AidSpace Blog

Look Out for Black Cats on Halloween!

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What do you get when you combine triskaidekaphobia (fear of the number 13), melanophobia (fear of the color black), and ailurophobia (fear of cats)?

The fearless 1920s aerial stunt team “13 Black Cats!”

Arthur C. “Art” Goebel wearing a jacket bearing the insignia of the “13 Black Cats” aerial stunt team; possibly Los Angeles, California; 1926. NASM 82-8687


Have a happy and safe Halloween. Unless, of course, you have a case of samhainophobia (the fear of Halloween).

Elizabeth C. Borja is an archivist in the National Air and Space Museum’s Archives Department and has a knack for finding spooky and absurd materials.


#TBT Historical Research Center

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What better way to celebrate the final days of Archives Month than with the social media stalwart Throwback Thursday? Elizabeth Borja shares Polaroids of the National Air and Space Museum Historical Research Center from 1967.

Nothing says throwback like Polaroids!  In 1967, the National Air and Space Museum Historical Research Center, an early predecessor to the current Archives and Library, was located in the Arts and Industries Building.  (The current Air and Space building hadn’t even been built!)  Here are some 3 ¼  x 4 ¼ inch Polaroid photographs taken on April 26, 1967.

Historical Research Center

National Air and Space Museum Historical Research
Center storage and office spaces. NASM 00193778

Historical Research Center

National Air and Space Museum Historical
Research Center conference room area. NASM 00193779

Historical Research Center

More storage and office spaces in the National Air and Space Museum Historical Research Center. At center are periodicals, documents, and rolled materials on a long folding table. (This looks nothing like the desk of a certain archivist….) NASM 00193780

Historical Research Center

The stack area of the National Air and Space Museum Historical Research Center. (I love how the Polaroid tab is still attached in the last two photos!) NASM 00193781

How many of you still have classic Polaroid photos and, even rarer, the cameras themselves?

See what the entire Smithsonian was up to for Archives Month

Elizabeth C. Borja is an archivist in the National Air and Space Museum’s Archives Department. Elizabeth has previously blogged about wedding ballooning, traveling the world through the Archives, and more


More than Just a Map

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You never know what you’ll uncover once you do a little digging. Museum Technician Tom Paone discovered something quite remarkable from what at first appeared to be a simple map.

It is sometimes hard to believe just how much you can learn from some old pieces of paper. While searching in the Archives of the National Air and Space Museum, I came across an odd-looking map from the American Civil War. The map features a label in the corner stating that it was drawn by Colonel William Small while onboard “Prof. Lowe’s balloon,” and is dated December 1861. The map, however, almost looked like it fit better in the year 2011 as opposed to 1861. The map features a view of the coast of Virginia, but it is clearly drawn from the perspective of someone overlooking the land, as opposed to a view directly overhead. The map also features labels without any explanation as to what they represent. This only created more intrigue. Who was Colonel Small and how did he find himself drawing a map from a balloon? Why was the map needed in the first place? What are the items labeled without a key? These questions could only be answered through the fun and exciting quest known as historical research!

Black and White Copy of Colonel Small's Map

A black and white copy of a Civil War map drawn from a balloon by Colonel William F. Small. National Air and Space Museum, SI-2003-25385

SI-2003-25385The first step in the hunt for answers involved going to the original source. The National Air and Space Museum Archives only had a black and white copy of the map since the original was located a few blocks away at the National Archives and Records Administration. After a conversation with my friendly neighborhood archivist, I was able to locate the file box that had information on the original map. The original map itself is very fragile and it is placed in deep storage at the National Archives. It was drawn on the Civil War equivalent of scrap paper in pencil and was never intended to last over 150 years.

Hecht Co.

The original copy of the Civil War map drawn from a balloon by Colonel William F. Small is located at the National Archives and Records Administration. Photo courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration.

The file box contained numerous letters which helped reveal all sorts of information to answer the many intriguing questions raised by the map.


Who was William F. Small?

