AidSpace Blog

Love is in the Air

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Aerial weddings may now be considered quite commonplace.  Just a quick online search turns up a number of places that provide skydiving services.  But in the nineteenth century, the idea of flying at all was still exciting.  Balloon weddings?  Those were spectacles!

Mary West Jenkins and Dr. John F. Boyton intended to be married on November 8, 1865, in Thaddeus Lowe’s balloon, high over New York City.  Reverend H.W. Beecher would not perform the ceremony in the air, so the vows were said on solid ground in the Fifth Avenue Hotel.  According to Harper’s Weekly, almost six thousand spectators crowded into Central Park to witness the married couple take flight.  The bride did not wear pure white; her dusky pink “ashes of roses” dress was “peculiar, to suit the exigencies of the occasion.”  The contract was signed in the air and after a “delightful trip,” the balloon “landed as gently as a snow-flake” in Mount Vernon, New York.

Jenkins-Boynton wedding

The Jenkins-Boynton wedding with aeronaut Thaddeus Lowe in Central Park. The wood engravings in Harper’s Weekly were based on photographs taken by famous photographer Mathew Brady. NASM 7A47488.

On October 19, 1874, Mary Elizabeth Walsh and Charles M. Colton said their vows in the balloon P.T. Barnum in the air over the Cincinnati, Ohio, Hippodrome—the first actual aerial wedding in America.  The wedding marked the 98th ascension of aeronaut Washington Harrison (W.H.) Donaldson. Details of the wedding were recorded by M.L. Amick in the fantastically titled book History of Donaldson’s Balloon Ascensions: Laughable Incidents, Frightful Accidents, Narrow Escapes, Thrilling Adventures, Bursted Balloons, Trapeze Performances, Mock Suns, Parasalenaes, Mirages, Paper Balloon Ascension, Passengers and Passengers’ Description of Cloud Land, etc.  Renowned showman (and employer of the bride and groom) P.T. Barnum and his brand new wife attended the ceremony, along with an estimated crowd of 50,000 spectators.

Walsh-Colton wedding

The Walsh-Colton wedding party with aeronaut W.H. Donaldson, October 19, 1874. Photographic copy of a wood engraving, based on original drawings by W.H. Donaldson, from History of Donaldson’s Balloon Ascensions. NASM 76-4448

The balloon initially held six people—Donaldson, bride and groom, attendants Anna Rosetta Yates and W.C. Comp, and the Rev. Howard B. Jefferies.  When it was determined that the basket could hold one more, David Thomas, “the best of ‘press agents,’” who had tirelessly promoted the event, “was taken in bouttainiere [sic] and all.”  The bridal party sent a parachute announcing the completion of the vows to the spectators below and the balloon continued its flight over Cincinnati, finally landing so that the couple could go to the cathedral for a second ceremony and the reception.

The Buckley-Davis Wedding

The Buckley-Davis wedding party with aeronaut James Allen, September 27, 1888. NASM 7A47391

Though not a Barnum production, the September 27, 1888, wedding of Margaret Buckley and Edward T. Davis also drew quite a crowd, as it was held at the Rhode Island State Fair at Narrangansett Park in Providence. An article in Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper estimates that 40,000 watched as Davis and Buckley entered the “specially prepared ‘bridal car’ of the mammoth balloon Commonwealth, held down by 24 men at the guy ropes.”  After the ceremony, aeronauts James Allen and his son James K. directed the balloon skyward.

The Buckley-Davis Wedding

The Buckley-Davis wedding party and aeronaut James Allen reenact their September 27, 1988, balloon wedding in a studio. NASM 2001-5327

The Davis’s honeymoon, or “bridal trip,” did get off to a bit of a rough start.  At dusk, the balloon landed in a swamp near Easton, Massachusetts, about thirty miles away from Providence.  The wedding party was “obliged to cling to the ropes above the basket to keep out of the water.”  Finally rescued, the balloon tied safely to a tree, the couple completed their trip by rail.  Afterwards, Allen and the Davises reenacted their wedding for a photographer in a studio.

Elizabeth Borja is an archivist at the National Air and Space Museum.

Double Word Score: CURATOR says YES

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It was not on Valentine’s Day, but love was in the air at the Udvar-Hazy Center on Veteran’s Day in 2005. Two and a half years into dating, my then-boyfriend Ben came up with a very creative and meaningful way to propose to me. He knew how proud I was of setting up our display of a Skylab era Scrabble board, and he used that as a starting point for linking my dedication to work with our acknowledged interest in a future together.

