“Buck…Rogers…in the twenty-fifth CEN-TURYYY!” This enthusiastic refrain from a deep-voiced announcer is how the popular 1930s radio show featuring space hero Buck Rogers began. It was followed by the roar of a spaceship blasting off, simulated by the sound of an air conditioning vent.
Many of you have probably never heard of Buck Rogers, but he was a household name in the 1930s and ‘40s. Rogers was the very first science fiction comic strip hero.
The character, at first named Anthony Rogers, was introduced in the first science fiction magazine, Amazing Stories, in August 1928. In a story titled, Armageddon 2419 A.D., written by Philip Nowlan, Rogers was a 29-year-old World War I veteran who took a job inspecting mines for radioactive gases. One day, the mine caved in, trapping Rogers and surrounding him with mysterious gases that caused him to pass out. When he awoke, 500 years had passed, and the first person he saw was the beautiful, spunky Wilma Deering, a lieutenant in the Space Corps, who informs him the world has been taken over by evil Mongolians. This reflected the biases at the time against Asians embodied in such Asian supervillains.
You can imagine the adventures that ensued for Rogers and Deering in this futuristic society, with a host of amazing gizmos at their disposal. It’s a classic tale of good versus evil in a fictional world of the future.
The story led to the creation of a comic strip debuting in January 1929, with Anthony renamed “Buck,” which sounded more heroic and capitalized on the popularity of Westerns at that time. This was followed by a radio show, which began in 1932. Both the comic strip and radio show were wildly popular and soon Buck Rogers merchandise was everywhere. According to Toy Collector magazine, “Over the next decade, rockets, ray guns, figures, books, cards, premiums, spacesuits, helmets, printing sets, puzzles, pencil cases, sneakers, skates, buttons, watches, rings, and other products bearing Buck’s image or name flooded the marketplace.”
Which brings us to our obscure object: a 1934 toy Buck Rogers Rocket Police Patrol spaceship.
The green and red spaceship measures 31.8 x 10.2 x 12.7 centimeters (12 1/2 x 4 x 5 inches) and is made of tin. It was manufactured by Louis Marx & Co., which advertised it as a “flashing roaring speeding sky police patrol rocket ship” that “shoots out harmless sparks as it darts across the floor.” You can see it in the Barron Hilton Pioneers of Flight Gallery in the Museum in Washington, DC.
Collector Michael O’Harro, a successful businessman and restaurateur, donated the spaceship to the Museum in 1993, along with his entire 2,200-piece science fiction collection. Frank Winter was the popular culture curator at the time of the donation.
“I was astounded,” recalled Winter in a May 2002 article in Air & Space magazine. “It was like walking into Tut’s Tomb!” The article goes on to say, “Over the years, O’Harro had collected many rare items, including original comic strips, a Buck Rogers watch, tin spaceships, lead figures, games, trading cards, and a prototype ray gun that was used to create a production toy. Although most centered on Buck Rogers, there were also items based on Flash Gordon and even Captain Video. O’Harro’s collection spanned the entire history of space toys, from Buck Rogers in the 1920s to Star Wars in the 1980s.”
Why would a museum that possesses the most iconic artifacts from aviation and space history collect such “silly” items as science fiction toys? According to the current popular culture curator, Margaret Weitekamp, “Science fiction toys show us how people have imagined spaceflight. Some of those visions inspired real discoveries—and real engineers. The Buck Rogers toys demonstrate Americans’ excitement about spaceflight even decades before the first humans launched into space.”
For more on Buck Rogers and the O’Harro collection, listen to Buck Rogers radio shows on the Old Time Radio Lover website, learn about ray gun toys in this blog post by Margaret Weitekamp, and read the above-mentioned Air & Space article. Also, you can view a large array of Buck Rogers comic strips by googling that phrase.
Kathleen Hanser is a writer-editor in the Office of Communications at the National Air and Space Museum.
The Scene: A new wind tunnel, the NACA Full Scale Tunnel at the NACA Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory, Hampton, Virginia
The Time: May 27, 1931
The Action: A Navy Vought O3U-1 “Corsair II” –the whole airplane—is mounted in the wind tunnel. The airplane engine is turned on, and shortly the airplane is “flying” at 120 miles per hour. But, in reality, this airplane is standing still, and the air in the wind tunnel is blowing over it at 120 miles per hour.
