AidSpace Blog

Repairing Hubble

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Soon after the Hubble Space Telescope was launched in 1990, images and data from its instruments revealed that its main mirror was optically flawed. It suffered from spherical aberration—not all portions of the mirror focused to the same point. The mirror’s shape was off by less than 1/50th the thickness of a human hair, but this tiny flaw proved devastating to the quality of the Hubble’s images and to the efficiency of all of its instruments.


This photograph was taken by the STS-31 crew aboard the Space Shuttle Discovery and shows the Hubble Space Telescope being deployed on April 25, 1990, from the payload bay. Credit: NASA.

This was a serious, but not fatal flaw.  If the Hubble was like all other astronomical instruments lofted into orbit on rockets, it would have had to live out its operational life with that flaw, working at a fraction of peak efficiency.  But Hubble was not like any other space telescope.  It was designed to be serviced by astronauts visiting it on the space shuttle.  That’s one reason why it was placed in a low earth orbit accessible by the shuttle.

Repairing Hubble

Front and center is the Wide Field Planetary Camera 2 (WFPC2) tilted on a wedge to reveal its inner components. To the left is COSTAR and behind COSTAR is a developmental model built at the Ball Aerospace Corporation to demonstrate how COSTAR employed mirrors on stalks that could be inserted into the primary light beam from Hubble’s flawed mirror, to correct the flaw. On the wall at the back are classic images from Hubble’s cameras, and the Structural Dynamic Test Vehicle used to test the Hubble design is seen at the upper right. Credit: Eric Long, National Air and Space Museum.

The question now became, how could corrections be made? One option involved bringing it back to Earth and replacing the mirror with a backup (now on view in our Museum, in the Explore the Universe gallery).  But NASA, encouraged by the expertise at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, and the Ball Aerospace Corporation in Boulder, Colorado, chose a different approach.

One instrument, the Wide-Field/Planetary Camera (WF/PC), already had an upgraded replacement available. Its engineering and science team at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory knew how to adjust the optics within WFPC2 to compensate for the aberration in the primary mirror. For the other instruments, engineers created an optical box called COSTAR (Corrective Optics Space Telescope Axial Replacement). It contained a set of five pairs of small mirrors on deployable arms that corrected the light beams entering the Hubble’s Faint Object Camera, Faint Object Spectrograph, and Goddard High Resolution Spectrograph.  Fitted within a standard axial instrument enclosure, the small mirrors would deploy after launch and checkout, enter the reflected optical beam from the main mirror, and counteract its flaw, sending the corrected light to the other instruments.


Detail of the deployed mirrors in COSTAR, protected by a plex vitrine. The WPFC2 radiator can be seen in the background. Credit: Eric Long, National Air and Space Museum.


In the foreground: the developmental model for COSTAR showing how the mirrors could be deployed on hinged arms. The color coding is for each separate instrument. Credit: Eric Long, National Air and Space Museum.

COSTAR contained 10 optical elements, 12 motors, and over 5,000 individual parts. After being installed in the Hubble, each of its five optical channels had to be precisely aligned.  In the end, COSTAR’s performance exceeded the original specifications.  Given its complexity, the real challenge was to make it strong enough to withstand launch, and yet delicate enough to insert tiny mirrors into the Hubble’s optical field without disturbing any of the other components.  A Ball Aerospace engineer came up with the solution while taking a shower in a German hotel, which was equipped with ingenious articulated shower heads.

Witness Sample

A “witness sample” from the moment in the early 1980s when the Hubble mirror was vacuum electrocoated with a reflective layer of aluminum and overcoated with a protective layer of transparent magnesium fluoride. Even with this protection is was standard practice to include small samples with the main mirror. The small samples could be tested from time to time to keep track of the coating on the main mirror. This sample was flown into space on the deployment mission as a commemorative gesture and was presented to the popular magazine Sky & Telescope. Rick Feinberg, former editor of S&T, donated it for the exhibit. Credit: Eric Long, National Air and Space Museum.

