AidSpace Blog

Celebrating Labor Day with the Thompson Trophy

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Labor Day became a national holiday in the United States in 1894, codifying what had become an American tradition of celebrating the work of labor unions with parades, picnics, and other festivities. During the 1920s and 1930s, the National Air Races were also becoming a Labor Day tradition, often held in Cleveland, Ohio.

Front cover of a brochure for the 1932 National Air Races held at Cleveland Municipal Airport, Cleveland, Ohio. Photo ID: NASM 99-42652, National Air and Space Museum Archives

Labor Day 1932 fell on September 5. An estimated 55,000 spectators gathered to view the final and, to many, most exciting event at the National Air Races—the Thompson Trophy Race. The race was a free-for-all in which contestants began at the same starting line and raced at low-altitude, breakneck speeds for 10 laps around pylons in a 16-kilometer (10-mile) closed circuit.

Col. Roscoe Turner poses with his Wedell-Williams Model 44 (44 III) “Gilmore – Red Lion” racer. Photo ID: NASM A-580-A, National Air and Space Museum Archives 

The 1932 race was packed with proven winners and competitors. James Haizlip, in a Wedell-Williams aircraft, had just won the 1932 Bendix Trophy race, a transcontinental speed dash from Burbank to Cleveland, breaking the existing transcontinental speed record with an additional flight to New York. The man who had set that record in winning the Bendix the year before was also competing—James “Jimmy” Doolittle. Roscoe Turner, flying a Wedell-Williams, had finished third in the 1932 Bendix and second in the 1931 Thompson. Lee Gehlbach had won the 1930 All-American Flying Derby. James Wedell, flying a Wedell-Williams, was one of the “Wedells” of “Wedell-Williams.” Bob Hall, flying his own design, had designed the Gee Bee racer that was the predecessor to Doolittle’s and Gehlbach’s aircraft.

James “Jimmy” Doolittle poses beside his Granville (Gee Bee) R-1 Racer. Photo ID: NASM 77-11856, National Air and Space Museum Archives

From the beginning of the race, Jimmy Doolittle’s Gee Bee, set the pace. He had broken the land plane speed record with an average of 473 kilometers (294.39 miles) per hour just days before, though that had been recorded on a straight track. The Gee Bee was a notoriously difficult plane to fly, but leaving a trail of black smoke, Doolittle lapped almost all of the other competitors.

Three racers making a turn during the 1932 Thompson Trophy Race, September 5. At top left is the Wedell-Williams Model 44 piloted by Roscoe Turner (3rd place); at top center is the Granville (Gee Bee) R-1 piloted by James “Jimmy” Doolittle (1st place); and at bottom right is the Hall Bulldog, piloted by Bob Hall (6th place). Small aircraft at right center in distant background is unidentified. Photo ID: NASM 9A06240, National Air and Space Museum Archives

Doolittle won the Thompson Trophy with a total elapsed time of 23:44.69. Over the flight, he averaged 407 kilometers (252.686 miles) per hour, 16 kilometers (10 miles) per hour more than second place finisher Wedell.

Jimmy Doolittle passes the Bendix pylon during the 1932 Thompson Trophy race. Photo ID: NASM 89-5925, National Air and Space Museum Archives

Doolittle retired from air racing soon after the competition. He had won three of the biggest awards given in the sport—the Thompson, Bendix, and Schneider Trophies. And in a little over a decade, he was to earn the highest military award—a Medal of Honor.

Thompson Trophy plaque awarded to Jimmy Doolittle in 1932. The plaque is currently on display in the Pioneers of Flight gallery at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, DC. Photo: Eric Long, NASM 2014-04799

The air show is still a Labor Day tradition in Cleveland. Enjoy your own celebrations and Labor Day traditions!

Elizabeth C. Borja is an archivist in the National Air and Space Museum’s Archives Department

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Conserving Wiley Post’s Helmet

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The experimental helmet, worn by famed American aviator Wiley Post to test the limits of high-altitude flying, can normally be seen at the Smithsonian Institution Building (The Castle) on the National Mall in Washington, DC. When white corrosion deposits were noticed on the metal, however, the helmet was removed for examination and treatment. It was sent to the Museum’s Emil Buehler Conservation Laboratory in Chantilly, Virginia.