The significance: This is the first test carried out in the new National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), the precursor to NASA, Full Scale Tunnel (FST), not on a model of the airplane, but on the airplane itself. Here is the advantage of the FST–a whole airplane could be mounted in the cavernous test section, which is 9 meters (30 feet) high and 18 meters (60 feet) wide, thus eliminating the uncertainty associated with testing small models in small wind tunnels due to so-called “scale effects.”
For the next 10 years, the Langley FST would be the largest wind tunnel in the world. It was a major factor in enhancing the world-wide presence of the United States in aeronautics. Moreover, for the next 78 years, virtually every American fighter airplane through the Lockheed Martin F-22 was tested in the FST. Of particular importance was the major series of tests called the “drag cleanup tests,” conducted during the period from 1938 to 1945. For these tests, a given airplane in its full operational configuration would be systematically stripped one-by-one of its external appendages, and rough contours smoothed over with putty, until just the smooth basic shape remained. The aerodynamic drag was measured at each stage, identifying the drag due to each item. In this fashion, those items causing the most drag were identified and modified so as to lower the overall drag of the airplane. These drag cleanup tests contributed to the increased speed of many U.S. airplanes during World War II.
On March 6, 1943, a unique two-day test commenced in the tunnel; it was the most secret test ever conducted in the Full Scale Tunnel, and it has come to light only recently. The story began on June 4, 1942 when Japanese warplanes attacked the American military base at Dutch Harbor in the Aleutians. During this attack, a Japanese Mitsubishi Zero fighter had its oil line severed by ground fire, and the pilot had to make an emergency landing in what seemed to be a field of grass. The grass, however, concealed a bog covered with water and mud. The landing gear of the airplane dug in, the plane flipped over on its back, and the pilot was killed. The crashed airplane was spotted a month later by a U. S. Navy patrol airplane, and an inspection showed it to be salvageable. It was the first flyable Japanese Zero to fall into U.S. hands–a warplane of great value.
The airplane was tested by the U.S. Navy at San Diego and at Anascostia in Washington, D.C. Then it was flown to the NACA Langley Memorial Laboratory for the installation of special instrumentation. It arrived at Langley about 3:00 pm on Friday, March 5, 1943 and was parked in plain sight on the Langley flight line. That night, under the cover of darkness, the Zero was secretly mounted in the Full Scale Tunnel, and for two days was tested under wraps. A special wind tunnel crew was sworn to absolute secrecy. When light dawned on Monday morning, the airplane was back at its original location on the flight line, as if nothing had happened. Existence of these secret tests came to light 67 years later when Joe Chambers, a previous director of the Full Scale Tunnel, interviewed some of the retired Langley personnel who participated in these secret tests. No photographs of the Zero in the wind tunnel exist, and Chambers was unable to find the test results anywhere, so intense was the secrecy. But these tests underscored the value of the Full Scale Tunnel–nowhere else could a whole enemy airplane be flown into Langley Air Field on its way to Wright Field, rolled off the runway, spirited into the wind tunnel, tested in such an impromptu manner under the veil of the strictest secrecy, and have almost nobody know about for 67 years.
The post-war years at the NACA focused on high-speed aircraft in the flight range towards Mach 1. However, these aircraft had to take off and land at low speeds, and the Full Scale Tunnel was an ideal facility for such low-speed tests. Also, helicopter testing became more frequent in the Tunnel as well.
In 1958 the NACA morphed into NASA, and the national space program went into full-tilt. Although space vehicles in low earth orbit travel at about 7,925 meters (26,000 feet) per second, and those intended to go the Moon and back enter the Earth’s atmosphere at 10,973 meters (36,000 feet) per second, these extreme hypersonic vehicles still have to land at low speeds, and once again the (now) NASA Langley Full Scale Tunnel became a workhorse for low-speed testing of the Air Force Dyna-Soar reentry glider, the Mercury Space Capsule, and the HL-10 lifting body. Also, during this period, free-flight testing of models commenced in the FST; this involved “flying” the models in the tunnel airstream by remote control. The large size of the Full Scale Tunnel test section facilitated such free-flight testing, which continued through the remainder of the FST days before demolition started. (Indeed, the National Air and Space Museum has in it collection a free-flight model of the futuristic Boeing X-48 blended wing body that was flown in the wind tunnel. It is currently on display in the How Things Fly gallery in the Museum in Washington, DC.) These free-flight tests were pioneering because they freed the model from any structural attachment to the tunnel such as being mounted on a force balance, and allowed the stability and control characteristics of the model to be tested and observed, unhindered by any fixed attachment. In the 1960s and ’70s, there was a great deal of interest in the aerodynamic characteristics of aircraft at very high angles of attack, and once again models were flown remotely in the Full Scale Tunnel at angles of attack of near 90 degrees in order to study such aerodynamic behavior.
