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.
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.
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.
Fifty years ago, on December 15, 1965, Gemini VI and VII met for the first rendezvous in space. This was not NASA’s original plan. Gemini VI, commanded by Mercury astronaut Wally Schirra and piloted by Tom Stafford, was supposed to have orbited on October 25, to rendezvous and dock with an Agena target vehicle. But the unpiloted Agena spacecraft blew up during launch that morning, stranding the crew waiting in their vehicle on Launch Complex 19. This failure could set the program back months.
But then Walter Burke and John Yardley of Gemini spacecraft contractor McDonnell Aircraft remembered an idea earlier floated by Titan II booster contractor Martin: launch two Geminis in quick succession. Gemini VII was to be next in early December. Stafford’s fellow Group 2 astronauts Frank Borman and Jim Lovell were scheduled to endure a two-week medical mission, proving that humans could survive the longest possible Apollo mission to the Moon. Why not launch Gemini VII first, then clean up the launch pad and send VI, now called VI-A by NASA for its changed mission, to rendezvous with it? That would require a change in the test protocol, by taking down Schirra and Stafford’s Gemini-Titan and putting it in protected storage, then hurriedly building it up again after VII’s launch.
On December 4, Borman and Lovell were hurled into orbit by their modified Titan II intercontinental ballistic missile. The Gemini VII spacecraft was the heaviest ever launched, a bit over 3,636 kg (8,000 lbs.), in part because of the extra food and water supply, and in part because the capsule was retrofitted for a transponder to return the radar signal from VI-A. Working long hours, pad crews cleaned up the launch damage and re-erected the other vehicle. Only eight days later, on Sunday morning, December 12, Schirra and Stafford again sat on their backs in the ejection seats, awaiting launch. The countdown went to zero, the engines started, and after a second or two, cut off—something I remember vividly from live TV at my parents’ house in Calgary, Alberta. I was then a 14-year-old space nerd.
In the cockpit, the mission clock started running and the abort alarm went off. Schirra should have pulled the D-ring between his legs and ejected the two from the spacecraft, an extremely dangerous procedure. But he knew from his Mercury-Atlas launch in October 1962 that they had not lifted off. If they had, their vehicle would have toppled back on the pad, producing a catastrophic explosion. But nothing happened. The astronauts waited tensely in the spacecraft as launch control figured out how to back out of a countdown with a fully fueled and armed rocket. Schirra told them: “We’re just sitting here breathing.” The cause for the cut-off was a launch-pad connector plug that came out of the booster a second too early. But subsequent examination showed that the ground crew had accidentally left a plastic dust plug in one of its engines. If it had launched, that engine might have failed. The cut-off was a stroke of luck.
Three days later, on December 15, Schirra and Stafford tried again. This time everything worked perfectly. As soon as they got into orbit, they began the four-orbit procedure to catch up to Borman and Lovell’s spacecraft. Based on computer calculations and, when they were close enough, radar data, Schirra fired his thrusters several times to gradually match orbits. Early in the afternoon they glided up to Borman and Lovell’s spacecraft, the first successful rendezvous in history. Mission Control in Houston broke out the flags. (The Soviets had twice, in 1962 and 1963, put two human spacecraft in orbits only a few kilometers or miles apart, but the Vostok cosmonauts had no maneuvering capability.) For three orbits—about five hours—Gemini VI-A and Gemini VII circled each other, at least once coming nose-to-nose a short distance apart. As a joke, Schirra and Stafford held a “Beat Army” sign in the window, referring to the annual Army-Navy football game. Both had gone to the Naval Academy, although Stafford served in the Air Force. Their target was Borman, a West Pointer. At the end of the station-keeping period, Schirra and Stafford pulled away for safety and took their long overdue meal and sleep period. With all of their objectives achieved, Mission Control would let them come home after one day.
The next morning, December 16, a couple of orbits before retrofire, the Gemini VI-A astronauts played a joke on Mission Control and their friends in orbit. Schirra reported “an object, looks like a satellite going from north to south, probably in polar orbit …. Looks like he might be going to reenter soon. Stand by one. …. You might just let me try to pick up that thing.” Schirra and Stafford then played “Jingle Bells” on a tiny harmonica and set of bells, which are today exhibited in our Apollo to the Moon gallery. A few hours later, they successfully splashed down in the Atlantic near the aircraft carrier USS Wasp. It was the first computer-controlled, precision landing.
In Gemini VII, the departure of their companions threw Borman and Lovell into a funk. They had to endure two more days in a tiny space often compared to the front seats of an old Volkswagen Beetle. It also smelled like a men’s room after 12 days of no baths, no privacy for bodily functions, and an overheated cabin that made wearing a spacesuit almost unbearable. Most of the time they were in their underwear. Thrusters stopped working and the fuel cells that supplied electricity looked like they might fail. But they limped to the end and made a successful landing on December 18, a little closer than VI-A, winning a bet between Borman and Schirra. After helicopters took them to the carrier deck, Lovell joked that, as a result of spending two weeks in close quarters: “We’d like to announce our engagement.”
