AidSpace Blog

A Year in Review – 2015

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It’s a tall order to sum up the past year at the National Air and Space Museum in a simple list. We’ve hosted astronauts and record breakers, we’ve moved and conserved dozens of artifacts as we transformed the Boeing Milestones of Flight Hall (and discovered some incredible things in the process), and held programs that illuminated the impact of aviation and spaceflight on our everyday lives. Where would I even start?

I propose a compromise: I’ll summarize ten of my favorite events of this past year, then I’m relying on you to suggest yours. Did you have an experience at the Museum this past year that should be on our list? We’re asking you to share your favorite Air and Space moments in the comments. But first, let me get us started with my favorite moments of 2015:

10. Outside the Spacecraft: 50 Years of Extra-Vehicular Activity

At the beginning of the year we celebrated the 50th anniversary of the world’s first two spacewalks with the opening of Outside the Spacecraft. The temporary exhibition was full of extra-vehicular activity (EVA) objects, like the boots worn by astronaut Gene Cernan when he took the last human steps on the Moon during Apollo 17 and Ed White’s Gemini IV spacesuit. It was also full of beautiful EVA-inspired artwork and a rotating helix that held more than 20 different types of EVA gloves.

We brought the exhibition to visitors outside the Museum walls by creating an online exhibition. We created a virtual version of the rotating glove helix, a Tumblr where artists around the world could submit their own EVA-inspired artwork, and we shared behind-the-scenes stories about creating the exhibition in video interviews. We were elated to learn that the online exhibition won an American Alliance of Museums 2015 MUSE award.

More on the Blog: Five Things I Learned While Curating Outside the Spacecraft: 50 Years of Extra-Vehicular Activity

9. Pluto, Pluto, Pluto
Pluto was a big deal this year as the New Horizons spacecraft became the first to fly by the distant dwarf planet after a nine-year journey. We celebrated New Horizon’s successful mission by placing the mock-up spacecraft on display at the Museum in DC near the Pluto discovery plate plus a new temporary addition. Thanks to a generous loan from the Lowell Observatory, we were able to display the very blink comparator used by Clyde Tombaugh to discover Pluto in 1930.

More on the Blog: Finding Pluto With the Blink Comparator

8. Saying Goodbye to the Phrog
We helped celebrate the retirement of the CH-46 Sea Knight helicopter, also known as the Phrog, after more than 50 years of service. Along with the United States Marine Corps and the National Museum of the Marine Corps, we held a retirement ceremony at the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in August. Present at the ceremony was CH-46 helicopter #153369, part of the National Museum of the Marine Corps’ collection, which went on temporary display at the Udvar-Hazy Center.

Just as moving as the ceremony itself was what we heard from former pilots and crew in the days leading up to the event, who said their goodbyes on our blog with comments like this:

Fair winds, Following Seas and Semper FI my friend… You were an integral part of my young adulthood and my life as a Marine!!! you may be in retirement but will never be phorgotten 

Phrogs Phorever!!!

More on the Blog: Phrog Farewell

7. Milestone Moves

This year we’ve been preparing for the upcoming opening of the renovated Boeing Milestones of Flight Hall (coming July 2016). This has involved moving, cleaning, and conservation work on some iconic artifacts in our collection. The Spirit of St. Louis, which normally hangs from the ceiling, was lowered to the floor for conservation and then went back up a few months later. The same is true for the Bell X-1, SpaceShipOne, Mariner 2, Explorer 1, Pioneer 10, and Sputnik. The Apollo Command Module Columbia,  Mercury Friendship 7, and Gemini IV capsules had their plexiglass covers removed for the first time in decades, giving a clearer view of the spacecraft and delighting many visitors who told us they enjoyed the chance to take better photos. We even moved the Lunar Module 2 from one side of the building to the other.

While all of this moving posed some interesting challenges, it also provided us with an opportunity to view our artifacts in a completely new way. The discoveries we made because of this were a highlight of this year. During conservation of the Spirit of St. Louis, we found a pair of period-correct pliers hidden in the aircraft. We also discovered something new about the Lunar Module 2; all over the artifact are NASA stamps that provide us with clues about the object’s complex history.

