AidSpace Blog

Nerd Camp

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This guest post comes from Michael Okuda. Michael was the lead graphic designer on seven Star Trek movies and on Star Trek: The Next Generation through Star Trek: Enterprise for which he was responsible for control panel design and written alien languages. He has designed emblems for NASA, including the crew patch for the STS-125 space shuttle mission to service the Hubble Space Telescope, and the project logo for the Orion Multipurpose Crew Vehicle. His work has been recognized with three primetime Emmy nominations for Best Visual Effects and NASA’s Exceptional Public Service Medal. Michael is also a member of the Museum’s Enterprise advisory committee to conserve the Star Trek Starship Enterprise studio model. Along with his wife, Denise Okuda (also a member of the Star Trek production team and the Smithsonian’s Enterprise advisory committee), Michael is coauthor of the Star Trek Encyclopedia and a member of the Art Directors Guild.

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Michael Okuda (center) examining the Enterprise model during Nerd Camp. Left, is Engen Conservation Chair Malcolm Collum. Photo: Victoria Portway, Smithsonian

The door was locked, but a swipe of a security access card rewarded us with a satisfying “click.” Someone pushed the double doors open and we stepped into the laboratory. We paused for the briefest instant as my eyes, and those of my fellow campers, were transfixed on the object on the other side of the room: The Starship Enterprise from the original Star Trek series.

We strode across the room toward the ship, trying not to run. There she was, in all her warp-powered glory. The ship in which we’d vicariously explored the final frontier for so many years. Captain Kirk’s pride, the embodiment of Matt Jefferies’ artistic genius, and the symbol of Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry’s futuristic vision. I felt my wife Denise take my hand and I knew this moment meant as much to her as it did to me. Hushed, we all crowded around the ship.


Denise Okuda, Ariel O’Connor, John Goodson, Rick Sternbach, and Adam Schneider study the original weathering streaks that had been subtly painted on the top of the saucer prior to filming. We were surprised at the amount of weathering, and were further surprised to discover that the streaking had distinct green and brown colors. Photo: Michael and Denise Okuda

ILM model maker John Goodson studies the hangar deck at the back of the ship’s engineering hull. Note that the port side of the ship is relatively undetailed. Photo: Michael and Denise Okuda

ILM model maker John Goodson studies the hangar deck at the back of the ship’s engineering hull. Note that the port side of the ship is relatively undetailed. Photo: Michael and Denise Okuda

Denise and I were at the meeting of the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum’s special advisory committee on the Starship Enterprise studio model. (Yeah, we need a better name.) We were joined by our friends and colleagues: John Goodson (ILM model maker), Gary Kerr (expert on the Enterprise), Andrew Probert (illustrator, designer of the Enterprise-D), Adam Schneider (member of the Space Center Houston board, who restored the full-scale Shuttlecraft Galileo and helped organize the committee), Rick Sternbach (illustrator, designer of the Starship Voyager) and John Van Citters (VP of product development for CBS Consumer Products). We were there at the invitation of Dr. Margaret Weitekamp, one of the Smithsonian’s curators for spaceflight history. We were at the Smithsonian’s Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Virginia to see the original Enterprise filming model and to offer suggestions for its conservation, restoration, and display. I called it Nerd Camp.

The Smithsonian’s special advisory committee on the Starship Enterprise. Left to right: Adam Schneider, Ariel O’Connor, Rick Sternbach, Margaret Weitekamp, Gary Kerr, Malcolm Collum, Denise Okuda, John Goodson, Mike Okuda, John Van Citters, Andrew Probert. Photo: Dane Penland, Smithsonian

Designed by art director Walter “Matt” Jefferies in 1964, the Starship Enterprise filming model was built by Richard Datin for the Howard Anderson visual effects company. It appeared in every episode of the original Star Trek series, which aired from 1966 through 1969. Ironically, the final episode aired just a few weeks before the Apollo 11 Moon landing, surely a moment of science fiction come to life. Paramount Pictures donated the model to the Smithsonian Institution in 1974, and it quickly became one of the most popular artifacts in the collection of the National Air and Space Museum.

We’d seen the Enterprise model years before at the Smithsonian, but this was our first chance to examine it up close. It was a reunion with a beloved friend. As life-long Trek fans, virtually every line, every detail of Matt Jefferies’s starship felt instantly familiar. Felt right.