During installation of the small artifact display case in the human spaceflight exhibit area in the Space Hangar, I was on the ladder when it came time to install a magnetic Scrabble board and letters. To make it look interesting on the shelf, I placed the bag of letters on its side with particular letters spilled out: those that represented the Museum (N-A-S-M) and my department, Space History (D-S-H). I also placed letters spelling out three spaceflight-relevant words on the tile racks, which are there even today. Every time friends or family wanted to tour the building, I pointed out my little “inside joke.” Ben had heard the story dozens of times when he leveraged my attachment to that display to his advantage.

Unbeknownst to me, Ben contacted the object’s curator and my colleague, Valerie Neal, to see what she could do. Valerie put the wheels in motion and got the right people involved to complete Ben’s plan. On Veteran’s Day, under the guise of wasting some time before heading to a ski and snowboard exhibit at the Dulles Expo Center, we walked around the Museum for a bit. I thought the Museum visit was strange, but suspicions were raised when at one point I noted that his hand felt sweaty as I held it. Ben passed it off as moisture from his drink at McDonald’s. As we came around towards the center of the Space Hangar, ready to head out, I walked purposely to avoid going to the Scrabble display and telling the story again. Ben gently guided me in that direction anyway. As I got closer, I noticed the letters on the tile racks looked different, and actually started to get mad. The closer I got, the more I realized what the words now spelled out: “Jen will you marry me.” I stopped dead in my tracks, shook my head in disbelief, and holding Ben’s hand, walked slack jawed towards the case.

The story has a happy conclusion of course, and a humorous ending to the proposal itself. As he opened the ring box, which was hidden in a pocket of his pants for hours, the ring fell out and danced across the floor towards the rails that surround our major artifacts. My museum employee mind worried that we might have to get security to get the ring back, but thankfully, it was within our reach! The following September, we got married in front of friends and family, many of whom knew about this amazing proposal before I did.

So next time you’re at the Udvar-Hazy Center, think of my fantastically creative husband Ben when you look at that Scrabble board.

I said yes.

I said yes.

 Jennifer Levasseur is a museum specialist in the Space History Department at the National Air and Space Museum.

Photobombs at the Observatory?!

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It was just another day at the National Air and Space Museum’s Public Observatory… The Sun was shining, birds were chirping, and we ended up seeing both! This incredible footage was caught purely by accident as Smithsonian staff tried to image the Sun.

Birds flying in front of the Sun.

The imaging process begins with a video capture of the Sun using one of the Observatory’s telescopes (in this case, the Lunt 100mm Hydrogen-alpha telescope) and a camera that attaches to the telescope. A video is essentially a series of still images, and because of the haziness of our atmosphere, some of these images show sharp details while others are blurry. We use software that “stacks” the best individual images to create a clearer and more accurate final image.

However, it’s a little hard to get good footage of the Sun when you have birds dancing in front of it.

We think the chances of capturing such a scene are astronomical! The Sun actually takes up a very small portion of the daytime sky, so to see anything other than clouds crossing it is pretty extraordinary. It’s even rarer to record events like this!

Here at the National Air and Space Museum, we’re always interested in things that incorporate both Air and Space. As you can imagine, an example like this had our jaws on the floor. So we thank you, high-flying birds, even if you did “ruin” our footage.

John Malloy is an intern in the Education Department of the National Air and Space Museum.

Looking Back, Looking Ahead in January 2014

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Like Janus, the two-faced god of transitions in Roman mythology, the human spaceflight community looks to the past and future as January turns to February. In 2004, NASA instituted a Day of Remembrance for three crews lost in horrific accidents. Work pauses briefly at all NASA Centers on January 31 for a ceremonial tribute and rededication to safety in spaceflight.

This time, NASA held a prelude to the Day of Remembrance at the National Air and Space Museum. On January 30, the eight members of the Astronaut Class of 2013, still candidates in training, met with students here and engaged in a twenty-minute video-linked conversation with the U.S. crew members currently on duty on the International Space Station – Rick Mastracchio and Mike Hopkins.

Astronaut Candidates

Astronaut candidates and Americans on the International Space Station field questions from students and visitors in the Museum’s Moving Beyond Earth gallery. (NASA photo)

In answer to questions about how they decided to become astronauts, several answered that they were inspired by previous astronauts. As children, they saw people doing what had not been done before, and they wanted to participate in the challenges and adventures of space exploration. They are excited about the future and their prospects for travel on new spacecraft to the space station or beyond.

Yesterday, the same eight astronaut candidates made their first trip as a group to Arlington National Cemetery, to visit the gravesites and monuments that memorialize the Apollo 1, Challenger, and Columbia crews. Other astronauts, NASA staffers, and members of the fallen astronauts’ families gathered as they do each year to witness the laying of wreaths and remarks by the NASA Administrator.

