appreciating that the loan was one of the most significant instruments from Lowell Observatory’s history. On my many visits to the Observatory, partly because I am a member of its advisory board, I always stopped in at the Slipher Building to see the displays celebrating the discovery of Pluto. It shared center stage with another of Lowell’s feats: a spectrograph that V. M. Slipher used on the Lowell Observatory’s 61-centimeter (24-inch) refractor in the years 1912 through 1915 to make the first detections of the expanding universe.

The blink comparator on display in Exploring the Planets.

The device that Tombaugh used to discover Pluto did not work in a telescope dome, but in an office. It is a special form of microscope that allows the user to examine and compare two photographic plates in very close order. The photographic plates Tombaugh was comparing with this machine were 36 x 43 centimeters (14 x 17 inches), and were long exposures taken with a telescopic camera that sported a powerful 33-centimeter (13-inch) diameter lens. Tombaugh took exposures at night, covering areas of the sky where Percival Lowell had predicted years earlier that a planet must be lurking. He then developed those plates, and during the day compared them, spending weeks and months searching vast depths of space looking for something moving among the thousands of stars exposed on those plates. In February 1930, finally, he found something that he could not explain away as a nearby asteroid or some other form of space debris. It moved too slowly to be an asteroid. If it was a planet, it was farther than Neptune, just as Lowell predicted.

Tombaugh operated the instrument, built by the Zeiss company and popularly called a “blink comparator,” by rotating a small dial that flipped a mirror back and forth between the beams from two microscopes. Blinking between two plates taken on January 23 and 29, 1930, he found something. The below animation is flipping between the two plates. Can you find it?  If you’re having trouble spotting Pluto, take a look at the next animation with arrows marking the elusive object. It’s not an easy job, to be sure. The time exposures do not always yield the same brightness, and the orientation of the two fields is not exact.


Images originally from the Lowell Observatory and animated by the author.


Images originally from the Lowell Observatory and animated by the author.

Following up on Putnam’s offer, I contacted Samantha Thompson, who curates the exhibits and archives at Lowell Observatory. Sam was an intern here several years ago and then went on for graduate training in the history of science at Imperial College and then at UC Santa Barbara. Given that Putnam made the offer, she readily complied and set the wheels in motion at Lowell to dismantle a portion of their display, making it ready for a custom art shipper to pack and ship it to Washington.

The blink arrived at the National Air and Space Museum’s Emil Buehler Conservation Laboratory at the Udvar-Hazy Center in late March. A team of conservation staff, led by Lisa Young, set to work cleaning it, evaluating it, and taking care that all conditions for display would be met. At the Lowell Observatory, visitors could press a button and solenoids would flip the mirror remotely. The Lowell staff made this modification in the 1990s for their display, and it worked nicely. Visitors could peer through the actual eyepiece, though they could not touch the rest of the instrument itself as it sat inside a Plexiglas case. We decided, however, that even this creative solution was insufficient to guarantee full protection under the conditions we have found to be common at the Museum in Washington, DC with its millions of visitors. Our goal was to remove any chance that a visitor could remove something, or insert something into the vitrine. In three years, the instrument will be returned to the Lowell Observatory 100% intact. While we will completely protect the blink within a case, a video will show how the blinking takes place, complete with arrows of course!

Conservators (from left) Greta Glaser, Steve Pickman, and Lisa Young worked to prepare the blink comparator for display at the Museum in Washington, DC.

We’re excited to share this incredible artifact and the story of the blink comparator in our Exploring the Planets gallery and online. Were you able to spot the moving planet or did you need the help of the arrows?

David DeVorkin is a senior curator in the Space History Department of the National Air and Space Museum.

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