The helmet has a significant place in history as a part of the world’s first practical pressured flight suit. Post, along with Russell S. Colley of B.F. Goodrich, developed the suit so that Post could experiment with high-altitude flying in his aircraft, the Lockheed Vega 5C Winnie Mae, which had an unpressurized cabin. He used a similar helmet in flight for the first time 81 years ago today (September 5, 1934).

We know that the helmet is composed of an aluminum alloy with fabric that was treated with dope, a paint that when dry helped to make the fabric airtight. A sheet of clear plastic was used to create the face plate. And a very thin layer of nitrocellulose lacquer was applied to the aluminum exterior surface that helped prevent the aluminum from corroding. In areas where the protective coating was not applied, thick white and light brown colored corrosion deposits have formed.

Wiley Post’s helmet prior to conservation treatment. Photo: Sharon Norquest, Smithsonian Institution

This photograph highlights some of the aluminum alloy corrosion on the back of the helmet. Photo: Sharon Norquest, Smithsonian Institution

The first thing we wanted to do was to learn more about the corrosion products and coatings on the helmet. To do so, we examined the helmet under ultra-violet light. This was incredibly exciting to see. So many materials on the helmet fluoresced. The bright orange color on the handle and mouth plate are cadmium corrosion products. Bright white spots were seen on the back of the helmet toward the center and are from the aluminum corrosion. The whitish haze on the aluminum surface is remnants from a thin and failing coating. The dope, which is often a nitrocellulose lacquer or a cellulose acetate coating, could be seen as a bright green color on the fabric.

These photographs of the helmet under ultra-violet light were taken before conservation treatment. The ultra-violet light photography helped to highlight different areas that were coated or exhibiting signs of corrosion. Photo: Sharon Norquest, Smithsonian Institution

Examining the helmet under ultra-violet light helped us determine our course of treatment. Our first step was to remove the thin and failed coating from the aluminum. Next, the cadmium and aluminum corrosion products were removed to help stabilize the metal. The corrosion products were removed both mechanically with abrasive pads and scalpels as well as with solvents applied to cotton swabs. After the corrosion products were removed, the metal surfaces were degreased with solvents and a new coating of a cellulose-based lacquer was applied to the metal. This coating will act as a moisture barrier and prevent new corrosion from forming. Dents in the metal were noted in past historical documents as being original so they were not altered during the treatment. While the doped fabric is stiff from all of the coating applications, it is in good condition overall. Because of this, the fabric was not altered during our treatment.

After the conservation treatment was complete, the helmet was returned the Smithsonian Castle for display. Once again, visitors can examine Wiley Post’s helmet and imagine what it might have been like to fly in the world’s very first pressure suit.

The helmet after conservation treatment. Photo: Sharon Norquest, Smithsonian Institution

Sharon Norquest is a conservator in the Collections Department of the National Air and Space Museum

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Pioneer Carries Message Across the Stars

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The National Air and Space Museum’s full-scale mockup of the Pioneer 10 spacecraft was recently moved to its new location in the Boeing Milestones of Flight Hall as a part of a major renovation to the gallery. The spacecraft includes power supplies, a large dish antenna, and several science instruments used during encounters with the outer planets of the solar system. It also contains something that might sound more like science fiction: A note to any alien civilization that might come across the spacecraft in the distant future.

A replica of the Pioneer 10 spacecraft on display in the Boeing Milestones of Flight Hall at the Museum in Washington, DC.

Pioneer 10 and 11 were the first spacecraft designed to visit the outer solar system—the region beyond Mars. Designed as identical spacecraft, Pioneer 10 was launched on March 2, 1972, and Pioneer 11 on April 6, 1973. Both traversed the asteroid belt and visited Jupiter, while Pioneer 11 also visited Saturn on its way out of the solar system. Pioneer 10 and 11 returned data until 2002 and 1995, respectively, until their power supplies became too weak to support operations. Pioneer 10 and 11, although no longer functioning, are leaving the solar system at 2.6 and 2.5 AU per year, respectively. One AU is the mean distance from the Earth to the Sun, or approximately 150 million km (93 million miles).

During planning stages of the Pioneer 10 and 11 missions, science writer Eric Burgess suggested adding a greeting to an alien civilization. The mission team eventually decided to add a small plaque with the message. The plaques were designed by Carl Sagan and Frank Drake and drawn by Sagan’s wife at the time, Linda Salzman Sagan. The gold-covered aluminum plaques were affixed to the antenna supports of the two spacecraft. They faced inward for protection from possible erosion caused by micrometeorite strikes. In the mockup on display in the Museum, the artwork faces outward.