Gemini VI-A and VII were a space race triumph for the U.S., and fulfilled much of two major program objectives needed for success with Apollo: rendezvous and long duration. After these missions, the Moon seemed closer.
Michael J. Neufeld is the curator for Mercury and Gemini spacecraft at the Museum, as well as rockets and missiles up to 1945. His best known book is Von Braun: Dreamer of Space, Engineer of War (2007).
The Museum just launched a new pilot project to help visitors discover what it takes to succeed in the aerospace field and to help us better understand the visitor experience. Mobile Missions is our first app for teens and adults, for those still deciding on a career, or even those wondering what their current jobs have in common with an astronaut, an engineer, or even a pilot.
While we worked on the app, we realized just how much our jobs had in common with high-flying aerospace occupations.
Matthew Horton, who works on our STEM in 30 program, learned he’d make a good engineer.
“Even though I am a designer, after taking the quiz I discovered that I would also make a good engineer. Designing and engineering go hand in hand so it’s not surprising that my interests overlap both careers.”
Our curator Jennifer Levasseur wasn’t surprised when the app revealed she was suited for education.
“It’s really no surprise considering the role of curators is largely to teach the story of aviation and space history to our visitors. I guess I do have a job already that perfectly suits me!”
Sarah Banks, who manages our online engagement, thought flight controller was a perfect fit.
“Being organized and cool under pressure are important parts of managing digital projects and social media, and I aim to be prepared for wherever the day’s opportunities for sharing my colleagues work take me.”
Not only does our app provide an opportunity for you to explore careers in aerospace, but it will also help us explore how mobile devices change how you interact with the Museum, our artifacts, and the history of flight. Five years ago, we became the first museum in the Smithsonian to launch a mobile website. Experts predicted at the time that mobile devices would be the primary means of internet access worldwide by the year 2020. That predicted mobile majority is arriving ahead of schedule: 64% of American adults now own smartphones, up from 35% in 2011, and mobile internet usage has already eclipsed desktops. Our own survey in 2012 revealed that 7 out of 10 visitors walk into our Museum with a smartphone and our website visitors are increasingly coming to us via a mobile device (over 37% of our website visitors as of November, 2015).
We’re taking the next step with Mobile Missions to determine what kinds of experiences are possible at the intersection of mobile technology and the world’s largest collection of aerospace artifacts. What we learn will inform the design of future projects, and help shape how we carry out our mission to educate and inspire millions of visitors every year. Mobile Missions is an experiment in the visitor experience, and we want to know what you think. Download the free app and leave us a comment here about your experience.
Nick Partridge is a public affairs specialist at the National Air and Space Museum and also found out his place in aerospace is as a flight controller.
Tell us what you think.
What career did you get when you took the quiz? Did you find a favorite artifact in the app (we especially like Anita the Skylab Spider)? Or did you create one of our shareable selfies that impose your face on a historic figure? Let us know.
This past year, I had the opportunity to lead a largely volunteer team, with supervision from museum specialist Anne McCombs and curator David DeVorkin, on a major restoration project of the Museum’s Apollo Telescope Mount (ATM). The ATM we worked on was a backup to the one used in 1973 on the Skylab space station to study high-energy solar activity.
One of our first tasks was assessing the ATM’s spar, the aluminum platform that eight major instruments were mounted to. When we uncrated the spar in September 2014, we discovered that after 40 years the Kapton®—the shiny, crinkly material you can often see on satellites and in this case the black material you can see in our photos—was in really poor condition. Kapton® is a polyimide film that was developed by DuPont in the late 1960s and has been used widely in the aerospace industry to protect objects from heat.
We were unsure at first how to repair the Kapton® so that we could properly display the artifact. For help, we went straight to the source—DuPont. A technical service consultant from DuPont listened as we explained our situation. After thinking back to Kapton® technology of the time period, our consultant recommended that we use Kapton® tapes made from current Kapton® sheets and 3M™ 966 transfer tape (a very thin adhesive film). What’s more, our consultant—along with several other technical service, research, development, and marketing people from the Circleville, Ohio facility—provided our team with a dozen complimentary sample sheets of current Kapton® products.
With advice and materials from DuPont, I began work. I laid out the 25.4-millimeter (1-inch) wide transfer (double-sided) tape in rows on a Kapton® sheet and then cut the sheet into 25.4-millimeter (1-inch) wide self-adhering tapes. For larger repairs, I found that adhesive tape on the edges of a Kapton® patch worked well. We found that one particular product looked the best when we compared it to the decades-old original material. DuPont sent additional free sample sheets of that product to help us complete all of the repairs.