After several more servicing missions through the 1990s, all the new instruments onboard Hubble had their own corrections for the flaw in the main mirror. Therefore COSTAR was no longer needed, and, given the rapid advance of solid state detector technologies through the decade, WFPC2 was no longer state of the art.   NASA therefore planned another servicing mission to replace them with new more powerful cameras and detectors.  But the shock of the Space Shuttle Columbia accident in February 2003 was deeply felt worldwide, making NASA cautious about flights that did not go to the International Space Station. Therefore, in 2004 NASA cancelled Hubble’s fourth servicing mission. Without it, the telescope’s life was projected to end by 2007. The decision incited uproar from scientists, the public, and Congress. Twenty-six former astronauts signed a petition in favor of keeping the Hubble alive.

The fifth and final Hubble servicing mission took place in May 2009 and was the most complex and demanding yet. During five spacewalks, Atlantis astronauts installed two new instruments, repaired two others, and performed extensive maintenance. They removed COSTAR and WFPC2 and installed the new Wide Field Camera 3 (WFC3), which included greatly upgraded CCDs and some important reusable hardware from the original WF/PC.


The radiator section (rear end) of WFPC2. During the various servicing missions astronauts noticed tiny dimples and dents in the radiator – results of impacts from space debris. After over 15 years of exposure to space, this surface became a record of the accumulation of such debris in low earth orbit. Naturally, NASA wanted to evaluate the amount and nature of this debris, and so after the camera was returned to earth the impact sites were cored out for analysis. The core samples are far larger than the original debris, because the splatter pattern of these impacts was far larger than the original debris particles themselves. The largest core samples left holes about 30 mm in diameter, but the debris particles were less than a mm in size. The analysis is ongoing. Credit: Eric Long, National Air and Space Museum.

Astronauts brought the two old instruments back to Earth and they were soon shipped to NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. Technicians at Goddard and then at the Johnson Space Center examined WFPC2 for effects from prolonged exposure to space. Its radiator, the curved white section that formed part of the Hubble’s outer skin, absorbed more than 15 years’ worth of impacts by micrometeoroids and orbital space debris. Scientists measured the chemical composition of these small impactors to help shed light on the nature of space debris, a danger that affects all space missions. In order to make the analysis, NASA had to core out all the impacts, cutting holes far larger than the debris itself.  That’s why there are so many large holes in the image of the radiator above.

David DeVorkin is a curator in the Space History Department of the National Air and Space Museum. He compiled this blog post from the label script for the “Repairing Hubble” display, created and edited by the Museum’s exhibit team.

Germs in Space

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When Space X launched the Dragon Spacecraft on Friday, April 18, it was carrying nearly 5,000 pounds of supplies and payloads, including critical materials to support more than 150 science investigations planned for International Space Station (ISS) Expeditions 39 and 40.  Among these materials are some that weigh hardly anything at all—microbes—of which one type was collected right here at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, DC.


International Space Station (ISS)

These microbes are part of Project MERCCURI, which is a citizen science project sponsored by the University of California at Davis, SciStarter, and the Science Cheerleaders that are examining the diversity of microbes on Earth and the ISS. The microbes that were just sent to the ISS have been crowdsourced from across the country, from Washington, DC to California to New York to Florida.  They have been collected at selected sporting events and other public spaces, including television studios and museums. On Saturday, September 14, 2013 the Science Cheerleaders, current and former NBA and NFL cheerleaders who have, or are working on, their advanced degrees in science and engineering, were here at the National Air and Space Museum as part of the Women in Aerospace Family Day.  They were engaging visitors in the project. While they were here they swabbed the Mercury Friendship 7 capsule for a potential sample.

Science Cheerleaders

Science Cheerleaders at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, DC.


Girl Scouts at the National Air and Space Museum’s Century of Women in Aerospace Family Day on September 14, 2013.