More on the Blog: The New Milestones

6. WWII Fly Over and Fly-In
On May 8, we celebrated the 70th anniversary of VE-Day in an extraordinary way. Around noon more than 50 World War II aircraft flew over the nation’s capital in 15 separate formations including one warbird that carried our director, Gen. John Dailey. Organized by the Arsenal of Democracy, it was extraordinary to see  WWII aircraft in flight.

The next day we continued to commemorate WWII at “Fly-In to Victory Day” at the Udvar-Hazy Center, where several of the Flyover aircraft were on display, joined by swing dancers and even WWII reenactors.

More on the Blog: Bringing History to Life: Honoring Our World War II Veterans

5. Armstrong Purse

This year we took a closer look at a white cloth bag discovered in a closet by Apollo 11 commander Neil Armstrong’s wife. The bag, known as a McDivitt purse, contained objects that Mrs. Armstrong thought may be of interest to the Museum. Indeed, they were. Curator Allan Needell and conservator Lisa Young examined the contents carefully and were able to determine they had flown on Apollo 11.

The objects were not originally slated to make the return trip to Earth. In mission transcripts Armstrong says to Apollo 11 command module pilot Michael Collins about the bag, “You know, that — that one’s just a bunch of trash that we want to take back — LM parts, odds and ends, and it won’t stay closed by itself. We’ll have to figure something out for it.”

More on the Blog: The Armstrong Purse: Flown Apollo 11 Lunar Artifacts

4. Rebooting Neil Armstrong’s Suit
Speaking of Neil Armstrong, this summer we launched the Smithsonian’s very first Kickstarter campaign, Reboot the Suit, to conserve, digitize, and display the astronaut’s Apollo 11 spacesuit.

Within days we met our goal, and by the end of the month 9,477 backers had pledged $719,779. Beyond reaching our goal, it was fantastic to hear from so many of you about how the Apollo program impacted your lives. See some of the videos from the campaign.

More on the Blog: #RebootTheSuit: Your Apollo 11 Stories

3. Hey Chuck Yeager

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Charles “Chuck” Yeager poses with Museum staff in front of the the Bell X-1, Glamorous Glennis. Image: Eric Long, Smithsonian

Chuck Yeager stopped by. Yes, the first man to exceed the speed of sound in the Bell X-1, Glamorous Glennis, popped in to visit the aircraft that helped him accomplish that amazing feat in 1947. Many staff were sure to find reasons to be on the first floor to see the legend, and based on the whispers cutting across the crowd in the Boeing Milestones of Flight Hall, we weren’t the only ones excited to see him.

More on the Blog: Chuck Yeager

2. Star Trek Advisory Group
There were plenty of opportunities to geek out over Star Trek this year due to our ongoing project to conserve and restore the Enterprise studio model. Creating a special advisory group for the project was especially exciting. The group, a “Who’s Who” in the industry, has agreed to help advise on the treatment and restoration of the studio model.

Mike Okuda, lead graphic designer for four Star Trek TV shows and seven Trek movies and a member of our advisory group, became one of our first guest bloggers, writing about his experience visiting the model in our Conservation Laboratory.

More on the Blog: Nerd Camp 

1. Wonder Woman’s Invisible Jet

Who knew displaying a loaned object would have such an impact? On April 1, we announced we had put Wonder Woman’s invisible jet on display in the Boeing Milestones of Flight Hall, a loan from The Museum of Flight in Seattle, Washington. The story on our blog about the display and a video of the aircraft being cleaned spread across the web like wildfire. As of today, our Wonder Woman story is one of our most read posts of all time.

More on the Blog: Wonder Woman’s Invisible Jet Now on Display

There you have it, my top ten moments of 2015, but certainly there are more. Was your favorite memory on the list? Maybe it was the acquisition of the Arthur C. Clarke collection, or celebrating the 25th anniversary of the Hubble Space Telescope, or that time you saw a clip of our webcast series STEM in 30 on Conan. Whatever it is, now is your turn to share. Tell us your favorite Air and Space memory of 2015 and we’ll keep them coming in 2016.

Jenny Wiley Arena is digital content manager at the National Air and Space Museum

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Warm Greetings from a Cold Country – Christmas in Antarctica

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One of my biggest joys of the winter season is receiving holiday cards from my friends and family. On the other hand, I am terrible about sending cards myself. Imagine being Dick Konter, who had promised over 800 people that he would write to them while on a polar expedition to Antarctica!