In Pioneer’s new location in the Museum, visitors can get a view of the plaque from the balcony near the Albert Einstein Planetarium box office on the second floor. Look between the large dish antenna and the main part of the spacecraft closer to the wall. The rectangular plaque, about 23 x 15 centimeters (9 x 6 inches), can be seen behind the dish facing the floor away from the National Mall. You can also catch a glimpse standing on the first floor near the bottom of the escalators in front of the Museum store.


The location of the plaque on the Pioneer spacecraft. In the Museum’s mockup, the plaque has been flipped outward. Photo: NASA 72-H-191


An outline of the Pioneer plaques.


Deciphering the Pioneer Plaque

The Pioneer plaque contains drawings of two humans and our place in the galaxy. The spacecraft is drawn behind a human male and female for scale. The solar system appears along the lower edge. Each planet and Pluto is shown with a binary number indicating the average distance from the Sun. Distances are listed in units of 1/10th the Mercury distance.

The diagram in the upper left shows atomic hydrogen, by far the most abundant element in the universe. It shows a hydrogen atom undergoing a shift in its electron energy level. This change emits electromagnetic radiation at a wavelength of 21 centimeters (8 inches), and is the most common such emission in the universe. This is used as a frequency and distance scale represented by the binary number 1. Converging lines in the left show the position of the Sun relative to 14 pulsars in the Milky Way and the center of the galaxy. Pulsars are very dense remnants of exploded giant stars, and they rotate at very stable frequencies. The frequency of each pulsar is listed in binary numerals relative to the frequency of hydrogen emission. The average human height, of approximately 168 centimeters (or 5 feet 6 inches), is listed on the right-hand side as the binary number 8 (1000, shown as  | – – – ), relative to the 21 centimeter (8 inch) wavelength of hydrogen emission.

Leaving the Solar System

Besides Pioneer 10 and 11, three other spacecraft have reached the Sun’s escape velocity and are currently moving out into the stars: Voyager 1, Voyager 2, and New Horizons. The two Voyagers visited the gas giant planets of our solar system. A version of the Pioneer plaque also appears on a gold-covered phonograph record on each of the Voyager spacecraft. Although the Voyager spacecraft were launched five years after the Pioneers, they are traveling faster, and currently the Voyager 1 spacecraft is the most distant form the Earth. New Horizons just flew by Pluto and will continue through the Kuiper Belt. New Horizons contains several objects including a sample of the ashes of Clyde Tombaugh, the discoverer of Pluto. However, it does not carry any material intended to greet alien civilization.


The Voyager “Sounds of Earth” Record contained sounds and images selected to portray the diversity of life and culture on Earth that went with the Voyager spacecraft launched in 1977. This is the record’s cover.

It is very unlikely that the Pioneers or any of the other spacecraft will ever been seen by any alien civilization, even very far into future. Despite this, four of the outgoing spacecraft contain messages. We can see them more as messages to ourselves, not to aliens. They remind us that in the mid-20th Century A.D., human beings took the first steps toward exploring the universe.

Paul Ceruzzi is a curator in the Space History Department and Andrew Johnston is a geographer in the Center for Earth and Planetary Studies at the National Air and Space Museum 

icon-with-question-mark-md What message would you send to an alien civilization? Let us know.

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Duct Tape Auto Repair on the Moon

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When most people think of emergency fixes in space, the first incident that comes to mind is the famous Apollo 13 mission. The astronauts fashioned duct tape and surplus materials into air filtration canisters in the lunar module to keep all three astronauts alive for the entire trip home. You might remember the story from the 1995 Ron Howard film Apollo 13.

An ABC News poll conducted in 2005 asked over a thousand people if they kept duct tape in their emergency kits, 86% of the people polled said they did. NASA is by no means an exception. In fact, labeled officially by NASA as ‘Tape’ in the official stowage lists, every Apollo mission from 11 to 17 carried duct tape with them to the Moon (see page 8 of the Apollo 17 stowage list).Perhaps less known than the Apollo 13 incident, the Apollo 17 mission also owes much to ordinary duct tape.