To be clear, they swabbed the protective covering of Friendship 7, and that resulted in in the collection of the microbe Pantoea eucrina.  This is part of the collection of good or neutral microbes that is on the way to the ISS where they will be studied for how well microbes from the built environment on Earth grow in microgravity.  In turn, the astronauts will be sending microbes collected from the ISS back to Earth, where they will be studied to see how different—or similar—microbes from microgravity are. To find out more about this project go the web site or follow it on Twitter #spacemicrobes.

Mychalene Giampaoli is an educator at the National Air and Space Museum.

Blood Moon

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If you live in North America or western South America, you have a treat in store for you tonight or early tomorrow morning: a total lunar eclipse!


Total lunar eclipse, photographed at the Public Observatory at the National Air and Space Museum on December 21, 2010. Photos by Smithsonian staff.

If you live elsewhere in the world, or if it’s cloudy in your location – as it probably will be tonight at our location in Washington, DC – you can still see the eclipse online.  Several websites will host live streams.  Some of their locations will be clouded out, so we recommend that you search for “lunar eclipse live stream” and browse the results.  You can also participate in a live web chat during the eclipse with NASA astronomers.

Tonight’s eclipse begins at 12:53 am EDT, very early in the morning of April 15 for the East Coast.  That’s when the Moon enters the partial shadow of the Earth, called the penumbra.  During this part of the eclipse, the Moon will still look like an ordinary full Moon, because only a slight and subtle shadow is cast on the Moon.

The dramatic part starts at 1:58 am EDT (or 10:58 pm PDT on April 14 for the Pacific Coast). As the Moon starts to enter the full shadow of the Earth, called the umbra, skywatchers will see a bite taken out of the Moon.  As the hour goes on, the bite gets bigger and bigger.  Earth’s shadow on the Moon has a fuzzy edge (as seen in the image above) because of Earth’s atmosphere.

Diagram of a total lunar eclipse. Credit: Smithsonian Institution.

At 3:06 am EDT (12:06 am PDT), the Moon will pass completely into Earth’s shadow.  But it won’t vanish!  The light of all the sunrises and all the sunsets around the world will be filtered through Earth’s atmosphere and fall onto the Moon, giving the full Moon an eerie, blood-red tint.  The color depends on what’s happening in the Earth’s atmosphere. Volcanic activity, for example, can lend the Moon an especially vivid hue.

At 4:24 am EDT (1:24 am PDT), a bright sliver will appear again as the Moon starts to leave the Earth’s umbra.  That part of the eclipse will last until 5:33 am EDT (2:33 am PDT), when the Moon will look fully illuminated again, though it will still be in the Earth’s fuzzy, subtle penumbra until 6:37 am EDT (3:37 am PDT).

You can watch the eclipse with a telescope or binoculars, or just with your eyes!  Unlike for a solar eclipse, no safety equipment is needed. You’ll see even more with your eyes than shown in the image sequence above. The human eye is better at seeing a range of bright and dark areas than a camera, so while sunlight is illuminating part of the Moon, you will still be able to see the darkened part.

Also, if you miss tonight’s eclipse, just mark your calendars!  Tonight is the first in a sequence of four consecutive total lunar eclipses (called a tetrad) which will each be visible from all or part of the United States.  The next three total lunar eclipses will occur on October 8, 2014, April 4, 2015, and September 28, 2015.

We hope you’ll share your photos of tonight’s eclipse with us!

Geneviève de Messières is an astronomy educator at the National Air and Space Museum.

Antonie Strassmann – German Movie Star, American Entrepreneur, Cosmopolitan Pilot

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The National Air and Space Museum Archives hold biographical information on many people related to aviation, but it is still surprising to find articles about one Antonie Strassmann, a famous German actress of the 1920s. The few clippings indicate a fascinating story – a woman pilot who had performed on stage and in silent movies, who flew in balloons, held a world record in cycling for women, and loved to box. But was Antonie really one of these aviatrixes of the 1920s who were often accused of donning a flight suit and goggles for the sake of publicity only?


Antonie Strassmann

In the late 1920s, actress Antonie Strassmann often participated in beauty contests where the attractiveness of the car as well as the driver were judged jointly. Here she is at one of these contests – which she often won.