Richard Konter served 30 years in the U.S. Navy, including during the Spanish-American War. After retirement, he became known as “Ukulele Dick,” teaching students to play the instrument and publishing the 1923 instructional guide, Dick’s Ukulele Method. Konter then joined U.S. Navy Lieutenant Commander Richard Byrd’s 1926 Arctic expedition to fly over the North Pole. He had brought his ukulele with him with the intention of teaching the native people of the North. Little did he know, there weren’t any natives for him to teach in Spitsbergen, the crew’s base, though he did arrange lessons for the crew and some local Norwegians. Not to be thwarted in his quest for polar ukulele fame, Konter hid his instrument in the back of the Josephine Ford, the Fokker Trimotor flown by Byrd, so that he could claim to own the first ukulele flown over the North Pole—other crew members did the same, hiding tokens throughout the airplane.

The Byrd Expedition returned to great acclaim and fanfare. Byrd and expedition pilot Floyd Bennett were awarded the Medal of Honor. Konter was greeted by his adoring students and fans, and his music and instruction manuals experienced a surge of interest. Through this fame, Konter was able to meet many celebrities and asked many to sign his ukulele. The over 100 signatures on his guitar include Byrd, fellow polar explorer Roald Amundsen, former president Calvin Coolidge, Charles Lindbergh, and Thomas Edison. In fact, in 2014, the Smithsonian Museum Conservation Institute assisted the C.F. Martin & Co. Museum & Archives in carrying out digital imaging on the ukulele to identify the signatures.

In 1928, Byrd began an expedition to the South Pole. Konter was again a member of the crew, officially listed as chief radioman. He was also the recreation officer, having brought with him 150 records, 150 pianola rolls, and, of course, a ukulele. Konter also promised over 800 people that he would write to them from Antarctica. So while Byrd was flying the Ford Trimotor Floyd Bennett (named after the pilot of Byrd’s North Pole expedition, who died earlier that year), the Fairchild FC-2W2 Stars and Stripes, and the Fokker Universal Virginia over Antarctica, Konter was busy on the ship City of New York, which was anchored outside the base dubbed “Little America,” on the Ross Ice Shelf approximately 1,287 kilometers (800 miles) from the South Pole.

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Christmas card from Richard “Dick” Konter to his landlady, Mrs. A. Gray, from the Byrd Antarctic Expedition. Image: NASM 9A12356

One of Konter’s frequent correspondents was his landlady in Brooklyn, Mrs. Adalaide Gray, whom he affectionately called “Ma.” One of his many Christmas cards can be found in the “Little America” Antarctica (Konter) Collection, 1928-1930, in the National Air and Space Museum Archives. Featuring a drawing of the City of New York with the stereotypical Antarctic penguins, the front of the preprinted card wishes the recipient a Merry Christmas 1929 and Happy New Year 1930. The reverse is stamped with the note: “No matter when these Greetings reach you, Time and Distance will have in no manner diminished their Heartiness and Sincerity.” Other pieces of correspondence bore on the letterhead the note, “Warm Greetings from a Cold Country.”

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Reverse of Christmas card from Richard “Dick” Konter to his landlady, Mrs. A. Gray, from the Byrd Antarctic Expedition. Image: NASM 9A12356-A

Indeed, these greetings may have only arrived to Mrs. Gray just before Konter himself returned to America with Byrd in June 1930. His Christmas greeting to New York politician Lambert Fairchild arrived in New York on April 25, 1930, and Mrs. Walter H. Raunick did not receive hers until June. The New York Times actually published several stories about the arrival of Konter’s Christmas cards, finding his correspondence particularly newsworthy.

Richard “Ukulele Dick” Konter passed away in 1979 at the age of 97. After his participation in the first two of Byrd’s many polar expeditions, he led a band and group of entertainers that performed for New York’s children’s shelters, hospitals, and nursing homes. He reflected on the many cards and letters he sent during the Antarctic expedition in a May 1930 letter to Ed Iovanni: “While I had a very big mailing list, I tried to keep in touch with everyone and it was ‘some job,’ which no one will ever know, for I had to go over each sheet of paper five different times and each envelope each times [sic] and as I sent about 1500 out, you can see what I was up against but it was worth it for the happiness or thrill it seemed to give all the receivers.”

Happy Holidays to all!

Elizabeth C. Borja is an archivist for the National Air and Space Museum Archives Department. She wrote about an 1898 polar expedition’s Christmas in the Arctic in the AirSpace blog post, “A Very Wellman Christmas.”

