AidSpace Blog

A Challenging Space at Air and Space

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The new Boeing Milestones of Flight Hall has to be one of the most challenging spaces that an exhibition team could design. It has multiple conflicting functions. As the entrance to one of the world’s busiest museums, it must accommodate millions of visitors each year. In some ways it’s a giant hotel lobby, a sorting chamber where people go in many directions and must be able to quickly figure out how to get to where they want to go. Signage must be excellent. The welcome desk, or concierge desk to keep the hotel analogy, must be easy to find with clear sight lines to indicate its location.

The Boeing Milestones of Flight Hall prior to renovation in late 2014. Photo: Mark Avino | NASM2014-02477

The Hall must also serve as an introduction to the Museum. Although we don’t have an official orientation area, we must somehow convey the themes and content of the rest of the Museum in a way that will excite visitors about the prospect of exploring our more than 21 exhibition galleries. We must offer a taste of the stories that we tell and the historical people that visitors will find throughout the Museum.

The Milestones of Flight Hall was designed to be awe-inspiring and must continue that tradition. It features some of the Museum’s most popular artifacts, from the Spirit of St. Louis, to the Bell X-1, and the first American jet airplane, the Bell XP-59A Airacomet. We are definitely keeping those in place and upping the power punch with the addition of the Apollo Lunar Module and an addition sure to make a certain group of visitors very happy, the Starship Enterprise studio model from the Star Trek television series (1966-1969). Any of these artifacts could easily be the star of its own exhibition. One iconic artifact that once hung front and center in the Hall, was the 1903 Wright Flyer. Museum staff moved it into a temporary exhibition, The Wright Brothers & The Invention of the Aerial Age, to celebrate the centennial of flight. The exhibition presents the airplane at eye level and tells the rich and fascinating story of the artifact. The exhibition proved so popular that it became a long-term exhibition.

The Boeing Milestones of Flight Hall during renovation in early 2015. Aircraft like the Spirit of St. Louis and the Bell X-1 were lowered from the ceiling and examined and treated by the Museum’s conservation staff. Photo: Eric Long | NASM2015-02926

And thus one of the main challenges of the space: How much information can we include about each icon when each one could fill their own exhibition? As an educator, I want to engage people with each artifact’s story, to provide historical context, and to offer various interactive experiences sure to keep visitors engrossed for a long time. Yet, remember the sorting chamber? People can’t stay too long because more people will be coming and going through the doors. Finding the right amount of information is a huge challenge. There is much historic video footage to include with each artifact. We want to show each one in action. Then there is the challenge of the natural light pouring in from above. I love the natural light in the space, but it is not terribly conducive for video displays.

Not only has the Milestones of Flight Hall hosted millions of visitors every year since 1976, but it has also been the host to some amazing historic icons, including the crew of Apollo 11. Neil Armstrong (left), Buzz Aldrin (center), and Michael Collins (right) gathered at the Milestones Hall in 1979 for an event commemorating the 10th anniversary of the famous Moon-landing mission. Photo: Smithsonian Archives

To help layer information, the Milestones of Flight team has developed a digital wall, text panels with labels, video, and a new mobile experience. Labels will encourage visitors to make connections, to meet some of the many people in history who interacted with the artifacts, and to look closer at how the artifacts are designed.

On top of all of these challenges, the space is used many times each year for special evening events. It’s transformed by night into an appealing venue for dinners and programs. It can accommodate about 400 seated guests, a stage, and room for live music. Its layout must be flexible to accommodate these functions.

Meeting the demands of the space has required numerous meetings and long discussions. In the end, we hope to meet those challenges and find balance so that the Boeing Milestones of Flight Hall can continue to inspire each visitor to look up and marvel at the gleaming machines that have soared into the sky.

Tim Grove is chief of Museum Learning at the National Air and Space Museum.