Born in 1901 as the daughter of a renowned German obstetrician, flamboyant teenager Antonie shocked her parents with an early announcement of her intent to become an actress. “My parents said I was insane,” she later admitted. Her father commented: “I don’t rate the occupation of acting as dignified.” But he was powerless against the strong-willed Antonie, and soon she was performing on stage in Germany and abroad with the leading German actors of the 1920s. Critics praised her for the dramatic quality she brought to her heroines. Antonie also developed a passion for athletics where she performed extremely well: In 1927, for instance, she ran 100 meters in 15 seconds, and swam 200 meters in 4.58 minutes. She loved cycling, and set a world speed record for the 20 kilometers (about 12.5 miles) distance. In boxing, one of her  sparring partners was Marlene Dietrich – at that time still an unknown actress at the beginning of her career. Antonie also loved racy cars, and usually sped along the streets of her Berlin hometown. Berlin policemen, it is said, saluted the fancy, fast driver, and never ticketed her. Attractive and outgoing, Antonie became friends with influential German celebrities, and, over time, was romantically linked with the former Prussian Crown Prince Wilhelm, the renowned German actor Rudolf Forster, and the famous World War I fighter ace and aerobatic pilot Ernst Udet.


Antonie loved fast cars. Here she is posing in an androgynous outfit, with an aircraft in the background.

In September 1927, Antonie started to take flying lessons, inspired by her brother Erwin, who for years had taken her ballooning. After obtaining her sport pilot’s license in 1928, she advanced to aerobatic flying. A pilot, she declared, should be able to handle an aircraft in all kinds of situations.

Antonie Strassmann

Antonie during her flight lessons in fall 1927, at the Berlin Staaken flight school outside Berlin.

Antonie was thrilled by flying, and compared it to acting: “One is a physical high, and the other a mental one, and both make me happy beyond description.” Yet, despite both her unusual careers as actress and pilot, Antonie was not an advocate of emancipation for women. In a 1929 German newspaper article in, she wrote: “If I were a guy! … Starting in May, I would impatiently wait for the weather report from the Tempelhof airport [in Berlin], and at the first favorable minute: Start towards America! Lindbergh on my mind, and courage and trust in my heart! Yeah, if … […] But since I am not [a guy], I’ll do all these things just for myself, with no ambition – just idealism, to enjoy the great privilege, to be a woman! I am content as it is.”

There was clearly frustration in her statement: Antonie had discovered that, in flying, women could not achieve equal rights with men. International regulations did not allow women to be pilots of commercial planes, virtually excluding them from careers in the booming technology. Air shows still attracted crowds, but the income was sporadic and the competition among aerobatic pilots enormous. Instead of competing with men in these areas, Antonie argued, women should find their niches by relying on traditional “feminine” qualities. They could work as ground personnel at airports, and in marketing positions with airlines, airports, and airplane companies.

Antonie and Fritz

During her stay in the United States in the early 1930s, Antonie also attend the National Air Races in Chicago, where this picture of her and renowned German pilot Fritz Lohse was taken.

Antonie was the first one to follow her own advice. With her typical mix of passion and pragmatism, and relying on her charm and popularity, she made an offer to the German Foreign Office in 1930. In collaboration with the Airplane Model League of America, she would sponsor, organize, and manage an exhibition of about 30 German airplane models, gliders, balloons, and kites, as well as two airplanes, through the United States. With the Gimbel Company providing space in their stores, the exhibition would tour more than a dozen cities for a year. In a letter to the Foreign Office, Antonie explained her motivation: “It seems to me that this opportunity would provide a great chance to put Germany in a favorable light, while advertising German business and the idea of flight. This matter appears so important to me that I committed my personal funds and signed a contract with the Gimbel Company. … Enthusiasm for aviation in the United States, and their present friendly attitude toward Germany is extraordinary. In my opinion, we should do everything to nourish these feelings.”