In 1985, The U.S. Department of the Interior designated the Langley Full Scale Tunnel as a National Historic Landmark. However, being such a landmark did not guarantee that the facility would be exempt from eventual demolition. In the early 1990s the pressure on NASA to reduce its wind tunnel inventory became overwhelming, and the director of Langley at that time, Paul Holloway, looked for a non-traditional way of preserving the Full Scale Tunnel. He found the answer in the form of nearby Old Dominion University. He approached Jim Cross, dean of Old Dominion’s College of Engineering, and encouraged him to submit a proposal to Langley for the college to take over the operation of the Full Scale Tunnel. Cross saw the opportunity to use the facility for some non-traditional aerodynamic testing. On August 19, 1997, Old Dominion University took over the operation of the Full Scale Tunnel. The tunnel became the largest university-operated tunnel in the world. Old Dominion University operated the tunnel from 1996 to 2009. During that time such non-traditional models including a reproduction of the 1903 Wright Flyer by the Wright Experience and NASCAR racers were tested.
However, On September 4, 2009, the last test was run in the FST; the configuration tested was a Boeing X-48 blended wing body. Demolition started, and was completed by May 18, 2011, almost 80 years to the day after the facility was dedicated in 1931. Virtually the only artifact that remains from this historic tunnel is one of the two drive fans, acquired by the National Air and Space Museum.
This fan assembly was installed in the Museum’s Boeing Milestones of Flight Hall in February 2015.
John D. Anderson, Jr., is a curator of Aerodynamics in the Aeronautics Department.
Reference: The definitive history of the FST is detailed in Cave of the Winds, by Joseph R. Chambers, NASA SP-2014-614, 2014. Joe Chambers was the Director of the FST from 1974 to 1981.
In this four-part series, curators Russ Lee and Evelyn Crellin take an in-depth look at the Lippisch DM 1, an experimental German glider. At the conclusion of Part 2, U.S. Army General George S. Patton ordered the students to resume construction of the glider at the Prien Airport. A number of American visitors arrived to witness the construction of the DM 1, including the famous American pioneer of aerodynamics Walter Stuart Diehl.
Another famous visitor to Prien airfield was Charles A. Lindbergh. According to German historian and author Hans-Peter Dabrowski, Lindbergh inspected the DM 1. We know that Lindbergh crisscrossed Germany with the U. S. Naval Technical Mission investigating the newest developments in aircraft and missiles made by German scientists and engineers. In June 1945, he arrived at Prien airfield and talked at some length to Dr. Felix Kracht about a supersonic, swept-wing rocket glider and a ramjet engine that used coal for fuel, but in his book, The Wartime Journals of Charles A. Lindbergh, Lindbergh does not say he personally inspected the DM 1.
What is certain is that construction work on the glider resumed during the summer of 1945 and ended a few months later. The finished aircraft spanned 6 m (19 ft 8 in), the tip of the vertical tail reached 3.2 m (10 ft. 7 in.), and empty it weighed 374 kg (825 lb). Joe Chambers wrote in his book, Cave of Winds: The Remarkable History of the Langley Full-Scale Wind Tunnel, that in August, American officials considered testing the DM 1 in Germany by launching it from atop a twin-engine Douglas C-47 transport, but they also may have considered towing it aloft on a cable behind the C-47. Whatever their initial intent, the Americans soon abandoned the idea of flying the glider and set about moving it to the U.S. for further evaluation. American personnel placed the aircraft into a large wooden crate designed and built specifically to protect it in one piece. Men in a truck hauled the crate away on November 9 and dropped it off in Mannheim, Germany, where workers loaded it aboard a ship that sailed to Rotterdam. The DM 1 moved from Rotterdam to Boston and arrived there on January 19, 1946. Two days later, the Army Air Forces Material Command asked the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) to evaluate the DM 1 using the Full-Scale Tunnel (FST) at the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory at Langley Field, Virginia. Another ship carried the glider down the East Coast to Norfolk where a truck moved the aircraft to Langley Field.