Denise Okuda takes a close-up of the ship’s famous registry number. The top surface of the saucer has never been repainted, so it represents the original finish that was applied to the model back during the 1960s. Photo: Michael and Denise Okuda

Denise Okuda takes a close-up of the ship’s famous registry number. The top surface of the saucer has never been repainted, so it represents the original finish that was applied to the model back during the 1960s. Photo: Michael and Denise Okuda

They gave us plenty of time to linger over the model. We were in geek heaven. The model is big (3 meters/ 11 feet long!) and we drank in every detail. Even though we knew most of the ship by heart, it’s very different to see it sitting in front of you. We examined the grid lines on the saucer and we looked at the differences between the starboard side (which was intended to be photographed) and the port side (which was not filmed and was mostly undetailed). We could get as close as we wanted to the model, but they made us wear gloves if we wanted to actually touch it.

What shined through was the genius of Matt Jefferies’s design. His Enterprise was unlike anything before in visual science fiction. Matt used his background as a real-life aviator to give his creation something he called “aircraft logic,” so the ship seemed to make some sort of functional sense. But he also used his artistic talents to make the Enterprise look like a true creature of deep space, one seeming to defy gravity, one with the power to traverse the vast distances between the stars on humanity’s greatest adventure.

Close-up of the clamshell doors of the ship’s hangar deck, from which the shuttlecraft Galileo was launched. Photo: Michael and Denise Okuda

Close-up of the clamshell doors of the ship’s hangar deck, from which the shuttlecraft Galileo was launched. Photo: Michael and Denise Okuda

At the top of the saucer section is the ship’s bridge, from which Captain Kirk commanded the ship. The upper white “sensor dome” is actually too high, and is planned to be replaced during the restoration. Photo: Michael and Denise Okuda

At the top of the saucer section is the ship’s bridge, from which Captain Kirk commanded the ship. The upper white “sensor dome” is actually too high, and is planned to be replaced during the restoration. Photo: Michael and Denise Okuda

The Enterprise filming model is also a fascinating artifact of a bygone era of visual effects. It shows how filmmakers created the illusion of a huge spacecraft on film, in the pre-CGI era. This was in the days when the process of combining images of the ship with animated stars and planets took many weeks of painstaking work. Star Trek was the first science fiction television series to employ the difficult, expensive process of “optical printer” effects on a regular basis. It was so time consuming that the show was forced to employ five different visual effects companies in order to handle the workload. Having worked on many subsequent Star Trek productions, Denise and I were impressed by the craftsmanship evident in this beautiful model, as well as by the sheer audacity of the original Star Trek team in undertaking such a daunting challenge for a weekly series.

In charge of the delicate task of conserving and restoring the model is Malcolm Collum, who carries the impressive title of Engen Conservation Chair for the Museum. He told us one of the most important goals was to preserve the ship for future study, so permanent changes need to be minimized. Conservation specialist Ariel O’Connor took off the hangar deck doors, and we peered inside to see the raw wood and the electrical socket and the bulb that illuminated the windows. Malcolm removed the deflector dish and stuck a flashlight into the engineering hull. I heard a gasp of surprise and delight when the windows lit up, just like we remembered on television. We knew it all along: The Enterprise is real.

Still, seeing our favorite starship in such intimate detail revealed some significant issues, mostly the effects of over five decades of aging on a prop intended to last only a few years. Probably the most serious was the sagging of the nacelles. The weight of the engine pods put a lot of stress on the engineering hull, which has begun to crack. Malcolm Collum said he was afraid the hull might eventually split open if this was not addressed. The trick will be to reinforce the model, while minimizing structural changes to this historic artifact.

Dr. Weitekamp explained that the Museum wants to tell two different stories with the model. They want to show the imaginary Starship Enterprise as it was on television, but they also want to showcase the model as it was used in the show’s groundbreaking visual effects. This means the Museum will preserve the undetailed port side of the model in its relatively bare state, since that’s the way it was during filming. But it also means they’ll painstakingly restore the paint on most of the model so it matches the original paint and finish on the saucer.