Portrait of Colonel William F. Small

Colonel William F. Small. Image courtesy of the United States Army Heritage and Education Center.

Colonel William F. Small was a lawyer from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania at the outbreak of the American Civil War. In June 1861, Small was mustered into the Union army as colonel of the 26th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry Regiment. The 26th Pennsylvania had been organized in Philadelphia on April 20, 1861. After some initial training, the 26th Pennsylvania was sent to Washington D.C., passing through Baltimore and coming under attack from some not-so-friendly mobs. After the initial excitement, the unit spent the first year of the war in the capital, and then they were moved to Budd’s Ferry, Maryland on October 20, 1861. The map contains a “Budd’s Ferry” label on the left side, meaning that the unit was still at Budd’s Ferry in December of 1861 when the map was drawn and dated.


Why was the map drawn in the first place?

Letters in the map file also offered some insight into why Colonel Small was sent up in a balloon to draw the map. In one letter dated December 9, 1861, General Joseph Hooker, the general in charge of Colonel Small and his unit, tells Brigadier General Seth Williams that, “My engagements not permitting me to devote the time requisite for making the sketch of the opposite shore required by the Major General Commanding [George B. McClellan], and not being skilled in sketching, I requested Colonel Small 26th Penna. Regt. to render this service.” This tells us that the map was created because a request came from the top commander of the army to have a map made of the Confederate forces in Virginia, and Hooker delegated the task to Colonel Small. The map also seemed to be well received. In the same letter, Hooker goes on to state, “He [Colonel Small] has performed this duty very satisfactory (sic), and I trust the General may find it so.”


How was the map created?

Letter written by Colonel William F. Small

This letter, written by Colonel William F. Small, accompanied the map he drew and provided additional information. Photo courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration.

In another letter located in the file at the National Archives dated December 9, 1861, Colonel Small explains:

In accordance with your request, endorsed upon a telegram of the 7th inst. from the Head Quarters of the Army, requiring that ‘a draughtsman should make use of Prof. Lowe’s balloon’, for the purpose of ‘making a map of the enemy’s position opposite your lines’, the undersigned has the honor to report that he made four ascensions, during yesterday and to day, at a point north of and near Budd’s Ferry, and succeeded in obtaining a sketch of the encampments and batteries in Virginia, fronting your division.

This tells us that once the order was received, the Union balloon was set up in Budd’s Ferry, Maryland so it could be utilized for this task. The balloon was brought to a height of 700 feet during four different ascensions and Colonel Small acted as a “draughtsman,” which is someone who can create very detailed drawings. The height of the balloon provided Colonel Small with unblocked views of the entire countryside and he was able to capture a great deal of information in his sketch.


What are the items labeled without a key?

Hecht Co.

This second page of the letter written by Colonel William F. Small provided additional information. Photo courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration.

Although the map features a caption, several of the items on the map are labeled with letters, but no explanation as to what they mean. Thankfully, the same letter located in the file at the National Archives by Colonel Small provides the missing information. Within the letter, Colonel Small explains, “…nine encampments of the enemy are visible, covering a space of about Seven miles…,” which are shown on the map numbered one through nine. He also explains, “There are also three batteries – and a fourth, it is reported, is in progress of construction, – between the Chapawamsic [Chopawamsic] and Quantico Creeks, which are designated on the map by the letters A, B, + C.” Finally, Colonel Small states, “The encampment marked No. 7 on the map, is much the largest of those observed, and apparently contains several regiments. All of them together, however, do not appear to be occupied by more than 12,000 men.” These statements provide all the information to properly read the map and see what was going on across the river from the Union army on December 9, 1861.


Why should anyone care?

Recreation of Colonel Small's Map

The author’s attempt to recreate the map made by Colonel William F. Small in 1861 using modern technology. Map courtesy of Google Inc.