It went unspoken that this is the other side of the Janus face. With adventure comes risk. “The future doesn’t belong to the fainthearted; it belongs to the brave,” President Reagan reminded the nation after the 1986 Challenger tragedy, and sometimes terrible things happen. It has been 47 years since three astronauts died in a fire while training for the first Apollo mission, 28 years since the STS-51L Challenger crew lost their lives during launch, and 11 years since Columbia’s STS-107 crew lost their lives on the way home. To those who knew them, it seems like yesterday, and the memories will forever cause pangs of sorrow.

NASA's Day of Remembrance

NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden and Dr. June Scobee Rodgers, widow of Challenger’s last commander, place a wreath at the Challenger crew memorial in Arlington National Cemetery on January 31, 2014. (NASA photo)


Columbia Memorial

Administrator Bolden placed a similar wreath at the nearby Columbia crew memorial. (NASA photo)


Apollo 1 grave sites

Administrator Bolden makes final remarks to the “NASA family” at the grave sites of Apollo 1 astronauts Virgil “Gus” Grissom and Roger Chaffee. Ed White is buried at West Point. (NASA photo)

Yet the journey into space continues to pull humanity into the future. NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden remarked yesterday morning at Arlington that he has no doubt that lives will be lost again, or that once again NASA will learn from the experience and carry on, because that is the mission and that is their legacy: “They are with us still on this grand journey.”

Those who perished, those who returned from space safely, those who are now in space, and those yet to go assume the risk and commit to the mission on behalf of our exploring nation, and by proxy the people of the world. It is a noble calling.

The Day of Remembrance is a sober reminder to look back even as we look forward—to remember and learn from the past to ensure success in the future. That is a good reminder for all of us, no matter what we do, but it is an especially prudent reminder for those who send precious people into space, and those who aspire to go.

Valerie Neal is curator for human spaceflight in the space shuttle era in the Space History Department of the National Air and Space Museum.


(Almost) True Comics!

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For many people, sitting down and reading a thick history book is not the most exciting proposal.  I have had more than one relative question my choice to study history, and inform me that it was their least enjoyable class in school.  Luckily for them, history can be found in more places than traditional scholarly textbooks.  History can be found in television, movies, and even comic books.  Although it may be more enjoyable to experience history in this way, these sources may not always be the most accurate representations.

Abraham Lincoln's Flying Fighter

Abraham Lincoln’s Flying Fighter

During World War II, a series of comic books began publication known as “True Comics.”  The comics described stories featuring “real people” and “world-shaking history,” especially focusing on recent events of World War II.  In issue 70, a story entitled “Abraham Lincoln’s Fighting Flyer” was written detailing Thaddeus S.C. Lowe and the actions of the Union Army’s balloon corps.  Although the comic did contain truthful details about Civil War balloons, it did not get everything correct.  Below are some examples of the portions the comic portrayed accurately, as well as those which were a little bit off the mark.

Comic Clipping 1: Did Thaddeus S.C. Lowe really meet with Professor Joseph Henry?


Comic Clipping 1

Answer: Yes!

In this panel, aeronaut Thaddeus S.C. Lowe is shown meeting with American scientist Joseph Henry in Washington D.C.  Henry, who was the first secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, met Lowe before the war and was interested in his experiments with ballooning.  When the war broke out, Lowe had difficulties obtaining a meeting with the War Department.  Henry, who was well known and respected in Washington, was able to help Lowe provide a demonstration and eventually get a meeting.  In fact, Lowe demonstrated the ascension of his balloon in Washington D.C. near the Smithsonian Castle.



This illustration shows Thaddeus S.C. Lowe’s balloon ascension from the grounds of the Columbian Armory (now the site of the National Air and Space Museum), June 18, 1861. It was sponsored by Smithsonian Secretary Joseph Henry, and Lowe made the first telegraph message from an aircraft. – National Air and Space Museum- NASM 95-8349

Comic Clipping 2: Did Abraham Lincoln give approval for the Balloon Corps?


Comic Clipping 2

Answer: Yes!

In this panel, Abraham Lincoln is seen using his powers as Commander in Chief to push for the incorporation of Lowe and his balloons into the Union Army.  The balloon demonstration Lowe made from what is today the National Mall provided Lincoln with evidence that balloons could serve a military purpose.  After the successful demonstration, Lincoln wrote a note to his reluctant top general, Winfield Scott, urging him to give Thaddeus Lowe and his balloons a chance to demonstrate their usefulness.