Right next to the model, the Smithsonian team set up easels with scale drawings of the ship, done by Gary Kerr, a fellow nerd camper and one of the world’s foremost experts on the ship. Also next to the model was a large computer screen on which we could see numerous reference images. Those included some amazing high-resolution photos of the ship taken during the first season, courtesy of Greg Jein. We studied those closely and were rather surprised to find most of the “weathering” painted on the model during the controversial 1991 restoration was, in fact, quite accurate even though it had been applied too heavily.

Another important source of information was the Enterprise model itself. Throughout its time at the Smithsonian, one surface of the model had always been preserved with its original paint and finish. That was the top of the saucer. Although the grid lines were as faint as we had expected, we were surprised to see how much light streaking and other weathering had been painted onto the saucer. We were even more surprised to see that much of the weathering was green and brown, something that we never suspected when watching the show on television.

Not all of our time was spent communing with the model. We also had meetings with the curatorial and restoration teams, as well as with the folks designing a new custom display case for the ship. My favorite Nerd Camp moment was during one of those meetings. Denise and I had brought an “authentic” dilithium crystal, used as set dressing in an episode of Star Trek: Enterprise. We presented it to Dr. Weitekamp during our lunch break as a gag gift. We expected her to chuckle for a few moments, but were delighted that she seemed genuinely touched. For a moment, we thought we might even have seen a glint in the corner of her eye. She broke out into the broadest smile imaginable and thanked us. In that moment, we knew that the Enterprise could not possibly be in better hands.

Dr. Margaret Weitekamp, curator for Spaceflight History for the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum, shows off a “genuine” dilithium crystal. Photo: Victoria Portway, Smithsonian

Dr. Margaret Weitekamp, curator for Spaceflight History for the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum, shows off a “genuine” dilithium crystal. Photo: Victoria Portway, Smithsonian

We were so focused on the Enterprise that it was a while before anyone noticed the other aerospace treasures in the Emil Buehler Conservation Lab. Just a couple of tables down was Frank Borman’s spacesuit from Gemini VII, and the hatch from a Mercury spacecraft. And on another table was a panel from the nose of Charles Lindberg’s Spirit of St. Louis. We all stood for a moment in quiet awe at an artifact from one of America’s greatest aviators.

Just a few feet from the Starship Enterprise studio model in the conservation lab was this treasure: The nose art from Charles Lindberg’s Spirit of St. Louis. The plane and its nose will go back on display in the Boeing Milestones of Flight Hall, near the Enterprise. Photo: Michael and Denise Okuda

Just a few feet from the Starship Enterprise studio model in the conservation lab was this treasure: The nose art from Charles Lindberg’s Spirit of St. Louis. The plane and its nose will go back on display in the Boeing Milestones of Flight Hall, near the Enterprise. Photo: Michael and Denise Okuda

Down the hall, restoration was underway on Flak-Bait, the historic B-26 that survived more bombing missions than any other U.S. aircraft during World War II. Nearby were flight spares of the historic Mariner 2 (first successful interplanetary probe) and Pioneer 10 (first to Jupiter, first to reach solar escape velocity), as well as two of Robert Goddard’s rockets. Ariel O’Connor showed us a box of genuine NASA Kapton foil that will be used in renovating an Apollo Lunar Module. At the very end of our adventure, we were able to eke out a few minutes to see a few of the actual exhibits in the Udvar-Hazy Center. We had just a few moments to take in a Lockheed P-38 Lightning, a Concorde, and the Enola Gay. We stopped briefly at the magnificent Space Shuttle Discovery. Finally, we just HAD to search for the little R2-D2 hidden on the Close Encounters mothership.


Greg Jein’s model of the mothership from Close Encounters of the Third Kind, currently on display at the Udvar-Hazy Center. Can you find R2-D2? Photo: Michael and Denise Okuda

Too soon, Nerd Camp was over and we all returned home. Restoration and conservation work on the Enterprise model will soon begin in earnest. The ship will go back on public display in July 2016, part of the unveiling of the National Air and Space Museum’s renovated Boeing Milestones of Flight Hall in Washington, DC. In recent years, the Enterprise languished on display in the Museum’s gift shop. No longer. The starship will soon take its place in the main entry gallery alongside the Spirit of St. Louis, Chuck Yeager’s Bell X-1 rocket plane, and SpaceShipOne.

