Documented in our National Aeronautic Association collection is the 1961 All Woman’s International Air Race that ended in Nassau, Bahamas on May 29. The race hosted 21 contestants over a 909-kilometer (565-mile), island-hopping route. The Ninety-Nines, a group of women pilots formed just a few months after the first Women’s National Air Derby in 1929, helped to organize and manage the race.
This is just one of the many womens’ air races documented in the National Aeronautic Association (NAA) collection. The collection also holds NAA organizational records, Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI) license cards, business records, minutes, and correspondence. Learn more about our collection of National Aeronautic Association records.
Tyler Love is an archivist at the National Air and Space Museum and has processed more than 10 different collections including our Arthur C. Clarke collection. Tyler will be sharing more highlights from these collections in the future.
Women’s History Month in the United States began as Women’s History Week in 1982. The event was expanded to the entire month of March in 1987. Throughout the past month, the Smithsonian Institution and the National Air and Space Museum, have sponsored many events for Women’s History Month. On March 28, 1988, just the second official Women’s History Month, an all-female Air Force flight crew flew a Lockheed C-5 Galaxy across the Atlantic Ocean to commemorate the month.
The C-5 crew that flew from Dover Air Force Base in Delaware consisted of 17 women from the 436th Military Airlift Wing and the 512th Military Airlift Wing (Reserve-Associate), as well as two artists and a photographer. The commander of the flight was Captain Gayle I. Westbrook, who had already made Dover history as the wing’s first female C-5 pilot in 1985. Two years later, she was the first female C-5 pilot to be certified as an aircraft commander.
The seven day airlift mission for the C-5 crew took them from Dover to Charleston Air Force Base, South Carolina; RAF Mildenhall, United Kingdom; Incirlik Air Base, Turkey; and, finally, to Rhein-Main Air Base in Germany.
These women followed a similar flight path to the Air Force’s first all-female flight crew to fly an overseas mission in May 1983 (just one year after the first Women’s History Week). Seven women from the 18th Military Airlift Squadron flew a Lockheed C-141B from McGuire Air Force Base, New Jersey, to Lajes Field in the Azores, completing the flight at Rhein-Main Air Force Base. The exercise, in addition to evacuating seriously ill American service personnel and family from West Germany to treatment in Washington, DC, was designed to demonstrate the importance and growing presence of women in airborne operations.
In a New York Times article, Capt Guiliana Sangiorgio, the commander of the mission, stated: “I don’t know if this earns us a place in the ‘Guinness Book of World Records,’ but it’s a big first for the service, and certainly a big accomplishment for us.” She continued, “But the novelty of women flying will wear off in time, and we’ll be better off when it does.”
Copilot 1st Lieutenant Terri Ollinger reflected, “The Air Force has come a long way in accepting women in job fields where only men have been considered in the past. The Air Force has a long way to go yet in continuing to place women in positions of responsibility and career fields, but everything has to start with a crawl before it can move on to a run.” Thirty years later, in 2016, it has just been announced that Air Force General Lori Robinson has been nominated to head U.S. Northern Command, the first American woman to ever head a combatant command.
Elizabeth C. Borja is an archivist in the Museum’s Archives Department.
Our Archives houses the Technical Reference Files, an important collection of aeronautical and astronautical topics comprised of 1,920 cubic feet of documents, photographs, and ephemera. This important resource is housed in vertical files and is an organic, growing collection to which material is added constantly. Recently, we came across a remarkable document in the Tech Files of the long fight against tuberculosis—shared with you today in recognition of World Tuberculosis Day.
The flyer below is an example of propaganda, in this case dropped from a balloon. We are perhaps most familiar with propaganda distributed to influence the opinion and behavior of soldiers and civilians in and near actual armed conflicts. It can provide factual news of war unavailable to civilian populations, convey terms of surrender to soldiers, or seek to affect the morale of citizens and troops. Because penalties could be severe for those found in possession of enemy propaganda during wartime, propaganda is often rapidly destroyed and therefore may not survive to be preserved in the collections of archives.
During the period of the first World War, Colonel A. L. Fuller served as chief of the American Balloon Service. The Army at that time was suffering the loss of personnel, not just to enemy action, but to illness as well. Tuberculosis was widespread and devastating, and no effective treatment had yet been developed. Rates of infection with primary tuberculosis were high in soldiers entering service and military living conditions contributed to a high incidence of secondary tuberculosis. Soldiers who developed debilitating cases of the disease were often sent home, confined in embarkation hospitals until they could be transported overseas in large groups.
To engender awareness on the home front and perhaps contribute to a healthier population of available military personnel, Colonel Fuller employed propaganda flyers, such as this one, dropped from a balloon launched from Akron, Ohio on behalf of the Anti-Tuberculosis Committee of the American Red Cross Society. It advises that, “Tuberculosis may strike you as unexpectedly as this message drops from the balloon in the skies.” It asks the finder to help in the fight against the disease and to provide feedback on the effective distribution of air-dropped propaganda by mailing back information on where it fell.