This letter was written on July 25, 1861 by President Lincoln regarding a proposal to use Thaddeus S.C. Lowe’s balloons for observation of enemy positions. The text reads: “Will Lieut. Gen. Scott please see Professor Lowe once more about is balloon? [signed] A. Lincoln. Jul. 25, 1861.” National Air and Space Museum – NASM 99-40777.

Comic Clipping 3:  Were Thaddeus Lowe’s balloons controlled by Union soldiers with ropes?


Comic Clipping 3

Answer: Yes!

In this panel, Thaddeus S.C. Lowe can be seen in his balloon making observations of enemy troop locations.  In order to keep the balloons stationary and prevent them from drifting into enemy territory, all of Lowe’s balloons were tethered to the ground and were raised or lowered by Union troops.  These troops were specifically attached to the Balloon Corps in order to assist with filling the balloons with gas, as well as manually control the balloons.  It was physically demanding work, but the soldiers performed the task very well.

Thaddeus Lowe

This image shows Union soldiers on the ground holding tether lines while Thaddeus S.C. Lowe, seen in the balloon’s basket, ventures aloft during the Battle of Fair Oaks, 31 May to 1 June, 1862. Library of Congress – LC-B811-2348A

Comic Clipping 4: Did Thaddeus Lowe really drop bombs on enemy troops?



Comic Clipping 4

Answer: No!  Not at all!

In this panel, Thaddeus Lowe is shown drifting over the enemy and pummeling them with hand-dropped bombs.  This certainly adds drama to the story, but it is not accurate at all. The balloons of the Union Balloon Corps were often kept behind Union lines where they could be protected, and did not drift over Confederate lines on bombing missions.  The balloons were always launched with tethers attached, and they were used to observe troops movements, troop locations, and to make maps.  The balloons were often fired upon when they rose for observation flights, and it would not have been safe to let them drift over enemy territory.

Thaddeus Lowe

Union troops hold tether lines while Thaddeus S.C. Lowe is writing a report of his discovery of enemy troops marching toward Union positions. National Archives and Records Administration – 3B-03859

Comic Clipping 5: Did Confederate officials really collect silk dresses in order to make their own balloons?


Comic Clipping 5

Answer:  No, this is just a myth.

In this panel, a Confederate officer is shown collecting silk dresses from women of the South so that Confederate forces could build a balloon of their own.  As I explained in a previous blog post, this is a myth which was perpetuated after the war.  In reality, new bolts of dress silk were purchased in Georgia and South Carolina, and were cut up and sewn together to form a patchwork balloon.  This balloon, officially named Gazelle, was often referred to as the “Silk Dress” balloon because of its appearance.  It was used by Confederate forces in Virginia during the Peninsula Campaign in 1862.  No actual dresses, however, were harmed in its construction.

silk ballloon

This scrap of fabric was collected by Thaddeus Lowe and donated to the museum by a member of his estate. One can see the various patterns from the different styles of dress silk used in the construction. National Air and Space Museum – NASM 2006-24070.

Comic Clipping 6: Did Union soldiers capture the Confederate balloon after a daring raid on a balloon barge?


Comic Clipping 6

Answer:  Well, not exactly.

In this panel, Union soldiers are shown sneaking up to the Confederate balloon barge and engaging it in order to stop the Confederate balloon from viewing the Union army.  In reality, the Confederate “silk dress” balloon was captured by the Union Navy.  On July 4, 1862, the USS Maratanza located and engaged the CSS Teaser on the James River.  The CSS Teaser was a small armed Confederate tug used to transport the Confederate balloon along the James River between Richmond and the battlefields of the Virginia Peninsula.  After a brief battle, the CSS Teaser was disabled and captured by the Union Navy.  While inspecting the ship, Union sailors discovered the Confederate balloon stored on board.  It was given to Thaddeus S.C. Lowe, but he decided it was of no use and cut it up into small scraps as souvenirs.

CSS Teaser

This view shows the destruction caused to the CSS Teaser by a 100 pound rifled shell from the USS Maratanza. Library of Congress – LC-B811-483A

Although “Abraham Lincoln’s Fighting Flyer” is not 100% historically accurate, it does provide a brief glimpse into a very interesting portion of American aviation history.  It is certainly a riveting and accessible story to read.  If you want to read the entire comic, it can be found here starting on page 39.  If it spurs your interest in Civil War aviation, I suggest you dive into a more accurate source, such as the Museum’s website on Civil War ballooning or the online conference entitled “Mr. Lincoln’s Air Force.”  And who knows, one day you may find yourself reading and enjoying a nice, thick history book on the subject.

Tom Paone is a Museum Tech in the Aeronautics Department at the National Air and Space Museum