AidSpace Blog

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

Restoring the Museum’s “Battling Beast”: The Curtiss SB2C-5 Helldiver

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On Friday, March 14, 2014, the Museum will put on display its latest restored aircraft, a Curtiss SB2C-5 Helldiver, at the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center. For those of you attending the Center’s Open House on Saturday, January 25, you will get a chance to tour the Mary Baker Engen Restoration Hangar and see some of the work-in-progress firsthand  (note that the fuselage will not be on view). In anticipation of those events, I would like to share with you some aspects of my work on our example of the famous American World War II dive bomber.

The U.S. Navy accepted the Museum’s Helldiver on May 19, 1945, at the Curtiss-Wright factory in Columbus, Ohio. All Helldivers leaving the factory of that time would be a glossy “Sea Blue” and covered in numerous stencils that facilitated easier operation and maintenance. The aircraft went to Naval Air Station (NAS) Port Columbus, located on the same airfield, three days later. It was prepared for transfer to Guam in the Pacific Theater in San Diego in June for assignment to a Carrier Air Service Unit, arriving there in July. This Helldiver never saw combat, but served with various other Navy units until 1948 and entered the Museum collection in 1960. The artifact went on loan to the National Naval Aviation Museum (NNAM) in 1975 and returned to the Smithsonian in 2003.


The Helldiver fuselage after its arrival in the Restoration Hangar in 2010.


The Museum’s Helldiver will be repainted as it appeared during the early phase of its assignment to Bombing Squadron (VB) 92, the “Battling Beasts,” on USS Lexington (CV-16) during September-December 1945. An interpretation of the photographs from the squadron yearbook and archival collections revealed that VB-92 aircraft markings changed while on Lexington. As they cruised toward Japan to take part in the occupation, VB-92 Helldivers featured the geometric symbol system used officially by Navy carrier groups during the earlier period of January to July 1945. Lexington’s symbol was a broad white diagonal bar on the vertical stabilizer and the wingtips. There is no explanation for the existence of the unauthorized geometric markings on VB-92 aircraft in September. The Lexington war diary held in the National Archives stated a general dissatisfaction with the authorized carrier letter identification system (“H” for Lexington) introduced in July 1945. Lexington’s officers and crew found it difficult to identify aircraft at distances beyond 400 yards during operations. That experience may have influenced the return to the geometric symbols when VB-92 embarked upon Lexington. Nevertheless, at some point, probably after the squadron had reached Tokyo Harbor and was under the scrutiny of official Navy directives, VB-92 changed its carrier identification markings to the authorized letter system. Due to the uniqueness of the earlier markings to VB-92, I chose the geometric symbol scheme for the Museum’s Helldiver.


The only known VB-92 Helldiver to be photographed up close, “215” flown by Ensign Bob Sobey, illustrates the geometric symbol scheme of the squadron’s early days on Lexington. This and the following photographs served as the guide for the Museum’s restoration project. I think the only reason these photographs were taken was because they depicted a landing accident, which was an all-too-common occurrence for Helldiver aircrew due to restricted visibility at landing. Ens. Sobey missed the arrestor cables and is about to hit the crash barrier. Robert L. Lawson Photograph Collection, National Naval Aviation Museum.


VB-92 Helldiver


In these two photos, there are great details to be gleaned for reference, including the diagonal stripes, extensive stenciling on the airframe and propeller, side number placement, the glossy finish of the Sea Blue paint, and the distinctive VB-92 “Battling Beast” unit insignia that you can see just forward of the pilot’s windscreen. What else do you see in these photographs?


When the Museum’s Helldiver was on display at the NMNA, its markings included the letter “H” on the rudder to indicate its assignment to the aircraft carrier Lexington, which followed the authorized carrier letter identification system for the fall of 1945.


Getting to the point where I knew how the Museum’s Helldiver looked during its initial squadron assignment would not have been possible without the input of VB-92 veterans and their families. A stack of documentary records provided by squadron members came with the Helldiver after its long stay at the NNAM. They included an amazing document that referenced VB-92’s aircraft by their official airframe (called the BuNo or Bureau of Aeronautics number) and aircraft, or side, numbers. Regardless of whether the Museum’s Helldiver featured white diagonal bars or “H”s on the wings and empennage, the correct side number for BuNo 83479 is “208.”

Reed Rollins, who served with VB-92 as an aircraft radioman and gunner and flew in this specific Helldiver, confirmed many of these details and shared with us important documentation, including the colors for the Battling Beast insignia.


This is a closer look at the Battling Beast insignia. Navy aircrews nicknamed the Helldiver “The Beast” due to its size and handling qualities. VB-92 adopted that into their squadron name with pugilistic flair. Courtesy of Reed Rollins.

VB-92 Squadron

VB-92 Squadron members in 1945. Courtesy of Reed Rollins.


Charles French was also a member of VB-92 in 1945 that also flew in the rear cockpit of “208.” When he visited the Helldiver in the Restoration Hangar last May with his family, he donated his logbook to the Museum’s Archives.

Charles French

As an aircraft radioman and gunner, Charles French operated twin .30 caliber machine guns from the rear cockpit. During his visit, he was able to see the progress of the Helldiver restoration.


Michael Converse donated his father’s squadron yearbook, The Battling Beasts: Bombing Squadron Ninety-Two, December 1944-1945, to the Museum’s Archives. Lt. (jg) Knox Converse was the assigned pilot to “208” during Lexington’s cruise from Tokyo back to the United States in November 1945. Michael has been an enthusiastic supporter of the project and reveals how the children of the “Greatest Generation” are ensuring that their family connections to World War II will continue.