Propaganda can serve many purposes and in this case, was used in support of a fight against an insidious foe that continues today.
Kate Igoe is an archivist at the National Air and Space Museum
One of the many threads in our Explore the Universe gallery is the changing role of women in astronomy over the past two centuries. In the present gallery, opened in September 2001, we examine how the role of women as astronomers has changed over time from assisting family members to leaders of research teams.
Women first entered the field as assistants to family members—Caroline Herschel systematized her brother William’s observations that would eventually raise the question of whether external galaxies existed. Then women were incorporated as low-paid workers—Henrietta Swan Leavitt created a powerful distance determining method. Next, they were included as professional staff members—Vera Rubin discovered that we live in a universe dominated by dark matter. And now women serve as leaders of research teams and in professional societies—Margaret Geller visualized the large-scale structure of the universe as nested bubbles and voids, and Catherine Pilachowski, a past president of the American Astronomical Society, is a leader in studying the evolution of galaxies and star clusters.
We are now planning to move this exhibition into a larger gallery in the center of the building. This gives us a chance to think of ways to strengthen the messages in the exhibition, especially women’s contributions to astronomy. After several recent evaluations we now realize that we need to make those more explicit. One simple solution is to put a sign at the entrance inviting visitors to look for various trends like the changing roles of women. But how we now present Herschel, Leavitt, Rubin, and the countless others also needs strengthening.
One of the observations of evaluators and educators has been that we need to personalize the instruments, activities, and discoveries we present. Right now, Caroline Herschel sits at a lighted window in their home at Slough calling out to William who is standing at the telescope in their backyard making observations. We include an audio loop where they talk to one another, and if you listen carefully, it seems that Caroline is merely recording what William observes with his eyes, though she certainly has her own opinions. The fact that she helped to design the systematic process of documenting observations is not evident. Nor is the fact that on many occasions she used the telescope herself—“minding the heavens,” as she said—while William was at Court entertaining his royal patron, George III. We will be looking for ways to make these points clearer.
The present exhibition boasts three full-size mannequins, all male: an observer using Tycho’s great equatorial armillary (circa 1577), William Herschel observing with his 6-meter (20-foot) reflector (circa 1790), and Edwin Hubble at the focus of the 254-centimeter (100-inch) Mount Wilson telescope he used to determine that galaxies exist, and then that they are systematically moving away from one another. All three are observing with telescopes. We presently have an image of Vera Rubin with the spectrograph she helped to design and build, using it with a 183-centimeter (72-inch) reflector. Why not bring Vera and her spectrograph to life in an immersive display depicting the base of the telescope with the spectrograph mounted? That’s one possibility.
Another idea: Why not show the Lick Observatory spectrograph being used by an observer? Hundreds of astronomers used this machine from the 1890s through the 1960s, but we have no images of how the instrument was actually used—it was usually very dark in the chamber! I used it at Lick as a student in the 1960s. I can well envisage how we might place an observer so visitors can appreciate the human/machine interface. I’m not volunteering! My choice would be to recreate how Phoebe Waterman used it in 1913 for her PhD thesis that tested the dominant Harvard system of spectral classification. As far as I know she was the first woman to be given primary access to the great 91-centimeter (36-inch) refractor. Another display? Sure, if there’s room.
One woman who surely changed how we think about the universe is missing in the present gallery. Cecilia Payne, a Harvard graduate student from the English Cambridge in the 1920s, used the vast stores of photographs of the spectra of stars created and housed there to test a new theory that explained changes in the spectra of the Sun and stars in response to changes in temperature and pressure. What she found was astounding, not for the range of temperatures that were predicted, but for what spectra revealed about the composition of the Sun and stars. Up to that time, everyone thought that the Sun and stars were made up of the same stuff that the Earth’s crust and meteorites presented: iron, oxygen, silicon, etc. Those elements appeared, of course, but she found that hydrogen and helium by far dominated in the atmospheres of all stars, and presumably in their interiors as well. She well knew that this was an “extraordinary claim” which required “extraordinary evidence” and that her evidence was tantalizing but not confirmative. Such a change in view, truly a revolutionary view, also made problems for other theories, like how stars structure themselves. She published her results in her thesis and in a book, but cautioned that, on the authority some of the most influential astronomers alive, it surely could not be right. Nevertheless, those same astronomers, within five years, confirmed her work and, once again, changed the universe. Wouldn’t a portrait or immersive scene of Payne at work inspecting a star’s spectrum tell the story?
These are just some examples of the many options we are considering as we explore how to make Explore the Universe more appealing, revealing, and relevant to our visitors. No matter what, exploring how women changed the universe will be a part of that process. What do you think of our ideas? Do you have ideas of your own on how we can incorporate more relevant stories into our exhibition? Let us know in the comments.