The exhibition kicked off in spring 1930 with Antonie and her friend, renowned sport pilot Koenig-von Warthausen, lecturing about German aviation, and performing aerobatic flights. Antonie visited aviation companies, and participated in air shows, such as the National Air Races in Chicago in 1930, where she was allowed to test 28 different types of airplanes. Her charismatic personality captured audiences at lectures and in interviews. Even the German Foreign Office, which closely supervised Antonie’s efforts, was full of praise. The German Consul in Chicago reported to Berlin that her efforts “were absolutely a success” and that she made “the best possible impression.” Antonie spent a year and a half in the States, and when back in Germany, she educated the leading circles of German industry and politics about her encounters. Slowly, but steadily she was expanding her reputation as a major expert on questions of aviation. She built close friendships with German aviation industrialists, among them Ernst Heinkel, Claude Dornier, Hugo Junkers, and Hugo Eckener. On board Eckener’s Zeppelins, Antonie crossed the Atlantic Ocean multiple times. In May 1932, she participated in the transatlantic flight of the 8,000 horsepower Dornier Do-X, the largest, heaviest, and most powerful flying boat of its time. Built to carry more than 150 passengers, it was on its trial flight to the US and back. “Kids, I was overjoyed! ” she wrote on a postcard to friends, after she was granted permission to join the crew of 12 men for the trip back to Berlin as “assistant pilot and assistant paymaster.” She thus became the first European woman to successfully cross the Atlantic Ocean aboard a plane. Over the ocean, Do-X captain Friedrich Christiansen even handed her the controls. The Do-X left from Harbour Grace, Newfoundland, on May 19, 1932. One day later, Amelia Earhart would take off from there on her solo crossing of the Atlantic Ocean.

In fall 1932, Antonie piloted her last big flight. She left Germany onboard a Zeppelin, with a dismantled German Klemm sports plane L 25c in the cargo hold. The destination was Pernambuco in Brazil. There, she was to start a marketing tour for the little Klemm sports aircraft, flying it through South America, with stops and flight performances in Recife, Bahia, Rio de Janeiro, São Paulo, and Buenos Aires.

There were other exploits in Antonie Strassmann’s life in 1932. In January, she immigrated to the United States: She loved the stimulation, and the many chances America held. “I have more ideas here in an hour than I ever had in Germany in a week,” she told an American reporter. With typical frankness, she declared: “Germany is not only broken financially but spiritually too. …My people have known no let-up since 1914. They have gone through the meat grinder again and again.” To secure her career in America, Antonie studied business administration. Living in the luxurious St. Regis Hotel on Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue, she began to work as a business consultant for German aviation companies. She was a sought after contact for firms like Junkers, Bavarian Aircraft Co. [BFW], Heinkel, Stinnes, Hapag, Focke-Wulf, Klemm, Lufthansa, and many others. In this role, she initiated business with U.S. companies Bendix, Budd, Glenn L. Martin, General Tire, Goodyear, and others, negotiating patent and sales contracts. As part of her work, she sailed to Europe two to three times a year. Antonie also developed important personal relationships as a result of her business efforts. One such was US Senator Robert R. Reynolds (1884-1963), D-NC, who in 1941 became chair of the Committee on Military Affairs. He admired Antonie deeply. Another was Robert L. Hague (1880-1939), senior vice president of Standard Oil Co. He and Antonie were in a committed relationship until his death in 1939.

Antonie’s letters to friends and family reveal fascinating insight into her breathless activities. In early 1937, for instance, she was traveling with Junkers manager Richard Thiedemann: “Tuesday last week I drove to a factory in Bristol, Penns[ylvania], with Thiedemann and his entourage, back in the evening, to take the others to the [ocean liner] Europa. Next morning, at 8 am, again with the two gentlemen to a giant plant in Philadelphia. […] Th[iedemann] then didn’t let me leave, and so I continued in the evening to Baltimore, without one single piece of luggage! Thus, in the morning I took my gentlemen to Glenn Martin’s plant, translated whatever was necessary, and then immediately travelled with the company’s president, in the dining car, to Washington where I went straight away to the Senate! […] Now I have to go with Th[iedemann] to the West Coast, and I definitely want to do it, since [...] I am very interested in the success of this trip.” And a few days later: “Tonight, Thiedemann is going home aboard the Bremen! … All in all, the five weeks with him were indeed quite exhausting, but due to the overall success and since we got along so well, it was richly rewarding and really nice! Now let’s hope for results! … Last week was very busy, since we currently have an aviation exhibition here. On Thursday, I gave a speech on the radio at the lunch meeting, as the only woman among five hundred men, right after the chief commander of the US Army Air Force. Friday night, I gave a talk at the Association of Former German Students.”