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Earth is Shaping the Shrinking Moon

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Planetary science is one of those fields of research where you can always count on being surprised. The remarkable terrain of Pluto and Charon in images being sent back by the New Horizons spacecraft certainly qualifies. One of my all-time big surprises is from a recent discovery on an object much closer to home—the Moon. You might think the Moon has given up all its big secrets by now, after centuries of study by telescope, then robotic orbiters and landers, and ultimately by the Apollo astronauts, but that isn’t the case.

I have the good fortune to be involved in one of the recent missions to the Moon, the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO).  LRO was launch in June 2009 and has been returning amazingly detailed images of the Moon ever since. One of my main goals as a member of the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Camera (LROC) team was to look for evidence of small fault scarps, or cliffs. Before LRO’s arrival, only a relatively few of these fault scarps had been discovered in the very limited high resolution Apollo era photographic coverage available. After about a year in orbit and with only about 10% of the surface covered by high resolution LROC Narrow Angle Camera (NAC) images, we reported the discovery of 14 fault scarps widely distributed on the lunar surface. These lobate thrust fault scarps, formed when the lunar crust is pushed together, breaks, and is thrust upward, are evidence that the Moon is shrinking. Now, after more than six years in orbit, the LROC NAC images cover nearly three-quarters of the lunar surface. The first big surprise is how many fault scarps have now been found—over 3,000!  In fact, these globally distributed fault scarps have emerged as the most common tectonic landform on the Moon.

Lobate scarps like the one shown here are like stair-steps in the landscape formed when crustal materials are pushed together, break, and are thrust upward along a fault forming a cliff. Image: NASA/GSFC/Arizona State University/Smithsonian

Topography derived from the LROC Narrow Angle Camera (NAC) stereo images shows a degraded crater has been uplifted as the fault scarp, in the Vitello Cluster, has formed (blues are lower elevations and reds are higher elevations). Boulders in the crater have aligned in rows that parallel the orientation of the fault scarp. Image: NASA/GSFC/Arizona State University/Smithsonian

The map shows the locations of over 3,200 lobate thrust fault scarps (red lines) on the Moon. The black double arrows show the average orientations of the lobate scarps sampled in areas with dimensions of 40° longitude by 20° latitude and scaled by the total length of the fault scarps in the sampled areas. The pattern of the black double arrows (orientation vectors) indicates that the fault scarps do not have random orientations as would be expected if the forces that formed them were from global contraction alone. Image: NASA/GSFC/Arizona State University/Smithsonian

The large number of thrust fault scarps is not the only big surprise. We think the fault scarps are formed by cooling of the Moon’s still hot interior.  This causes the volume of the interior to decrease and the Moon to shrink. A shrinking Moon should generate a global array of thrust faults scarps with no particular pattern in the orientations of the faults because the contracting forces are equal in all directions. The second big surprise is the fault scarps don’t have random orientations! Something else is influencing their formation and that something else has to be acting globally.

There are other forces acting on the Moon, but they don’t come from the lunar interior; they come from Earth. These are tidal forces. The Moon is tidally locked—this is why we always see the same hemisphere—and is slowly receding from Earth. This slow recession causes stress to build up over time. Just as the Sun and Moon raise tides on Earth, Earth’s gravitational pull causes tides on the Moon. As the Moon orbits the Earth, the lunar crust rises and falls by a small amount generating stresses. These tidal stresses are relatively small compared to the stress from global contraction, and here’s the third big surprise: when we modeled the tidal stresses and superimposed them on stresses from global contraction, the combined stresses predicted an array of faults with orientations in a distinct pattern. That predicted pattern of faults is remarkably similar to the observed fault orientations! In fact, this close relationship between the Earth and the Moon goes back to their origins, but what a surprise to find the Earth is still helping to shape our shrinking Moon.

Tom Watters is senior scientist and geologist in the Center for Earth and Planetary Studies at the National Air and Space Museum.

Interested in reading more? Findings from this research are reported in the paper Global Thrust Faulting on the Moon and the Influence of Tidal Stresses, published in the October issue of the journal Geology. Or simply admire the Moon from afar this Saturday for International Observe the Moon Night.

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Remembering Frank E. Petersen Jr.