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Tips for Telescope Buying

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One of the most common questions we get at the Phoebe Waterman Haas Public Observatory is about what kind of telescope to buy, whether for a gift or for personal use. In the height of the holiday shopping, we’re here to help answer that question.

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A young visitor observes Jupiter through the 85mm refracting telescope at the Public Observatory. Photo by Eric Long, Smithsonian

First, a question for you: Are you a novice sky gazer? In that case, don’t buy a telescope just yet! Telescopes are not a good way to learn your way around the night sky. Often, they can be frustrating if you get one before you’re ready. We recommend starting with a sky map.  Learn some of the constellations, watch for meteors and satellites, and find the Milky Way.

Another great resource is your local observatory or amateur astronomy club. They likely have regular stargazing events, which are a great time to try out different telescopes and ask advice from knowledgeable and enthusiastic people.

Binoculars are a great “first telescope.” They are portable and easy to use and can reveal surprising detail on the Moon and planets. In fact, many celestial sights like comets and star clusters look better with binoculars than with a telescope! The numbers on the binoculars will tell you the magnification and the size of the lenses. For example, a 10×50 pair of binoculars has 10x magnification and lenses 50mm in diameter. Look for high optical quality, magnifications between 7x and 10x and lenses at least 35mm in diameter.

If you’re feeling ready for a telescope, do your research. Online reviews and local astronomers are a great source of information. The “best” telescope is one that suits your needs.

Here’s some general guidance:

  1. Most telescopes that cost less than $300 aren’t really worth it. We suggest getting good binoculars instead.
  2. Stay away from any telescope advertised for its magnifying power.
  3. For a child, look for a tabletop telescope that’s portable, easy to push around the sky, and virtually indestructible.
  4. A telescope’s most important attribute is its size, meaning the diameter of its main mirror or lens. The bigger the telescope, the more light it collects, which allows you to see dimmer objects.
  5. A popular first telescope is a Dobsonian. These easy-to-use telescopes offer large apertures for relatively low prices. The mount is simple to point and adjust; that’s why John Dobson designed it that way!
  6. Telescopes need a mount, like a sturdy tripod or a Dobsonian base, to hold it for observing. Make sure it’s a solid mount to avoid shaky views. If it has knobs that turn slowly to adjust where the telescope is pointed, that will help you to follow objects across the sky.

Once you have your telescope, what will you observe with it? The Moon is a great first target, especially when it’s half-lit. Look for craters along its shadow line. Next, try the brighter planets: Jupiter, Saturn, Venus, and Mars.  The moons of Jupiter and the rings of Saturn are an incredible sight. More advanced targets include the Orion Nebula, the Andromeda Galaxy, and binary stars like Albireo. An astronomy guide, star map, or smartphone app can help you find what to hunt for next.

You can find an astronomy club, get sky maps, look up what can be observed from your area, and more on NASA’s Night Sky Network page. You can also email us your questions at We can’t recommend any specific brands, but we are happy to give general advice.

You can also try out lots of telescopes at our Public Observatory’s stargazing night today, December 20, from 6:30 to 8:30 pm. If you miss this event, don’t worry. We offer evening observations on a regular basis. See a listing of all of our upcoming events.

Shauna Edson and Geneviève de Messières are astronomy educators at the National Air and Space Museum


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An Elegant Projector for a Civilized Age

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Today, Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens will officially open in our two IMAX theaters (and around the world). Our Airbus IMAX Theater at the Udvar-Hazy Center features one of the most advanced projection rooms in the world, with twin 4k laser projectors (always two, there are, for 3D presentations) and a 12-channel sound system. In a cinema not-so far, far away in downtown Washington, DC, our Lockheed Martin IMAX Theater will run Episode VII in IMAX’s original format: 70mm film. Star Wars will be the final 70mm feature shown at the Lockheed Martin IMAX Theater before it too is converted to the state-of-the-art 4k laser system in mid-January.

The IMAX empire was founded a long time ago (in the late 1960s) as an ultra-high resolution alternative to standard film. Our Lockheed Martin IMAX Theater (and the Museum) opened on July 1 1976. It wasn’t the first IMAX Theater in the nation, but it was close (read more about the history of IMAX films and theaters in curator Dom Pisano’s post). Nearly 40 years later, our theaters offer two distinct Star Wars-viewing opportunities: only 7 IMAX theaters in North America are showing the film using the cutting edge-laser technology found at the Udvar-Hazy Center, and only 15 in the world are screening Episode VII using 70mm film projectors.