Joe Chambers noted that aerodynamicists tested the DM 1 in three phases in April, June, and November 1946. American companies such as Convair had developed an independent interest in delta-wing aircraft and they tested small models in wind tunnels to determine the high-lift characteristics of these designs. When initial NACA tests of the DM 1 failed to produce the amount of lift at angles of attack that U.S. companies had expected, the work turned to modifying the German glider until its performance matched that revealed by the small models. During this process, the NACA researchers began to appreciate the importance of the rather blunt leading edges of the DM 1 wings. Technicians added sharp leading edges similar to classical stall strips to the wings, they reshaped the vertical fin and removed it for some tests, and they modified the control surfaces. Aerodynamicists and engineers conducted extensive flow visualization tests using small strands of wool attached to the upper surfaces of the wings. Wind tunnel tests continued and the modified wings exhibited strong swirling vortex airflows over the top surface of the wings at low speeds and high angles of attack.
This video shows the DM 1 inside the FST at Langley during a test on August 1, 1946. Smoke makes the airflow visible. At video time 1:22, a metal strip attached to the right wing leading edge can be seen causing a powerful vortex to stream over the wing. This vortex was critical to preventing the wing from stalling when flown at the high angles of attack required to slow down the delta for landing. The vortices also helped the pilot maintain directional control about the yaw axis using the rudder.
These findings were important. They gave the designers of delta-wing aircraft confidence to proceed with building and flight testing an experimental piloted delta-wing aircraft equipped with a thin wing required for transonic flight because they knew the delta would be stable and controllable at the low speeds needed for takeoff and landing, thanks to the strong vortex flow generated by the sharp leading edge at high angles of attack. Designers had known for years that flight at transonic speeds required a thin and low-aspect ratio form to minimize drag. What no one understood before NACA’s work with the DM 1 was how to stabilize and control these configurations at low airspeeds so that pilots could land using a conventional aircraft landing gear. After all, there was no point in taking off and flying fast enough to break the sound barrier if landing was impossible. The Langley Laboratory team that studied and modified the DM 1 deserves mention: Sam Katzoff, J. Calvin Lovell, and Herbert A. Wilson, Jr. (Chambers, Cave of Winds, 190-226).
NACA’s work was critical to transforming the delta wing concept into a practical application, but the basic idea about sharp leading edges that generate vortex flow dates to the inter-war period. In a paper describing the DM 1 tests at Langley, NACA aerodynamicists Herbert Wilson and J. Lovell cited the work of German aerodynamist H. Winter who observed votices form over rectangular plates that were thin and flat. Winter published his observations in 1936 (see below, Sources).
Russ Lee is the Chair of the Aeronautics Department and the Curator of Gliders and Sailplanes, and Evelyn Crellin is the Curator of European Aircraft at the National Air and Space Museum.
Bradley, Robert E. “The Birth of the Delta Wing,” American Aviation Historical Society, Winter 2003.
Chambers, Joseph R. Cave of Winds: The Remarkable History of the Langley Full-Scale Wind Tunnel, (NASA SP-2014-614), 2014.
Chambers to Lee email, 4/20/15.
Wilson, Herbert A., and Lovell, J. Calvin. “Full-Scale Investigation of the Maximum Lift and Flow Characteristics of an Airplane Having Approximately Triangular Plan Form,” NACA Research Memorandum RM No. L6K20, 12 February 1947, Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory, Langley Field, VA.
Winter, H. “Strömungsvorgange an Platten und Profilierten Körpern bei kleinen Spannweiten [Flow Phenomena on Plates and Airfoils of Short Span],” VDI-Special Issue (Aviation), 1936, translated by S. Reiss and published in NACA Technical Memorandum No. 798, July 1936, Washington, D. C.