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Frank E. Petersen Jr.
First black U.S. Marine Corps pilot

Frank E. Petersen served as a combat pilot in the Korean and Vietnam wars. The Marine Corps aviator rose to the rank of lieutenant general. Photo: Smithsonian Institution SI-99-15485

The first black Marine Corps pilot and general officer, Frank E. Petersen Jr. died on August 25 at the age of 83. Born in racially segregated Topeka, Kansas, Petersen decided to join the Navy at age 18 after hearing about the Korean War combat death of Jesse Brown, the Navy’s first black pilot. Peterson took the Navy’s entrance exam in 1950, two years after President Harry Truman had ordered the integration of the U.S. Armed Forces. He aced his aptitude examination twice—first under normal circumstances and a second time under the close scrutiny of an examiner who suspected he had cheated.

In 1952 Petersen, then a Marine, was commissioned as a second lieutenant and became the Marines’ first black aviator. He went on to fly 350 combat missions during two tours in Korea and Vietnam, and became the first African American in the Corps to command a fighter squadron, an air group, and a major base. Yet even while becoming one of the nation’s most prestigious military pilots, he continued to endure racial discrimination in the civilian world. He learned when to hold his tongue and when to strike back.

Peterson was promoted to brigadier general in 1979. The NAACP named him its “man of the year” for becoming the first black general in the military service that was the last and most resistant to integration. He earned the rank of lieutenant general in 1986 and spent the next two years as commanding general of the Combat Development Command at Quantico, Virginia. Petersen retired from the Marine Corps in 1988 after 38 years of service. At that time, he held the titles of “Silver Hawk” and “Gray Eagle.”

After leaving the military, Petersen became a vice president for corporate aviation at Dupont de Nemours. He retired in 1997.

Cathleen Lewis is a curator in the Space History Department

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Building a Spacesuit out of Spare Parts

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I never would have guessed I’d spend the summer building a spacesuit. It isn’t exactly your typical internship. But with a lot of “spare” parts generously donated to the Museum by the manufacturer, ILC Dover, there’s a spacesuit just begging to be assembled. I spent weeks figuring out how to put this suit together, and with more than 400 parts in the collection, it’s not as simple as you might think. Especially when the manual is classified.

Spacesuits are incredibly complex engineering feats. They have to be. The spacesuit is the only thing that separates the astronaut from the deadly vacuum of space. Modern suits have 14 layers of material, plenty of hardware, wiring, and a host of life support systems to keep the astronaut alive. The Spacesuit Assembly Extravehicular Mobility Unit (SSA EMU), the suit currently used for spacewalking at the International Space Station, is built from replaceable parts that can be adjusted to fit each astronaut. Since these suits are reusable and have interchangeable parts, the Museum hasn’t been able to acquire a whole suit. That’s why we’re putting one together from the parts we do have in the collection.

Astronaut Rick Mastracchio, STS-118 mission specialist, participates in the mission’s first planned session of extravehicular activity (EVA) to continue construction on the International Space Station, August 11, 2007. Mastracchio is seen wearing the SSA EMU. Photo: NASA S118-E-06304

So how do you build the most complicated type of garment ever invented without any instructions? You write your own manual. While it won’t be completely assembled and displayed just yet, this manual will be used to help guide staff on how to put the pieces together in the future. After carefully studying the parts, looking at Apollo manuals, and other documents, I completed my own set of step-by-step instructions. Some of the parts in the collection are already assembled. The arms, for example, were nearly ready to attach to the hard upper torso. But other parts are down to just the bare hardware. I had to figure out how to put these together from the different layers of the suit and all the brackets, joints, screws, o-rings, and … the list goes on.

One piece at a time, the author works to build a modern spacesuit out of a mix of parts in the Museum’s collection with the help of curator Cathleen Lewis.

Patricia’s manual will help staff in the future put the spare parts back together again.