Director of Smithsonian Theaters, Zarth Bertsch, prepares Star Wars: Episode VII before the movie opens in the Museum’s IMAX theater. This will be the last 70mm film assembled and projected in the Lockheed Martin IMAX Theater in Washington, DC. Image Courtesy: Zarth Bertsch

Running a feature-length movie in 70mm film is no small task. For Episode VII, the film arrived in 40 individual reels which had to be spliced together by hand. The completed film, now roughly 9 miles long, was then loaded onto a huge platter that will feed it into the projector. The whole procedure can take up to 16 hours, a challenging task even for the most dedicated trooper.

Parts of this labor-intensive process are beneficial, according to Zarth Bertsch, director of theaters at the Smithsonian, “Being a physical process, if there is a problem, you can sometimes find a creative way around it, such as using a local machine shop to create a custom replacement part for the projector or reel unit, which we have done in the past. For digital, you have a bit of the ‘black box’ phenomenon, i.e. if an encryption key doesn’t work, or a file is corrupted, there is little you can do on site but wait.”

Beyond opportunities for creative repairs, Bertsch says film as a format offers a unique physical dimension, “The physical craft and the nature of film will definitely be missed. It is a real photochemical process that captures the actual light of a given moment or series of moments in time. I will miss it very much, as will many others.”


Bertsch preparing Star Wars: Episode VII. Image Courtesy: Zarth Bertsch

The economics of operating film projectors are challenging, as the cost of materials has increased and the availability of new films dwindled. Despite this fiscal force, the Smithsonian did not rush to replace our trusty projectors at the earliest opportunity. According to Bertsch, “We intentionally waited until the technology reached a level that could at least rival our current 70mm experience. For the first time since the advent of digital projectors, laser projection meets or exceeds a number of technical aspects of 70mm film; in particular, the quality and brightness of 3D, and the density of blacks (certainly great in any kind of space imagery). I truly believe we waited the optimal amount of time, and are moving into a spectacular, landmark technology.”

Is laser technology the new hope of the theaters across the galaxy? Or will 70mm film strike back one last time before it becomes part of cinema history?

Nick Partridge is a public affairs specialist at the National Air and Space Museum

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From the Library: Orville Wright Signed Book

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On September 24, 1959, President Eisenhower declared December 17 to be Wright Brothers Day—thus commemorating the anniversary of the legendary duo’s flight at Kitty Hawk in 1903. In honor of Wright Brothers Day, Smithsonian Libraries and the National Air and Space Museum turn to a piece of history found in the special collections housed in the DeWitt Clinton Ramsey Room of the Museum’s library.


The Wright Flyer at Kitty Hawk in 1903. Image Courtesy: Smithsonian Libraries, SIL-SIL7-136-01

Located within the stacks is a book which, by itself, is a noteworthy contribution to the history and study of aviation. Published in 1943, Fred C. Kelly’s The Wright Brothers is a biography of the famous brothers authorized by Orville Wright. However, the copy housed within our rare books room is unique in that it contains over 1,000 signatures from legends, pioneers, and other contributors to the field of aviation, thus making it one of the jewels of the National Air and Space Museum Library.


Orville Wright’s signature in Kelly’s biography. Image Courtesy: Smithsonian Libraries

Donated by George A. Page, the (signed) book is a testament to a 30-year endeavor to capture the names of aviators and individuals who contributed to the field. An aviator himself, Page was an employee of Curtiss-Wright for 34 years—ultimately attaining the titles of chief engineer and director of engineering. It was through his professional contacts that Page managed to send a copy of Kelly’s biography to Orville Wright for his autograph. In the ensuing decades, Page would add approximately 1,000 signatures from other aviators. To improve access to Kelly’s biography, Page created a separate index to catalog the numerous contributing signees—thus making it easier to locate autographs. Included among those who signed Page’s book are historic figures such as Charles Lindbergh, Richard E. Byrd, Donald Douglas, Igor Sikorsky, James H. Doolittle, Chuck Yeager, Jacqueline Cochran, and Dwight D. Eisenhower.

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

Learn more about our Ramsey Room and the important materials it includes from sheet music to first editions.


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