But while Antonie was building a career in the States, political events in Germany began to reshape her fate, and that of her family. In January 1933, Hitler had taken power. His rise posed an immediate threat to Antonie and her family who were of Jewish descent, though her ancestors had converted to Christianity in 1895. In 1935, her father felt forced to sell his renowned hospital; he died three years later. Antonie’s brother Erwin, a well-respected physician himself, and his family immigrated to the U.S. in 1936/37, finding a new home with the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn. Erwin’s father, Paul, had been very supportive of the Mayo brothers during their visits to Germany, and now the favor was returned to Erwin and his family. Antonie’s mother arrived in the U.S. from Germany in mid-August 1939, two weeks before the German invasion of Poland that started World War II.

Antonie used her German income and her influential US connections to enable her family to leave Nazi Germany and find new homes abroad. But Nazi doctrine impacted Antonie also directly: The rulers of the “Third Reich,” who did not want a “Jewess” involved in the preparation of important patent and trade deals, did not see her employment by German aviation companies favorably. Yet her valuable contacts, her piloting experience and her managerial skills, her captivating charm, and sparkling personality made her an irreplaceable asset for the German companies who relied on her. In 1936, before one of her departures from Germany, the secret German state police, the Gestapo, searched her ship cabin for hours. Very likely, the police were searching for proof that Antonie was attempting to give away German business secrets to foreign powers. The intention was to send a clear warning to her and her business contacts. In 1938 the plot thickened when the FBI discovered a group of German spies operating on the US-East Coast. The investigation uncovered that, among other tasks, the group had been ordered to plan and execute Antonie’s abduction from the U.S.

Yet despite all these political events around her, Antonie barely held political opinions. Although she thoroughly hated “that swine Hitler and his cronies,” she did not see her work with leading German aviation companies in the larger context of furthering Germany’s aggressive politics. In March 1937, when she received her American citizenship, Antonie threw a lavish party for 26 guests and wrote to her brother Erwin that working for German aviation companies was nothing but a means of living for her: “Stars [on the America flag] are closer to me than the swastika! … ‘They can kiss my ass in Macy’s window at high noon!’ is the very common expression for these feelings in this country.” She never planned to permanently return to Germany. To her friend, the airplane designer and manufacturer Ernst Heinkel, she confided that she put Europe behind her when she immigrated to the U.S., once the Nazis had cut her roots from the past.

The outbreak of World War II in 1939 decreased business contacts between Germany and the United States; and the entry of the United States in 1941 ended Antonie’s activities as aviation consultant. She moved with her mother to Westchester County, New York, and worked for the American Red Cross as a driver and an instructor in first-aid courses. Later she found employment with the Delahanty Institute where she taught prospective workers (most of them women) how to interpret blueprints and operate metalworking equipment.

In 1943, an old friend of hers, Eugene F. McDonald, whom she had known since her first days in America, offered a job with the Hearing Aid Division of Zenith Radio Corporation. With her usual enthusiasm, Antonie tackled the new task, soon managing forty employees from her office in the Empire State Building, serving 500 dealers from Maine to Florida. Among her famous clients were Eleanor Roosevelt, Thomas Edison’s son Charles, and the playwright/ composer Rupert Hughes.

Antonie Strassmann

Antonie Strassmann in her office as a manager with the Zenith hearing company. On her desk, bronze statuettes of dachshunds whom Antonie adored, and in the background the model of a modern jet aircraft.