David DeVorkin is a senior curator in the Space History Department of the National Air and Space Museum.
In 1962, young Linda Halpern decided to fulfill a school assignment by inquiring about how she could pursue a dream. Required to write a letter for a grade-school class, Ms. Halpern addressed hers to President John F. Kennedy, asking what she would need to do to become an astronaut. The reply that came from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) was not terribly encouraging. “We have no present plans to include women on space flights,” it read, “because of the degree of scientific and flight training, and the physical characteristics, which are required.” But Halpern’s letter highlights an historical moment when the early years of the space age overlapped with the beginnings of the second wave of the American women’s movement. The letter has been preserved for decades in the files of Dr. Sally K. Ride, America’s first woman in space, whose personal papers were acquired by the Museum’s Archives in 2015.
Halpern’s decision to ask about a girl becoming an astronaut tapped into the cultural excitement about human space flights in the early 1960s. And her question about whether women would join human space flights had been actively explored in the late 1950s. In fact, before any person had flown in space, some researchers had been exploring whether women might actually be better suited for space flights than men were.
Scientists knew that women, as smaller beings on average, require less food, water, and oxygen, which was an advantage when packing a traveler and supplies into a small spacecraft. Women outperformed men in isolation tests and, on average, had better cardiovascular health. W. Randolph “Randy” Lovelace, the researcher and flight surgeon who performed the medical evaluations on NASA’s first male astronaut candidates, also ran a privately-funded program examining women pilots to see how they would fare under same testing regimen. Lovelace invited 25 female pilots to take the same tests at his Albuquerque, New Mexico facility that had been used to screen male military pilots for NASA’s Project Mercury selection process. Jerrie Cobb and 12 other women pilots passed—and were ready for more advanced testing when Lovelace canceled the program in 1961.
Jerrie Cobb succeeded in having House subcommittee hearings held in the summer of 1962, investigating whether NASA was discriminating on the basis of sex, but the results were not what she hoped. Cobb and Jane Hart testified about the women’s successes. But Jacqueline Cochran, the record-setting aviatrix who had funded the Lovelace tests, testified against continuing the program at that time (hoping that it could be reconstituted later, under her leadership). More important, legal protections for women did not yet exist. Sex discrimination had been identified in 1962 but it would not become illegal until the 1964 Civil Rights Act. At this time, job ads in newspapers ran under separate categories for men and women. Feminist political organizations did not exist yet to support the women. And the Congressional representatives listening to testimony were starstruck to meet NASA’s newest orbital fliers: astronauts John Glenn and Scott Carpenter. NASA’s representatives argued that 1962 was not a time for experimentation, perhaps astronaut qualifications should be even more demanding in the future.
Women could not become astronauts because the early requirements for NASA’s astronaut corps had gender restrictions invisibly embedded in them. Astronaut candidates needed to be graduates of military test piloting schools. But military flying had been closed to women since the disbandment of the Women Airforce Service Pilots in 1944, just before the end of World War II. Indeed, even if NASA’s administration had been willing to think more broadly about astronaut qualifications, once real human space flights had begun, including women had become far less likely.
Within weeks of the first manned space flights (Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin’s single orbit on April 12, 1961 and American astronaut Alan Shepard’s suborbital flight on May 5, 1961), President Kennedy put the United States on the path to the Moon in a speech to a joint session of Congress on May 25, 1961. Thus ended any moment of spaceflight experimentation that might have existed in the U.S.; NASA focused on preparing for a lunar landing by the decade’s end. In that context, questions about whether women could be astronauts became perceived as potential distractions. (After Valentina Tereshkova became the first woman in space in 1963, the idea of including American women in space flights was dismissed as a political stunt.)
This was the moment, then, in the spring of 1962, as Cobb was campaigning around D.C., hoping to restart the Lovelace testing and eventually sparking the House subcommittee hearings, when Halpern’s letter to JFK arrived at the White House, asking about how a girl could become an astronaut.
Women would not become a part of the U.S. astronaut corps until 1978, when NASA announced the first class of astronaut candidates that included women, African-American men, and an Asian-American man. One of the six women in that group of space shuttle astronauts was Dr. Sally K. Ride, who became the first American woman in space. Meanwhile, Halpern grew up to have a successful career as an attorney, serving with distinction in the Texas Attorney General’s office. In 1983, when Ride flew into space aboard STS-7, Halpern was working as a trial attorney for the U.S. Department of Justice in Washington, DC. She sent NASA’s letter to Dr. Ride to let her know that she was fulfilling so many young girls’ long-deferred dreams of spaceflight. Dr. Ride kept it in her files for the rest of her life.
Margaret A. Weitekamp is a curator in the Space History Department.