Michael Converse created a collage of photos from the VB-92 squadron yearbook to recognize his father’s time as a naval aviator. Courtesy of Michael Converse.


Making these discoveries and connections with the history, people, and technology of naval aviation during World War II through the Helldiver has been a great experience. I hope visitors will enjoy seeing the artifact on display this spring.


Jeremy Kinney is a curator in the Aeronautics Department of the National Air and Space Museum.

It’s Museum Selfie Day! Go Ahead, Snap Yourself

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Jennifer and Sadie

Exhibit designer Jennifer Carlton and her daughter Sadie in front of a turbofan engine in America By Air.

Today, January 22nd, is Museum Selfie Day. Museums everywhere are joining in on the selfie phenomenon, one that in 2013 earned “selfie” Oxford Dictionaries’ word of the year and inspired an exhibition examining the cultural significance of digital self-expression. The National Air and Space Museum is a selfie canvas every day and we appreciate the many inspiring and often highly entertaining photos that visitors share of themselves in front of historic air and spacecraft. As we pause to celebrate the self-portrait of the digital age, Museum staff (and their kids!) decided to get in on the action and demonstrate some of the prime selfie vantage points at our two museum locations.

At our Museum in Washington, DC, one of the most popular self-portrait stops is in front of The Space Mural — A Cosmic View by Robert T. McCall.  The artist painted the mural on the lobby wall before the Museum opened in 1976. It remains an iconic visual and a natural magnet for visitor photos to this day. The mural is also large enough and high enough to accommodate a variety of creative selfie angles.

Ashley Hornish

Exhibit designer Ashley Hornish’s selfie in front of the Robert McCall Space Mural

The Stewardess Requirements display in the America by Air exhibition is a convenient mirror selfie option. Visitors learn about the strict standards that stewardesses had to meet in the 1950s.  Would you qualify?  Check yourself in the mirror and snap a selfie.


Sadie, daughter of exhibits designer Jennifer Carlton, isn’t quite old enough to meet the 1950s stewardess requirements. You had to be 21-26 years old.

The model of a full Space Shuttle stack in Moving Beyond Earth is also a popular selfie backdrop. Not to scale, of course.

Mike Hulslander

Educator Michael Hulslander in front of the Space Shuttle model in Moving Beyond Earth.

The expansive Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, VA offers an abundance of selfie options.

The overlook that greets visitors upon entering the Udvar-Hazy Center provides a closeup view of the shark teeth on the nose of the Curtiss P-40 Warhawk, braved here by Archives museum specialist Allan Janus.

Curtiss P-40

Allan Janus in front of the Curtiss P-40 Warhawk.

Or, you can go long to capture the Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird and Space Shuttle Discovery in the background.


A panorama from the Boeing Aviation Hangar overlook, the first view that greets visitors. So many selfie options.

A selfie with Space Shuttle Discovery is a must. At the nose and back are very popular selfie spots, but from the top of the south staircase you can get the entire spacecraft behind you. Or, take a photo from the balcony to get your face cozied up next to the “Discovery” name on the orbiter’s starboard side.

Allan Janus

Archives museum specialist Allan Janus poses with Space Shuttle Discovery for museum selfie day. Sound Suppression Water System not required.


Not Your Typical Selfie

Here is a rare selfie.  In 2007, staff volunteered to model for plaster casts needed in our new America by Air exhibition. Exhibits designer Jennifer Carlton snapped a photo of educator Tim Grove as he took a selfie with the plaster cast of himself.  So meta.

Tim Grove

Tim Grove, Chief of Museum Learning at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, DC,  poses for a meta selfie with a plaster cast of himself on display in the America by Air exhibition.

If you want to go beyond the common selfie, or you happen to be a shy selfie taker, a shiny airplane or astronaut suit visor might be just the trick.  We have plenty of reflective surfaces that enable a covert selfie.

Mike Hulslander

Educator Michael Hulslander reflected in the visor of this reproduction spacesuit.

Join in! Snap a photo of yourself in our museum or dig up any selfies you’ve taken here in the past and share them via social media using #MuseumSelfie.  We’ll be watching for yours and sharing more of our own.


When Did The Aerospace Selfie Take Off?

If you thought the aerospace selfie was relatively new, take a look at these high flying selfies that beg the question, when was the first aerospace selfie taken?

One of the most famous images of the Apollo program is also a selfie of Neil Armstrong reflected in Buzz Aldrin’s visor.


Lunar module pilot Buzz Aldrin stands on the lunar surface during Apollo 11, the first manned mission to land on the Moon. Apollo 11 commander Neil Armstrong, who took the photograph, and the lunar lander can be seen reflected in Aldrin’s visor. Photo credit: NASA

Few may be able to top this F-16 pilot selfie, snapped while deploying flares and rolling the aircraft. Source: @DuffelBlog

What about spacecraft? Selfies are actually common practice for landers as a means to verify that they landed safely. Surveyor 1 was the first U.S. spacecraft to make a soft landing on another world in June of 1966. The first photos it returned to Earth were partial selfies of its footpad on the Moon.

Survey 1

Surveyor 1 footpad selfie, on the Moon! Photo credit: NASA

Do you have a favorite historic aerospace selfie? Share it with us!

Victoria Portway is the Chair of the Web and New Media Department at the National Air and Space Museum.