Video by Mike Okuda

Enterprise will be the only fictional spaceship in that historic collection of real-world aerospace icons. Why this extraordinary treatment for something that’s only flown in our imaginations? It’s not just that it was part of a very special television show. It’s not just that it represents the design genius of a talented art director. More than any other single object, the Enterprise represents the inspirational value of science fiction for science, technology, and space exploration. The Enterprise filming model remains the physical manifestation of Gene Roddenberry’s vision: When we work together, when we are smart, and when we are courageous, the benefits of science and technology will improve our lives as we strive to understand the cosmos and literally reach the stars.

Blog post by Mike Okuda
All photos and video by Mike Okuda except as noted.
©2015 Michael and Denise Okuda


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The New Air Show in Town: Aerobatic Flight!

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The Aerobatic Flight exhibition at the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center, in Chantilly, Virginia, has a new addition—a film entitled, naturally, Aerobatic Flight! All the excitement of multiple airshows is packed into this lively film through clips of current pilots on the airshow scene and footage of legendary pilots from the dawn of the airshow. Besides entertaining you, the film also explains exactly what aerobatic flight is: A departure from straight and level flight and flying unusual attitudes. Why would a pilot want to do that? Well, it teaches pilots to be comfortable in an airplane by understanding the aerodynamics of flight, thus making them better pilots and giving them the ability to react to an emergency situation. Pilots fly aerobatics for fun, in competition, and at airshows. It is not random stunting, but rather a disciplined sport.


An image from the Udvar-Hazy Center showing the Bücker Bü-133C Jungmeister upside down as it would have been during an aerobatic maneuver. To the right is the red, white, and blue de Havilland-Canada DHC-1A Chipmunk. Photo: Dane Penland

Although aerobatic maneuvers may look dangerous, they are actually precise figures that, like any other sport, take skill and practice to master. A pilot first learns three basic maneuvers: the roll, the loop, and the spin. From there he or she can move on to more difficult maneuvers and combine them into safe and stunning programs. Many maneuvers were pioneered in World War I by military pilots who first flew reconnaissance missions. They soon realized the potential of the aircraft for warfare and emerged as the first fighter pilots. An abrupt turn and climb or a dive either removed you from the sights of an attacking aircraft or set you up to fire on the enemy.


The Loudenslager Laser 200 in action!

Veteran cinematographer Mark Magin has shot thousands of hours of air show film and files, which he culled into this exciting piece. Archival film rounded out the history, highlighting some of the aerobatic planes at the Udvar-Hazy Center and the extraordinary pilots who flew them like: Leo Loudenslager’s Laser, Bob Hoover’s North American Shrike, Betty Skelton’s Pitts Little Stinker, Art Scholl’s deHavilland Chipmunk, and Bevo Howard’s Bὕcker Jungmeister. Top air show performer Sean D. Tucker and many others demonstrate the amazing ability of both pilots and planes. Narrator Patty Wagstaff knows something about the subject—she is a three-time national aerobatic champion, and the first female champion, whose Extra 260 is displayed at the Museum in Washington, DC. It’s all about the excitement of flying and airshows, while demonstrating the precision of aerobatic flight. I think you will agree when you visit the Udvar-Hazy Center to see both the exhibit and the film. Or you can watch the show right here. Then go out and join the more than 18 million people who will attend an airshow this year. Find one near you in the International Council of Air Shows list. Besides enjoying yourself, you’ll be supporting the men and women who present airshows as well as your local community. Or, learn to fly aerobatics yourself!

Dorothy Cochrane is a curator in the Aeronautics Department of the National Air and Space Museum. 


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Were You a Member of the “First Moon Flights” Club?

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A sample “First Moon Flights” Club card. Posted with permission from Air & Space magazine.

The Smithsonian would like to add to its national collection a Pan American Airways (Pan Am) “First Moon Flights” Club card as an example of early enthusiasm for space travel. When the renovated Boeing Milestones of Flight Hall is completed in July 2016, one of the artifacts that will be featured will be SpaceShipOne, winner of the Ansari X Prize in 2004 as the first privately developed, piloted spacecraft. But long before 2004, there were those who had hoped spaceflight could someday be accessed just by purchasing a ticket. If you own one of these cards, and it is in excellent condition, we invite you to fill out our object donation form.