In April, the Smithsonian X 3D team pointed their lasers and scanners at the Bell X-1, the same iconic aircraft that shot Capt. Charles ‘Chuck’ Yeager across the pristine skies of the Mojave Desert to a record-breaking speed. On October 14, 1947, in the Bell X-1, Yeager became the first pilot to fly faster than sound. Now, we can all get as close to the Bell X-1 as Yeager himself with the recently released 3D model of the exterior of the aircraft. In honor of the new 3D model and that resounding flight, we’ve compiled five facts to help you begin your exploration of the aircraft and that key moment in history. We also reached out to Smithsonian X 3D team to find out exactly how one goes about capturing a 3D model. But first, our five facts:
1. To conserve fuel, the X-1 was flown up to 7,620 meters (25,000 ft) attached to the bomb bay of a modified Boeing B-29 bomber and then dropped.
2. Yeager named the Bell X-1 Glamorous Glennis after his first wife.
3. The aircraft’s iconic orange paint scheme made it easier to spot during flight tests, but some time after the record-breaking, 1.06 Mach-speed flight the aircraft was re-painted with accents of white. The Museum eventually restored the aircraft to its original 1947 paint scheme.
4. Glamorous Glennis used a 6,000-pound-thrust, liquid-propellant rocket engine, known as Black Betsy, from Reaction Motors, Inc.
5. Before the scheduled flight, Yeager broke two ribs. Afraid of being removed from the mission he told only his wife and fellow project pilot Jack Ridley. With two broken ribs, Yeager was unable to seal the hatch of the X-1 by himself. The end of a broom handle used as a lever made it possible for Yeager to seal the hatch on the day of the flight.
To get the facts on 3D scanning, we reached out to Vincent Rossi, a 3D digitization program officer with the Smithsonian, to find out exactly how the Bell X-1 was captured digitally.
We used laser scanners for geometry capture and Photogrammetry to capture the color information of the Bell X-1. With Photogrammetry we are able to turn our digital cameras into 3D scanners using post processing software. The laser scanners capture over 1 million data points per second. The data we collected on the Bell X-1 is accurate to about one millimeter. The laser scanner works by emitting pulses of laser light, and the time it takes for the laser to be emitted, hit the object, and return to the sensor equates to a measurement or a point in space (of which we capture millions). Certain materials on the Bell X-1 did not scan well and presented challenges for the scanning team. We had difficulty with two types of surfaces on the aircraft: the glass windshield and the painted blue areas around the stars on the wings. Glass does not scan well because the laser mostly passes right through it. Luckily, we were able to get enough points on the glass surface to accurately reconstruct the windshield using CAD (Computer Aided Design) software. The blue graphic areas around the stars did not scan well either because the dark colors absorbed the laser light. Because the laser did not get a good return measurement on these dark areas, we had to manually touch up and edit these sections. The final Bell X-1 3D model is a combination of two data sets, the high resolution geometry captured with the laser scanner and the color Photogrammetry model.
The 3D scan of Bell X-1 is available online and also available for download. Have access to a 3D printer? We encourage you to print your own Bell X-1 at home or in the classroom. Make sure to share your mini Bell X-1 with us—@airandspace and @3D_Digi_SI—and stay tuned for more 3D releases of National Air and Space Museum artifacts.
Jenny Arena is a digital content manager at the National Air and Space Museum.
In this four-part series, curators Russ Lee and Evelyn Crellin take an in-depth look at the Lippisch DM 1, an experimental German glider. At the conclusion of Part 1, construction of the glider had begun in August 1944 by students of the Flugtechnische Fachgruppe (FFG).
Construction of the experimental glider was derailed dramatically on September 11 and 12, 1944, when Allied bombers struck Darmstadt, including the building that housed the FFG D 33 project. Everything the students could salvage from the rubble was moved to Prien Airport at Chiemsee in Bavaria, where students of FFG Munich had operated a large workshop since 1924. Prien had been the starting point of many famous gliding events from 1918 to 1939 including attempts to cross the Alps in gliders and set altitude records. Now, Prien Airport and the FFG Munich workshop became the new home of the glider, where both FFG groups—Darmstadt and Munich—combined their efforts to continue building the aircraft. This collaborative effort led to a new designation for the glider using the letters ‘D’ for Darmstadt and ‘M’ for Munich to rename the aircraft the DM 1. Increasingly difficult wartime conditions, however, prevented Lippisch from assisting further with design and construction.