In our world featuring satellite imagery and Google Earth in the palm of our hands, it is hard to appreciate just how amazing this map was at the time it was created. In order to make the map, troops from the 26th Pennsylvania, under artillery fire from Confederate forces, helped Colonel Small ascend in a shaky, wind-blown balloon to sketch what he saw in order to gain critical information about the enemy position. He even included a little image of the balloon! This information allowed the Union army to locate troops where they were needed most. This type of information is still critical to military commanders today, though they now gather it with satellites, aircraft, and drones instead of draughtsmen in balloons. Military commanders today can even use GPS and the Blue Force Tracker system to track individual soldiers in the field. Our technological advancement can even allow me, sitting in the comfort of my home, to recreate the very map that Colonel Small did more than 150 years ago in just a few seconds—all without any motion sickness or cannon fire.

Learn more about ballooning during the Civil War on the National Air and Space website.

Tom Paone is a Museum Technician in the Aeronautics Department at the National Air and Space Museum. He has also blogged about the RQ-16 T-Hawk, finding history in comic books, and more.

Ask a Curator Day 2014

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On September 17th, Museum staff  participated in the international Ask a Curator Day on Twitter. People asked questions on topics ranging from how we select exhibitions to the most difficult object or display to maintain to the most unusual object in our collections. Here is a selection of those questions and answers.

Peter Jakab, chief curator: There are a variety of factors that govern the exhibition program.  A major one is replacing older exhibitions that may be out of date in terms of content or exhibit technology, or simply showing wear and tear. With eight million visitors a year coming through the Museum, our galleries can get worn pretty quickly.  We build in a maintenance budget for each new exhibition, but still, over time, things get to the point where they need replacing just because they are worn out. Now, we may replace an exhibition with the same subject matter, just with a new interpretation, new artifacts, and new exhibit techniques and technology. An example like that we are working on is our Apollo gallery.  The current exhibits dates from 1976. As the story of the Moon landings is central to our collection and mission, we want to do a new Apollo exhibition which takes advantage of the most recent scholarship and incorporates modern exhibition design approaches and technology. Another example like that was our new commercial aviation gallery that we renovated in 2007. Or, we might take an old exhibition and do something entirely new. If staff members have an idea for a new gallery on an entirely new subject that we want to pursue, then we will typically assess the current galleries and decide which one makes the most sense to replace based on the factors I mentioned above. Sometime we do a new gallery in observance of an important anniversary, such as our Wright brothers exhibition in 2003, the centennial of the Wrights’ first flight. Again, we’ll assess what we have and decide which gallery to use.  When we have to take out an old subject for a new one, it is always a difficult decision. There are always more stories to tell than gallery space available, but new exhibitions are critical to keeping the museum experience fresh for visitors and to keeping the museum relevant.

Jeannie Whited, museum specialist, Collections Processing Unit: At the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center, I would say that something like the Curtiss JN-4D Jenny (which has very fragile fabric, and is light-sensitive) or the space shuttle (which everyone assumes is sturdy, but in fact the tiles are made to resist heat, not touch) are very difficult artifacts to maintain on display. Many of the small objects are sensitive to light, and keeping the light at a level where the visitor can see well, but won’t cause the object to fade or weaken is a challenge to all museums.

Roger Connor, museum specialist, Aeronautics Department: Time and Navigation at the Museum in Washington, DC. Developing it was a nine-year process start to finish. We took an abstract idea with almost no existing comprehensive interpretation and crafted an engaging narrative.

Priscilla Strain, program manager, Center for Earth and Planetary Studies: My favorite exhibit is the lunar touchrock in the Boeing Milestones of Flight Hall.  To be able to touch a piece of another world—amazing!

Bob Craddock, geologist, Center for Earth and Planetary Studies: It depends on who you ask. Some people have suggested that all the artifacts left on the Moon by the Apollo astronauts should be in our collection, primarily to protect them from people who might go up there and try to bring them back to Earth.

Anthony Wallace, supervisory museum specialist, Collections Processing Unit: The RC-135 V/W Rivet Joint, which is an electronic reconnaissance aircraft used by the USAF. Currently they are all still being used but have operated continuously in Asia for more than two decades.

Elizabeth Borja, archivist, Archives Department: As a reference archivist, I seek to preserve and provide access to historical documents, either in our collections or through recommendations to other collections.