Between 1968 and 1971, Pan Am issued over 93,000 “First Moon Flights” Club cards to space enthusiasts eager to make a reservation for the first commercial flight to the Moon. Issued at no cost, the membership cards were numbered according to priority. The Club originated from a waiting list that is said to have started in 1964, when Gerhard Pistor, an Austrian journalist, went to a Viennese travel agency requesting a flight to the Moon. The agency forwarded his request to Pan Am, which accepted the reservation two weeks later and replied that the first flight was expected to depart in 2000.

SpaceShipOne won the $10 million Ansari X Prize for repeated flights in a privately developed reusable spacecraft. It is currently on display in the Boeing Milestones of Flight Hall. Photo: Dane Penland, Smithsonian Institution

Pan Am began actively promoting the waiting list on radio and TV spots after the successful missions of Apollo 8 in 1968 and Apollo 11 in 1969. The company also got a boost from the appearance of the fictional Pan Am Orion II space plane in Stanley Kubrick’s film, 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). As excitement for the list grew, the Club was created to capitalize on its popularity. In a letter to its new members, Pan Am admitted that there were details to work out before the first flight could depart, and playfully warned, “Fares are not fully resolved, and may be out of this world.” The “First Moon Flights” Club eventually included members of every state in the U.S. and 90 countries including such geographically diverse areas as Ghana, Nicaragua, Iceland, New Zealand, Pakistan, and Ecuador. Famous members of the club included Ronald Reagan, Barry Goldwater, and Walter Cronkite.

Pan Am stopped accepting new members to the club in 1971 when financial troubles made it difficult for the company to keep up with new requests. As late as 1989, Pan Am insisted that it would eventually redeem the memberships, but the company declared bankruptcy in 1991, turning the membership cards into collector’s items. The “First Moon Flights” Club was never able to send any of its members to the Moon, but for many the desire to travel beyond Earth remained.

A radar image of the Moon collected using the Arecibo Observatory and Green Bank Telescope in 2015. Photo: Bruce Campbell, Smithsonian Institution

In recent years, new companies have taken up the challenge, working to make space travel safe and affordable for future tourists. To tell that story, the Museum is seeking to acquire by donation a well-preserved “First Moon Flights” Club membership card. One donated card will be chosen, and a photographic scan of that card will appear in the Boeing Milestones of Flight Hall on the label for SpaceShipOne. Paper artifacts become fragile with age and cannot be exhibited without risking the discoloration that comes from light exposure, so the card itself will be accessioned as an artifact into the Museum’s collection to ensure that it will remain preserved for future generations. This is a unique opportunity to make your name a part of the historical record at the Smithsonian Institution. Did you dream of flying into space with Pan Am? Let us know!

Tracee Haupt is an intern in the Space History Department. She will be graduating next year from McDaniel College with a B.A. in History and Art History.

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Houston We Don’t Have a Problem: #RebootTheSuit is Funded, Now What?

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The Smithsonian’s first-ever Kickstarter campaign to conserve, digitize, and display Neil Armstrong’s Apollo 11 spacesuit was fully backed in just five days! So what’s next? For Armstrong’s spacesuit, the conservation team is ready to launch. Here’s some of what we will begin working on in the upcoming months and a description of the conservation process that will take place throughout the project.

Conservation 101:  The primary goal of any conservation project is to stabilize the object for the future so it will last for generations to come. Conservators have specialized training in order to make important decisions about the care of museum objects. These decisions are not made alone—in a large museum such as the National Air and Space Museum, we often work with a team of people including scientists, curators, and outside experts in the materials, technology, and engineering of objects.

Conservator and author, Lisa Young, and curator Cathleen Lewis examine the soles of Neil Armstrong’s Apollo 11 boots. Photo: Dane Penland, Smithsonian Institution

The first step of any conservation project, large or small, is to undertake a careful examination of the object. The purpose of “looking” at the object in a detailed way serves many purposes. It will familiarize us with the object, the materials it is made of, and what condition the materials are in. We will want to find out if the materials are stable or whether they show signs of breaking down. Another step is to research historical documents. By working with the curator, in this case Cathleen Lewis, we will also need to understand the history of the object and what details found on the object could be a result of its history, use, or even changes made during its manufacturing. The object is the primary document, and even though we have information on spacesuits in general, each object is unique and tells a different story.