The Apollo 17 mission left Earth on December 7, 1972 and arrived at the Moon on December 9. Commander Eugene “Gene” Cernan and Lunar Module pilot Harrison “Jack” Schmitt explored the lunar surface while Ron Evans remained in the Command Module, America. While on the surface, Cernan and Schmitt deployed various science experiments across their landing site, making essential use of their Lunar Rover Vehicle (LRV).

This LRV is a Qualification Test Unit used for training the Apollo astronauts. Its configuration is very similar to the Apollo 17 LRV and can be found in the Museum in Washington, DC. Photo: National Air and Space Museum

This ‘Moon buggy’ made it easier for the astronauts to traverse long distances on the Moon and explore diverse geological landscapes. This was especially important for this mission, since Schmitt was, and still is, the only scientist (a geologist) to travel to the Moon. With his expert knowledge, the Apollo 17 mission gathered unmeasurable amounts of scientific information, owing much of its success to the LRV. During the Apollo 17 mission, the astronauts completed three extravehicular activities (EVA). It was at the end of the first EVA, that trouble arose, placing the mission in serious jeopardy.

“Ohhh you won’t believe it,” Gene Cernan groaned as he realized what happened. “Ohhhh there goes a fender. Oh shoot.”(See the 36 minute mark of this video to hear Cernan.) Cernan’s hammer in one of his suit’s pockets had caught the edge of the back right tire’s fender extension and it popped clean off. This accident might well have totaled the entire LRV. Without the fender extension protecting them from the Moon dust, driving the LRV became a serious hazard.

When dirt is picked up by the woven wire wheels of the LRV in the 1/6 Earth gravity and airless near-vacuum of the lunar surface, it goes much farther than it would on Earth. Much more abrasive than any sand found on earth because the grains are not worn down by wind and water, lunar dust lifted off the surface by the rover wheel could cause catastrophic consequences. Riding without the fender extension caused massive “rooster tails” as Schmitt and Cernan called them, spreading lunar dust all over their instruments and suits and into every nook and cranny. If the darker colored dust were allowed to stay on an instrument for too long, the dust would absorb heat from the sun. This then would heat the instruments to very high temperatures potentially causing them to fail. And not only had dust begun to cover the instruments, but it also began to cover the astronaut’s suits.

Gene Cernan suited up during a pressure check. Note how his suit is bright white. Photo: NASA ap17-72-HC-878HR

Gene Cernan on the Moon towards the end of the third EVA. Note the dark color of his legs due to the dust. Photo: NASA AS17-140-21390HR

The problem of dust was not exclusive to the Apollo 17 astronauts as dust caused certain challenges on previous Apollo missions. Cernan and Schmitt just had to deal with more of the dust because of the broken fender extension.

At the end of the first EVA, before they re-entered the Lunar Module, Cernan stated, “… it’s going to take us half a dozen Sundays to dust. Look at that fender; that’s terrible.” Cernan had first attempted to re-attach the fender extension with duct tape but due to the dust, the tape lost its adhesiveness and the fender extension fell off driving between experiment sites. A better fix to this very dirty problem was required.

Following the first EVA, while the Apollo 17 astronauts slept, John Young, Charlie Duke, Deke Slayton, Roco Patrone, and Ronald Blevins in Houston came up with a solution. They were challenged with creating a replacement fender with only the materials that the astronauts had on the Moon, knowing that without the fender, the LRV would be practically useless for the rest of the mission. Their solution was to attach four of the 28 lunar maps with what Cernan would later call, “good old-fashioned American gray tape,” carried on board. The maps could be configured in a way that would resemble the fender extension and affixed to the fender with two clamps from the optical alignment telescope.

John Young, Charlie Duke, Deke Slayton, Roco Patrone, and Ronald Blevins work on a repair on earth. Photo: NASA ap17-S72-55170HR

The make-shift repair on the Moon. Photo: NASA AS17-137-20979

The make-shift repair on the Moon. Photo: NASA AS17-137-20979

Upon waking up, the astronauts followed their colleagues’ instructions and repaired the fender. The mission continued as planned. Duct tape, once again, saved the day and avoided a possible sticky situation on the Moon.

The four maps used in this lunar repair were returned from the Moon and are now located in the Museum in Washington, DC. The remaining maps from the mission have been donated to the Virginia Kelly Karnes Archives and Special Collections Research Center at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana.