Jeannie Whited, museum specialist, Collections Processing Unit: Preserving and helping make available the wonderful stories our artifacts illustrate.

Peter Jakab, chief curator: The first aeronautical objects the Smithsonian received were a set of Chinese kites that were displayed at the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia. However, the object that carries catalogue number 1 is a John Stringfellow steam engine that dates from 1868. The reason the kites don’t carry number 1 is because they were transferred to the Museum from another part of the Smithsonian at a later date and cataloged then.

Roger Connor, museum specialist, Aeronautics Department: The “dog doo” transmitter. Disguised as what it sounds like, it relayed vibrations detected along the Ho Chi Minh Trail so that aircraft could be directed for strikes. You can see it on display at the Udvar-Hazy Center in the Korea and Vietnam exhibit station.

Cathy Lewis, curator, Space History Department: We can’t keep them from degrading, but through the work of conservator Lisa Young, we have learned how to slow the natural degradation of synthetic materials by keeping them out of the light at a moderately  low, stable temperature with relative humidity of 30%.

Michael Neufeld, curator, Space History Department: I would like to know more about the Nazi V-1 and V-2 missiles hanging in Space Race. Both were put up in 1975/76 for the opening of the museum and given what a rush that was, no documentation was made about what is under the paint we applied or inside the missiles.

Dorothy Cochrane, curator, Aeronautics Department: I have a signed painting of Betty Skelton’s Pitts S-1C Little Stinker but don’t know the artist. Has anyone heard of “Red” or “Rod Satton?”

Painting of the Pitts S-1C Little Stinker

Painting of Betty Skelton’s Pitts S-1C Little Stinker

Russ Lee, curator, Aeronautics Department: Bowlus BA-100 Baby Albatross sailplane. Did first owner U. S. Navy Lt. Horace Tennes really bring it aboard a U. S. aircraft carrier and take it with him to Hawaii?

Roger Connor, museum specialist, Aeronautics Department: This compass. It may be from the first non-stop transatlantic flight, but I don’t have enough evidence to state that definitively.

Bob Craddock, geologist, Center for Earth and Planetary Studies: I wish I knew more about some of the airplanes that are on display. Some of them look very cool, but there is only so much time to learn everything.

Anthony Wallace, supervisory museum specialist, Collections Processing Unit: Almost all of my work is behind the scenes. The public only sees the end result of one portion of the Collections Management side of the museum.

Roger Connor, Museum Specialist, Aeronautics Department: Some of our most significant work remains behind the scenes in papers we present at academic and industry conferences. We try to work some of that material into exhibitions, public presentations and publications, but sometimes the most interesting things don’t always make it out.

Bob Craddock, geologist, Center for Earth and Planetary Studies: There is a LOT that happens behind the scenes. Most people don’t even know we do research here. I also do work in Hawaii and Australia.

Thank you for asking great questions and don’t forget that you can ask us any day!

Sarah Banks is the manager of online engagement in the Web & New Media Department of the National Air and Space Museum

Air & Scare: Better Together

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Did you know that staff at the National Air and Space Museum enjoy dressing up for the annual Halloween event, Air and Scare, just as much as our visitors? The event, which will kick off tomorrow at 2:00 pm (ET) at the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Virginia, will bring out lots of superheroes, Star Wars characters, princesses, pumpkins, and many more. It also brings out a creative side in the Museum’s Visitor Services staff, who have teamed up over the years with group costume themes. If you see us individually, we might be a Dorothy, Oscar the Grouch, or Where’s Waldo, but you’ll find an entire cast of characters if you see us as a group.

If you’re still planning your costume for the event tomorrow, grab family and friends to join forces and get creative!  Make sure you stop by the Welcome Center to show off your group costume theme. We’re always looking for inspiration for future ideas!

Can you guess what theme Visitor Services has dreamed up this year? We’ll unveil the answer next week in the comment section of this post.

Sarah daSilva is the Chair of the National Air and Space Museum’s Visitor Services.