During this initial examination, it is common to perform non-destructive testing, analysis, photography, and additional imaging of the object to gather and record as much information as possible. This portion of the project may take up to nine months and will allow us to develop a detailed condition map and collect data of the interior and exterior layers of the suit.

Lisa using a hand-held XRF (X-ray Florescence) to perform non-destructive elemental analysis of metal alloys. Similar examination and testing will be completed on the metals of the Armstrong spacesuit. Photo: Eric Long, Smithsonian Institution

When this portion of the project is complete the conservation team will put together a plan to treat the object and present this to the curator. Conservators use their knowledge of chemistry and materials to decide how best to keep the object from deteriorating in the future. These decisions can be challenging, particularly when you have an object, like Armstrong’s spacesuit, composed of over 24 materials, some of which are not visible! Active treatment can involve surface cleaning, conducting repairs, or applying treatments that slow the rate of deterioration. Often, we spend time testing similar materials and perfecting our methods before attempting any treatment on the real object. It is not uncommon to consult industry experts to rely on their skills for help. For this project, it will include the people and companies who all contributed to making the Apollo spacesuits in the 1960s.

A major part of any treatment plan involves determining the best environment in which to keep the object to slow down the aging of the materials. For the conservation work on Neil Armstrong’s spacesuit, the majority of the treatment timeline will be spent doing just this. Much of the intervention to stabilize this object for display will be controlling the display environment to ensure the long-term preservation of the spacesuit. Factors we will look at and test include temperature and relative humidity levels, light levels, ventilation, and minimizing physical stress to materials. Building a new state-of-the-art display case and testing the environment within the case will take almost a year to accomplish. Our goal is to replicate the ideal storage environment in a display case so we can make the suit available for every visitor. We need to make sure it is exactly right before we put the spacesuit in.

The mannequin that we will develop and build to support the suit will also provide an ideal environment for displaying the suit. The suit is currently stored separately from its gloves and helmet, lying down, but our goal is to display it fully assembled with a new system to support the gloves and helmet in close proximity to the suit. Once the suit is fully upright, the 3D scanning of the suit can take place. This is the main reason why the digitization portion of the project will not happen for another two years; the suit will need to be fully outfitted and supported in a vertical position in order for us to scan it and develop our online content.

In addition to all the work mentioned above, the conservation team will be providing updates, presenting professional papers, publishing a book, and participating in educational programs at our Museum and online. Our conservation team takes part in public outreach and educational projects to enhance the public’s understanding of what a museum conservator does and to introduce children and adults to a career in museums that they may not have been exposed to in all their years at school.

Lisa shows items from the collection not normally on view during one of the Museum’s Socials for the exhibition Suited for Space in 2014. Photo: Eric Long, Smithsonian Institution

The Kickstarter project has allowed us to spread the word about what a museum conservator does behind the scenes and how we preserve objects so they can be displayed for the public to see. And now, there’s a second opportunity to help us conserve, digitize, and display another very important spacesuit. On Friday, July 24, we reached our goal of $500,000 to do the work needed on Armstrong’s suit—thank you! With plenty of days left on our Kickstarter project, we’ve added the stretch goal to conserve, digitize, and display Alan Shepard’s Mercury MR-3 spacesuit. This is the same spacesuit Shepard wore to become the first American in space in 1961. Like the Armstrong suit, Shepard’s spacesuit is slated to appear in the Museum’s Destination Moon exhibition in 2020, and will help show the progression of spacesuit technology during our early days of spacefaring. To meet this stretch goal, we’re hoping to raise an additional $200,000 and hit that $700,000 mark.

As a conservator, being able to work on these spacesuits—artifacts that mean so much to so many people (see video below) and represent some of the most important events in American history—is the highlight of my career. Be sure to follow us on this journey and check back often for updates on our progress!

Now we have to get to work…

Lisa Young, Objects Conservator at the National Air and Space Museum

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A Triage Treatment for Apollo Biomedical Sensors

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Much like medical triage, conservation triage analyzes the risk posed to an object and the hazards associated with not taking immediate action. Triage conservators ask questions such as:

Can the object be handled safely by staff and researchers?
Will the degradation of the object continue if it is not treated immediately?
What treatment can we do, with the resources at hand, to keep this object stable as long as possible?