Students glued, bolted, nailed, and screwed together the cantilever fuselage and various components made of wood, plywood, and steel tubes. They covered the entire glider with 1.6 mm (1/16-inch), 3-ply birch plywood. To cover the very thick leading edges of the wings and vertical stabilizer, the students had to first heat the plywood with steam. These very thick sections were unsuitable for high-speed flight and suggested that Lippisch designed the DM 1 for experiments at low flying speeds. They gave the pilot a window on the cockpit floor to see ahead of the glider at the high pitch angles that would be necessary during launch and landing. To evaluate how the glider handled in flight with the center of gravity at various locations, the pilot could hand-pump 35 liters (9 gallons) of water between two tanks inside the nose and tail of the aircraft. Armament was not planned for this experimental glider.
The students fashioned the wheeled, three-strut, tricycle undercarriage from steel. Contrary to a recent published account stating that the gear was fitted with shock absorbers that had 60 cm (2 ft) of travel, direct observation of the DM 1 aircraft in the Mary Baker Engen Restoration Hangar at the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Virginia, confirms that the struts are solid steel with no capacity to absorb shocks. To reduce the stress of landing at the high angles of attack required for delta wing aircraft, the struts are set so close together that the glider appeared ready to tip over. Lippisch may have imagined the test pilot would land on a wooden skid or even on the smooth belly of the aircraft since touching down on the gear legs without shock absorbers would probably have damaged the delicate internal wooden structure. Museum treatment specialist Matt Nazarro likened the structure to the fragile insides of a wooden guitar. The design called for ground technicians to retract the undercarriage after they had mounted the glider piggyback onto a larger powered aircraft, so the gear may only have provided the techicians with a convenient way to move the aircraft around on the ground.
Authorities had planned to carry the experimental glider into the air piggyback atop a twin-engine and propeller-driven Siebel 204 A aircraft. The DM 1 pilot would have released from the carrier aircraft at altitude and descended with additional thrust from two solid-fuel rockets at an estimated speed of around 800 kph (500 mph). A former coworker of Alexander Lippisch, test pilot Hans Zacher from the DFS (Deutsches Forschunginstitut für Segelflug, German Research Institute for Gliding), was designated to perform the DM 1 test flights. However, Zacher joined the project at a late stage, and the war ended before the students could finish building the glider.
On May 3, 1945, American troops occupied Prien Airport and found the incomplete glider. German historian and author Hans-Peter Dabrowski wrote in his article Flying Triangle (Klassiker der Luftfahrt, July 2014, p.61) that when U. S. Army General George S. Patton and other high-ranking officers visited Prien on May 9, 1945, the advanced design features of the aircraft impressed them and Patton ordered the students to resume construction and complete the aircraft. Dabrowski also wrote that Dr. Theodore von Kármén argued vehemently to finish the DM 1, and that Major A. C. Hazen of the Air Technical Intelligence Section, U. S. Army Air Forces in Europe, became the project manager.
Hazen worked closely with test pilot Hans Zacher who remained very involved with work on the DM 1. On one particular day, Zacher was visited by group of Americans who had come to study the glider. At the time, they were unknown to Zacher. During small talk he mentioned that he had studied the work of Walter Stuart Diehl, the famous American pioneer of aerodynamics and author of the authoritative Engineering Aerodynamics (1928), who actively participated in and strongly influenced continuing advances in aerodynamics and hydrodynamics. To Zacher’s surprise, one of his counterparts identified himself as Walter Diehl. From this encounter a lifelong friendship arose between Zacher and Diehl.
The workshop at Prien Airport would also receive a visit from another famous American before construction of the DM 1 was completed. Find out who next week, but feel free to guess in the meantime.
Russ Lee is the Chair of the Aeronautics Department and the Curator of Gliders and Sailplanes, and Evelyn Crellin is the Curator of European Aircraft at the National Air and Space Museum.
Dabrowski, Hans-Peter. “Flying Triangle,” Klassiker der Luftfahrt, July 2014.
Lindbergh, Charles A. The Wartime Journals of Charles A. Lindbergh, (New York, 1970).