After the war, Antonie converted to Catholicism. In 1950, she traveled with a friend to Italy for the Holy Year. Yet she did not use this opportunity for a visit to Germany. Antonie died of cancer in January 1952 in New York City, and was buried at the Gate of Heaven Cemetery in Valhalla, New York.

Antonie’s death meant the end of one of the most charming, cosmopolitan and exciting careers of a woman pilot. Her life truly reflects the “golden era” of aviation in its adventurousness, passions, energy, and contradictions. As pilot, PR-expert, and businesswoman, Antonie’s contributions to German and US aviation in the interwar-era were as profound as they were unique. Clearly, Antonie was more than a flying actress who donned flight goggles for publicity. Sadly, her life and work are mostly forgotten today. But they can be rediscovered in the amazing biography written by her nephew, W. Paul Strassmann, in 2008. In The Strassmanns. Science, Politics, and Migration in Turbulent Time, 1793-1993 [New York: Berghahn Books, 2008. ISBN 978-1-84545-416-6], Paul Strassmann covers many generations of his family, portraying Antonie and her relatives — merchants, physicians, scientists, scholars, lawyers, and pilots. Most Antonie quotations in this blog post are taken from this book; all images are published with the permission of the author and copyright-owner, Paul Strassmann. Antonie’s experiences and life were also part of a scholarly study on German women pilots between 1918 and 1945, published (in German) as ‘Schneidige deutsche Mädel.’ Deutsche Sportfliegerinnen 1918 – 1945, Göttingen: Wallstein-Verlag 2007.

Evelyn Crellin is a curator in the Aeronautics Department at the National Air and Space Museum.

The New Milestones

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On July 1, 1976, President Gerald Ford presided over the ribbon-cutting ceremony at the opening of the new National Air and Space Museum building on the National Mall. A red, white, and blue ribbon across the entrance was severed when a signal sent from the Viking 1 spacecraft orbiting Mars activated a mechanical arm identical to one on the Viking Lander on the surface of Mars. The Museum’s doors were open.  More than a million people streamed through those doors in just the first month. Over a quarter billion more would follow in the nearly four decades since.  The National Air and Space Museum has provided a myriad of experiences and memories for the many who have visited. But there is one experience they have all shared.  Every visitor has begun their exploration of the Museum by passing through the Milestones of Flight gallery.

Ribbon Cutting

Chief Justice Warren Burger, far left, Vice President Nelson Rockefeller, second from left, join President Gerald Ford, center, National Air and Space Museum Director Michael Collins, next to Ford, and Smithsonian Secretary S. Dillon Ripley in applause after a signal from Viking 1, orbiting Mars, triggers the ribbon cutting at the opening of the Museum’s building on the National Mall, July 1, 1976.

Milestones of Flight Gallery

The Milestones of Flight gallery draws a large crowd of visitors in the newly opened National Air and Space Museum. This photograph was taken December 28, 1976.

Planners of the new Museum in the 1970s decided that each of the 26 galleries would focus on a single subject area, and collectively they would present the overall history of aviation and spaceflight.  But the central entrance space, the Milestones of Flight gallery, was also intended to greet the visitors coming through the front door with an awe-inspiring visual experience, immediately surrounding them with a number of the most significant and striking artifacts in the collection. Once inside, the original 1903 Wright Flyer, the world’s first airplane, appeared to be flying right toward you. Look up to the right and the Bell X-1, the first aircraft to break the sound barrier, was on view. Moving further into the gallery you encountered John Glenn’s Mercury capsule, Friendship 7. And the across the gallery was the Apollo 11 Command Module, Columbia, that carried humans back to Earth from our first journey to the Moon.  Looking up from there was Charles Lindbergh’s Spirit of St. Louis, and the exotic X-15, still the highest flying, fastest flying airplane in history. And if that weren’t enough to whet your appetite for what this stunning museum had to offer, you could touch a Moon rock brought back by the Apollo 17 astronauts, literally making your visit out of this world. For nearly 40 years, Milestones of Flight has done just what the planners had intended. It signaled to every visitor who walked through front door: you are about to have one of the most exciting museum experiences of your life. Just a few minutes after arrival, visitors were assured they were in a place like none other.