Maps on display at the Museum in Washington, DC in the Apollo to the Moon exhibition. Photo: National Air and Space Museum


Apollo 17 commander, Gene Cernan, presents Tracy Grimm, the Barron Hilton Flight and Space Archivist, the map book containing the 24 maps used on the Apollo 17 mission. Photo: Purdue University

Max Campbell was a 2015 summer intern in the Space History Department at the National Air and Space Museum. He is a graduate student at Purdue University working towards a Masters in History.  

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Obscure Objects: Gene Kranz’s Apollo 13 Vest

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Gene Kranz is best known for his stellar performance as flight director for the ill-fated Apollo 13 mission. But Kranz is also known for another thing: his white vests.

Kranz’s vests had legendary status around mission control, and also in the minds of the public after actor Ed Harris wore an exact replica of Kranz’s most famous vest in the 1995 movie, Apollo 13. Kranz’s vests represented the strong and can-do approach that pervaded his mission control team, especially during the Apollo 13 mission in which the astronauts’ lives were at stake.

Gene Kranz in mission control wearing one of his white vests. Kranz was also known for his flat-top haircut. Photo: NASA

Kranz started wearing a different white vest for each mission beginning with the first time he served as flight controller, Gemini IV, on June 3, 1965. Knowing Kranz’s penchant for wearing three-piece suits, his wife, Marta, a skilled seamstress, came up with the idea. She told Smithsonian magazine in April 2010, “There were three Mission Control teams—red, white and blue—and Gene’s was the white team, so his vests were always white.”

From that first Gemini mission onward, Marta made a white vest for every launch, plus a second celebratory vest to wear for the splashdown. According to his book, Failure Is Not an Option (2000), Kranz recalled, “I felt like a matador donning his suit as I put on the vest [for the first time].”

The splashdown vests were much flashier than the mission versions. However, after Apollo 13 Kranz continued to wear his work vest.

You can watch the scene from Apollo 13 where Ed Harris, playing Kranz, puts on the white vest to his team’s applause (fast-forward to 3:24). At the end, you will hear one of the team say, “Hey, Gene, I guess we can go now!”

Eugene F. Kranz

A red, white, and blue sequined vest worn for the splashdown of Apollo 17, the last Moon landing mission. Photo: NASA STS41C-3228

The off-white vest worn by Gene Kranz during the Apollo 13 mission is on display in the Apollo to the Moon exhibition in the Museum in Washington, DC. It is made of a fabric called faille. Photo: National Air and Space Museum

The story of how the vest came into the Museum’s collection is interesting. Before his appearance as speaker at the John H. Glenn Lecture in 2005, curator Margaret Weitekamp asked Kranz about donating a vest to the national collection. Kranz said he would loan a vest, but not donate one. At the end of the lecture, during the question-and-answer period, a Museum docent in the audience asked him when the Smithsonian Institution would get a vest. Put on the spot, standing next to the Museum’s director and faced with enthusiastic applause from the audience, Kranz announced he had just been talking to a curator about donating one of the vests. Weitekamp, giving an Ask an Expert lecture on the topic later, said, “I didn’t plant the question, but I might have led the applause.”

Weitekamp said the Kranz’s thought the Museum would want one of the fancy splashdown vests, but she had another one in mind: the vest from Apollo 13, which she calls “a symbol of how he helped get Apollo 13 back.” Kranz also donated the button he wore on the vest, a duplicate of the mission patch.

Kranz wore this pin, a replica of the Apollo 13 mission patch, on his vest during the flight.

Listen to Weitekamp’s Ask an Expert lecture (13:36), which is accompanied by many photos of Kranz’s vests.

After the Gemini program, Kranz served as flight controller for odd-numbered Apollo missions. He was on duty for the thrilling moment when the Apollo 11 lunar lander touched down on the Moon on July 20, 1969. His last shift as flight director was Apollo 17 in 1972. He went on to become deputy director of NASA Mission Operations, then director. He retired in 1994.

In retirement, Kranz wrote his memoir, Failure Is Not an Option, which was adapted for television on the History Channel in 2003. In 2008, he appeared throughout the Discovery Channel mini-series, When We Left Earth. Kranz is now a motivational speaker, using his experiences with Apollo 13 as the basis for his talks. He continues to wear white vests.

As is the tradition at NASA, the color white was retired as a team color from NASA mission control upon Kranz’s departure.

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

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