After applying nearly 30.5 meters (100 feet) of the hand-made tapes, the ATM spar assembly appears much as it did in the early 1970s. Modern museum restoration philosophy dictates that up close you should be able to see all of the repairs I made, but from a very short distance the artifact appears nicely intact with Kapton® covers. Thanks to the advice and free material provided by an industrial firm that contributed to the original project, Museum visitors are now able to see one of the great scientific achievements of the early U.S. space program at the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Virginia.
Scott Willey is the senior docent and a restoration volunteer at the Udvar-Hazy Center
In the 1950s and ’60s, when commercial air travel was still considered glamorous, Trans World Airlines (TWA) was one of the world’s premier passenger carriers.
TWA began in 1929 as Transcontinental Air Transport (TAT). Rather than delivering mail like many carriers at that time, TAT decided to break into the passenger market by offering cross-country service using rail at night and air during the day. Charles Lindbergh lent his name and expertise to the project when he became Chairman of the Technical Committee, a job that involved selecting airplanes and plotting a cross-country flight path that became known as the Lindbergh Line.
In 1930, TWA merged with Western Air Express to form Transcontinental and Western Air, Inc. (TWA). As you can see in the poster below, the airline took advantage of its association with Lindbergh in its advertising, which gave them prestige in the eyes of the public, who were wild about him. In 1939, another famous person entered the scene —millionaire Howard Hughes, who acquired a majority share in TWA, a move that gained the airline celebrity status because of Hughes’ Hollywood connections. Hughes’ clout also put TWA in a good position to obtain better air routes, both international and domestic. In 1950, to reflect TWA’s expanding international service, Hughes changed the name from Transcontinental and Western Air to Trans World Airlines, preserving the acronym.
In the 1950s and ‘60s, movie stars and other celebrities often flew TWA, which helped fill seats with other passengers. Echoing the glitzy TWA reputation were the airline’s advertising posters, which captured the allure of travel in a single enticing scene, inspiring dreams of adventure in distant locales. These posters were pervasive — in airports, railway stations, travel agencies, airline ticket offices, hotels, and on advertising kiosks in cities across the globe.
Some of the best TWA posters from the 1950s and ‘60s were created by artist David Klein (1918 – 2005). Already a successful illustrator known in the late 1940s and early 1950s for his Broadway show window cards and posters, Klein’s award-winning abstract drawings for TWA came to represent the jet age.
Klein won many awards for his TWA work. The Rome poster below, which is in the Museum’s collection, won the American Society of Travel Agents (ASTA) travel poster contest in 1961. It depicts the Vatican and one of its venerable Swiss guards in full regalia, plus the Roman Coliseum. Typical of TWA posters, text is kept to a minimum and an airplane flies overhead.
Other David Klein posters in the Museum’s collection are these two for Spain and London, dates unknown:
One of the most popular Klein designs was his 1956 New York City poster, which captured the excitement of the great tourist mecca, Times Square, in bright colors and a geometric pattern. In 2009, appraiser Nicholas Lowry, president of Swann’s Auction Galleries in New York and trustee of the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art, appeared on Antiques Roadshow and described it as “one of the greatest graphic depictions of Times Square.” It is considered a true work of art, as witnessed by the fact that in 1957 New York’s Museum of Modern Art added it to its permanent collection. A first printing of this poster was auctioned off in 2012 for $9,944.
To see a large selection of TWA posters by David Klein, visit his estate’s website.
Klein’s illustrating was not limited to TWA. He created posters for other travel companies such as Amtrak, Cunard, and Holland American Cruises. In 2000, internet travel booking company Orbitz commissioned Klein to recreate the look and feel of his jet age posters for its Planet Earth advertising campaign. Klein and illustrator Robert Swanson produced five posters for Orbitz.
The Museum has some 1,300 aviation-related posters in its collection. They represent aviation products, activities, and advertising, plus nineteenth century ballooning exhibitions and twentieth century airplane meets. As former poster curator Joanne London wrote on the Museum’s website, “The collection is significant both for its aesthetic value and because it is a unique representation of the cultural, commercial, and military history of aviation. The collection represents an intense interest in flight, both public and private, during a significant period of its technological and social development.”
Six hundred posters are available for viewing on the Museum’s website, and the Museum hopes to have the entire collection online eventually.
As for TWA, its good fortunes did not last forever. Problems had long plagued the airline: the management whims of Howard Hughes, which lasted until 1966, airline deregulation in 1978, a disastrous takeover by corporate raider Carl Icahn in 1985, two bankruptcies in 1992 and 1995, and the 1996 explosion of TWA flight 800 near Long Island that drew attention to its aging fleet. In December 2001, TWA was acquired by American Airlines’ parent company, and the once-venerated Trans World Airlines was no more.
To see more of David Klein’s art and learn more about him, visit his estate’s homepage. To read more about the Museum’s poster collection, see Joanne London’s book, Fly Now! Aviation Posters from the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum.
Kathleen Hanser is a writer-editor in the Office of Communications at the National Air and Space Museum.