Wright Flyer

Bottom front view of the 1903 Wright Flyer hanging in the Milestones of Flight gallery at the National Air and Space Museum before it was moved to its own gallery in 2003.

Since the Museum opened, one by one, new galleries replaced the original 1976 offering with exhibitions featuring new acquisitions, enriched learning experiences based on fresh historical scholarship and scientific discoveries, new educational approaches, digital and interactive experiences, and ever-evolving exhibit technology. The Museum has continually renewed itself over the decades, providing our many repeat visitors with fresh experiences and new things to learn, and always ensuring first-time, or one-time, visitors an unforgettable encounter with one of the most compelling stories of human achievement.

A consistent thread through it all has been the Milestones of Flight gallery.  The eye-opening, jaw-dropping first look at one the world’s great museums for new visitors, and the space for returning visitors to see familiar treasures that never lose their power to captivate even those who know the inspiring stories they represent. In the planning now, and opening to the public in 2016, Milestones of Flight will have its first major update since that first million visitors passed through the gallery in July 1976.

Over the years there have been some changes in Milestones. To mark the 1988 INF nuclear disarmament agreement, Pershing II and SS-20 missiles were added to the gallery in an exhibit called Trust but Verify. In 1999, the Breitling Orbiter 3 gondola was included after it made the first circumnavigation of the globe by balloon. In 2005, SpaceShipOne, winner of the Ansari X Prize for the first privately developed reusable human spacecraft, was suspended alongside the Spirit of St. Louis and the Bell X-1. In 2008, Stardust, the first spacecraft to return to Earth with material from a comet, took its place on the floor of Milestones. In 2003, the Wright Flyer was removed from Milestones and placed in its own gallery with a special exhibition for the centennial of the Wright brothers first flights, where it remains today. And, of course, after the September 11, 2001, attacks, magnetometers had to be installed for the protection of our many visitors and the collection, intruding noticeably into the exhibition space. These were all significant changes, but notable upgrades of the exhibit content and interpretive elements haven’t occurred, and important improvements to visitor services needs have been piecemeal in their appearance.

Boeing has now partnered with the National Air and Space Museum to enable the Museum to revitalize its powerful central entrance exhibition space. The new Boeing Milestones of Flight Hall will maintain the visually stunning, awe-inspiring first impression of the Museum that the Milestones of Flight gallery has always provided. But the new Milestones will deepen the experience with richer description and interpretation of the iconic artifacts on display (including some relocated ones like the Lunar Module LM-2), versatile digital and mobile opportunities to interact with and share content, and a more visitor-friendly design of the space to better showcase the artifacts and make visitor services and information more accessible. Also, connections will be made between the content in the Museum in Washington, DC and the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Virginia to reinforce the relationships between the artifacts in the two Museum sites, and to make people aware that their visit is incomplete without a trip to the Udvar-Hazy Center.

Lunar Module

Lunar Module 2 is one of two remaining lunar landers built for the early Apollo missions. It will be relocated to the Boeing Milestones of Flight Hall.

To create the new Boeing  Milestones of Flight Hall, the Museum has marshaled a large team of its talented and experienced staff. One-of-a-kind milestone artifacts, leading scholarship, innovative design concepts, multifaceted cutting-edge educational techniques, the latest digital and mobile experiences, all backed up by front-end visitor evaluation to ensure we are meeting the needs of all our audiences, will combine to make the Boeing Milestones of Flight Hall among the most striking and powerful exhibitions in the entire Smithsonian. The new gallery will be completed in July 2016, the 40th anniversary of the opening of the National Air and Space Museum, and the centennial of Boeing. Make your plans now to visit the exciting new introduction to the most spectacular museum in the world.

Peter L. Jakab is chief curator at the National Air and Space Museum.