To build a suit, you start with three major layers. The suit has to be pressurized so that the astronaut can breathe, so an inner layer called the pressure bladder is needed. Next, the restraint layer keeps the spacesuit from ballooning in space and goes over the pressure bladder. Then the joints—which have inner and outer races, seals, ball bearings, spacers, and so on—attach to the first two layers of the suit, allowing the different parts to lock together. After you attach the joints, you screw on the restraint brackets. And don’t forget the electrical cables! These must be secured underneath the Thermal Micrometeoroid Garment (TMG), the outer layer that protects the suit from tiny micrometeoroids hurling through space. This final layer can be zipped, laced, and velcroed into place. Once all the parts are assembled, it’s time to put them together using complicated locking mechanisms and other techniques.

Building a spacesuit requires a lot of attention to detail. After all, it’s not like you can go to the store, pick up a hammer, needle, and thread and throw the suit together. But the challenge is what made this a great project to work on. If you ever find yourself building a spacesuit, just remember to take it one small step at a time.

Patricia Dawson is  working towards a Masters in History at the University of Nebraska at Kearney. This summer, she interned with curator Cathleen Lewis in the Museum’s Space History Department.

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We’re Sending the USS Enterprise Back in Time

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You can help. Conservators at the Emil Buehler Conservation Laboratory are working to restore the original, 11-foot studio model of the USS Enterprise, used in all 79 episodes of the television series Star Trek, to its appearance from August of 1967. We are looking for first-hand, primary source photos or film of the ship’s early years. Images of the model during production or on public display anytime between 1964 and 1976 will help conservators determine the model’s exact configuration at different stages of its journey. Hailing frequencies are open at

The Star Trek starship Enterprise model used in filming of the original Star Trek television series as it looked on display in the National Air and Space Museum’s Rocketry and Spaceflight gallery in Washington, DC in 1987.

The model, composed primarily of wood, sheet metal, and plastic, was built by the Production Models Shop, a company in Burbank, CA, in 1964. It underwent several modifications during production of the series, the last of which was completed in August of 1967, at the end of filming for the episode “The Trouble with Tribbles.” We hope to restore the Enterprise to that configuration.

The Star Trek starship Enterprise model outside the Production Model Shop in Burbank, CA, December 29, 1964. Image copyright Volmer Jensen, provided by Steven Keys

Following the cancellation of the series, the model was crated and stored at Paramount Studios. Before being donated to the Smithsonian, it was displayed only once at Golden West College in Huntington Beach, CA in 1972. The event was Space Week, a ten-day menagerie of science activities, including exhibits of NASA hardware, a speech by sci-fi writer Arthur C. Clarke, and an appearance by the world’s favorite retired Constitution-Class starship. More than 50,000 people visited Space Week, and the Enterprise conservation crew hopes some of them brought their Kodachrome and Instamatics.

The Star Trek starship Enterprise model on display in the Smithsonian Arts and Industries building in 1975.

In 1974, the model made the voyage to its new home in Washington, D.C., where it was displayed in the Smithsonian’s Arts & Industries Building. On July 1, 1976, the beginning of America’s Bicentennial weekend, the brand-new National Air and Space Museum building opened its doors to the public. The Enterprise was prominently displayed at the entrance to the Life in the Universe gallery. The Enterprise will go back on display in the Boeing Milestones of Flight Hall in time for the Museum’s 40th anniversary next summer. Watch for updates on the Museum’s social channels or join the conversation by using #MilestonesofFlight.

Star Trek Starship Enterprise model on display in the "Life in the Universe" gallery in 1976.

Star Trek starship Enterprise model on display in the Life in the Universe gallery in 1976.

Did you or someone you know encounter the Enterprise during its working life in Hollywood between 1964 and 1969? Did you attend Space Week at Golden West College in 1972 or see the ship at the Arts & Industries building in 1974/75? Were you one of the five million visitors who saw the ship in the new National Air and Space Museum in 1976? If so, the Museum wants your photos! To find out how to submit electronic copies of first-hand photos or film of the Enterprise studio model, please e-mail

Please note: Screen captures from episodes, previously published photos, or images currently available online are not needed.


Nick Partridge is a public affairs specialist at the National Air and Space Museum

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