The Collections Care and Preservation Fund (CCPF) Triage Project at the National Air and Space Museum aims to stabilize artifacts as they are moved from the Paul E. Garber Preservation, Restoration, and Storage Facility to environmentally-controlled storage at the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Virginia. The most common issues we deal with are corrosion, biological growth, structural instability, and hazardous materials like asbestos, cadmium, and lead. As an intern with the CCPF project, I am working with a team of conservators to examine, photo-document, and treat objects from our Aeronautics and Space History departments. One of most exciting objects entrusted to my care was a biomedical instrumentation harness from the Apollo program.

Biomedical instrumentation was developed by NASA during the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo programs to monitor the health of astronauts in flight and training. You may remember the scene in Apollo 13 where the astronauts rip off their sensors, and Jim Lovell announces dramatically, “I’m sick and tired of the entire Western world knowing how my kidneys are functioning!” While Apollo biomedical sensors did not actually monitor kidney function, they did track the astronaut’s blood pressure, body temperature, and electrocardiogram and respiratory waveforms.

Before Treatment: The Apollo medical instrumentation harness came to the Udvar-Hazy Center taped to a piece of polystyrene with degrading plastics, iron, and aluminum corrosion, as well as structural issues.

To begin treatment, I examined the harness to see what it was made of and what main problems existed. I examined it under the microscope and used a portable x-ray fluorescence spectrometer (pXRF) to analyze its metal components. I determined that the object was made of polyvinylchloride (PVC), Neoprene, rubber, epoxy, Teflon, synthetic fabric, paper, nylon, Lycra, polyurethane foam, Velcro, copper alloy, anodized aluminum, adhesive, steel, and paint.

It came to the Museum’s Emil Buehler Conservation Laboratory adhered to a piece of polystyrene (Styrofoam) with double-sided tape. The primary goal of this treatment was to remove it from the polystyrene board safely and to build a custom tray so it could be safely handled and stored. It also had some other issues, including aluminum and iron corrosion, degradation of the PVC and rubber, and disintegration of the nylon textile.

My first step was to remove the object from the polystyrene using a scalpel. This was done very delicately as the plastics had become stiff and brittle over time—not to mention that I didn’t want to accidentally cut the object!

During Treatment: The author cutting the object from the polystyrene board with a scalpel.

During Treatment: After removal from the polystyrene board, this was what the backside looked like. The white bits are polystyrene still stuck to the object with the tape. Eek!

I then started the tricky job of removing the double-sided tape from the back of the object. The tape could be peeled off or cut off precisely, but it left behind a sticky mess. After testing a few different methods, I discovered that the remaining adhesive could be removed from the PVC by rubbing it with a crepe eraser—something that can be found in an art supply store. Who knew?!

The next step was to remove the loose iron and aluminum corrosion and coat these areas with acrylic resin or wax coating to protect them from future corrosion.

During Treatment: Applying a coating of acrylic resin to a cleaned area of aluminum corrosion.

Here are a few photos from my favorite areas before and after treatment of corrosion:

The signal conditioner for the microphone before and after treatment. The electronic parts in this signal conditioner are encapsulated in epoxy and covered with a thin anodized aluminum plate. This piece had both aluminum (white) and iron (orange) corrosion.

This connector, shown before and after treatment, was linked to a blood pressure cuff. It is made of anodized aluminum and had accelerated corrosion due to the off-gassing of the adjacent black polychloroprene tube.

With the majority of the treatment completed, the next major step was to build a custom tray so that the object could be handled in a way that is safe for it and for the handler. Since the plastics were becoming brittle, it was important to support them in a way that they would not crack and break as they were moved around.

Here is the full Apollo biomedical instrumentation harness after treatment. With this project under my belt, I am ready for my next triage patient!

After Treatment: The Apollo medical instrumentation harness in its custom-built tray.

A special thanks to my conservation supervisor Lisa Young, curator Jennifer Levasseur, and the entire CCPF team.

Jacqueline Riddle is a Museum conservation intern, who is working toward her Masters of Science in Conservation Studies at UCL Qatar.

This project is sponsored by the Smithsonian’s Collections Care and Preservation Fund (CCPF), and administered by the National Collections Program and the Smithsonian’s Collections Advisory Committee.

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