AidSpace Blog

Obscure Objects: Ruth Law’s World War I Liberty Bonds Leaflet

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No one could say Ruth Law was a novice. She had been flying since 1912. She was the first woman to fly at night, in a biplane purchased from Orville Wright. She was the first woman to make a living as a professional pilot, ferrying guests to and from the Clarendon Hotel near Daytona, Florida, and she thrilled crowds flying in exhibitions. In 1915, she bought a Curtiss pusher “loop” model, and became the first woman to perform a “loop the loop” aerobatic maneuver, not once but twice in a row. In 1916, she joined the ranks of the great early aviators – male and female – when she set the American non-stop flight record by flying 950 kilometers (590 miles) in a Curtiss pusher biplane that everyone thought was too small and outdated for such a flight. She became a national sensation, was honored and feted by luminaries, and was an inspiration to an entire nation of admirers young and old. Her popularity and flying skills made it possible for her to earn as much as $9,000 a week for exhibition flights, a fortune in those days.

Ruth Law in front of biplane

Ruth Law standing in front of her Wright Model B biplane at the New York State Fair, Yonkers, 1913. Photographer: Underwood & Underwood, Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum (NASM 80-453)

Ruth Law in heavy flying clothing

Pilot Ruth Law (center, in heavy flying clothing with full-face mask) poses in front of her Curtiss pusher biplane on the ground at Hornell, New York, November 19, 1916, during her record-breaking distance flight. Others in the photo are unidentified. Image: Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum (NASM 2007-8692)

So when the United States entered World War I in 1917, Law saw no reason why she shouldn’t serve her country like male pilots, fighting battles in the sky. As she saw it, “Women have qualities which make them good aviators, too. They are courageous, self-possessed, clear-visioned, quick to decide in an emergency, and usually they make wise decisions.”

Law tried to volunteer for the military, but was turned down. “We don’t want women in the Army,” Secretary of War Newton Diehl Baker said. Law persisted, pushing for some official role for women in the war. Eventually, she succeeded in part by becoming the first woman permitted to wear a noncommissioned Army officer’s uniform. She wore the uniform when serving her country by flying recruiting trips. She also gave exhibition flights to help raise money for the Red Cross and Liberty Loan drives.

On her Liberty Loan promotional flights, Law dropped “bombshell” leaflets like the one below, which is in our Archives. Made to look like a smoking bomb, on one side it reads, “You buy a liberty bond or the next bomb dropped on you may be a German bomb. I’ve bought my liberty bond, will you buy yours today? Ruth Law.” On the other side is a photo of Law in her uniform, with words around the edge that say, “I have volunteered to do my bit above the trenches, will you do your bit with your money?”

Both sides of the bombshell leaflet dropped by Ruth Law from her airplane during World War I. Bomb leaflet front (with portrait): Ruth Law Collection,Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum (NASM 9A01635) Back of leaflet: Ruth Law Collection, Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum (NASM 9A01636)

Both sides of the bombshell leaflet dropped by Ruth Law from her airplane during World War I. Bomb leaflet front (with portrait): Ruth Law Collection, Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum (NASM 9A01635) Back of leaflet: Ruth Law Collection, Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum (NASM 9A01636)

However, this limited role of service to the war effort did not stop Law from voicing her chagrin at being turned down for combat. For instance, the July 22, 1917 issue of the Chicago Sunday Herald published an article on the front page written by Law. The headline read, “If the president said to me ‘go get the Kaiser!’ I would fly through the foe’s guarding planes to his headquarters and try to bomb him, says Ruth Law, and prove that the usefulness of women is not a myth.” The article is accompanied by an illustration of President Woodrow Wilson with finger outstretched toward Law in flying gear, with an inset of Law in her military uniform. She also wrote an article titled “Let Women Fly!” in the magazine Air Travel.

After the war, Law picked up where she left off, as popular as ever. She formed “Ruth Law’s Flying Circus” which featured airplanes racing against cars and flying through fireworks. In 1919, she became the first person to deliver air mail to the Philippines.

Spectacular ejecta surround very young impact crater

Ruth Law, in a military uniform, poses beside her Curtiss Model D Headless Pusher. Image: National Air Museum Photography Collection, Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum (NASM A-5532)

Then, in 1922, Ruth did something that would make modern-day feminists cringe: she quit flying at the request of her husband, Charlie Oliver. Although he had been serving faithfully as her manager, he just couldn’t take the stress of seeing her performing risky maneuvers in the air any more. Law explained, “It’s my husband’s turn now, I’ve been in the limelight long enough, I’m going to let him run things hereafter and me, too. Why? Because I’m a normal woman and want a home, a baby, and everything else that goes with married life. Why, I’ve been married almost 10 years to Charlie Oliver, the man who has managed my exhibitions, and scarcely anyone knew who he was. And the poor boy was so worried about me all that time that every time I went up he lost a pound. It was a matter of choosing between love and profession. Of course, I’m just crazy about flying, but one’s husband is more important!”

They retired in California, and she remained interested in aviation but kept her promise to never fly again. Law died on December 1, 1970, at age 83.

The Museum’s Archives has a scrapbook containing items from Ruth Law’s life: photos, news clippings, correspondence, articles, programs, and ribbons. The materials are available to researchers.

Watch a very brief film of Ruth Law taking off in a Curtiss pusher.

Kathleen Hanser is a writer-editor in the Office of Communications at the National Air and Space Museum

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Remembering Test Pilot Eric Melrose “Winkle” Brown

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A Tribute to British Royal Navy officer and experimental test pilot
Captain Eric Melrose “Winkle” Brown
(27 January 1919 – 21 February 2016)

I met Eric Brown in April 2013 at the Royal Air Force Club in Piccadilly, London. Enthusiastically, he had agreed to this meeting to answer my research questions. The first thing I noticed was how agile and slim he looked—barely 5 ft. 7 in. tall, he had the figure of a much younger man and walked the stairs up to the restaurant with the elegance and energy of a man much younger than the 94-year-old man he was at that time.

While listening to him, I was aware that I talked to a true legend: the experimental test pilot who had flown 487 different types of aircraft, more than any pilot in history, and the British Royal Navy officer who had landed more aircraft on carriers than anybody else in the world, a total of 2,407 landings, among them even jet-propelled aircraft. Landing a plane on a pitching carrier in heavy seas, and especially under radio silence as enforced by the conditions of war, Brown once said was like landing on, “a matchbox floating in a bathtub,” and, “a game of Russian roulette.” Asked how he was able to fly so many wildly differing aircraft successfully, Eric responded that his secret was utmost concentration: “Learn her,” he told a fellow pilot, “and then concentrate, concentrate, concentrate!”

Spectacular ejecta surround very young impact crater

Eric Brown as young Lieutenant Commander in the British Navy on December 3, 1945, when he first succeeded in landing a jet plane, the British DeHavilland Sea Vampire, on a British carrier, the HMS Ocean. Image: Imperial War Museum

“Winkle,” as his friends and admirers called him, after a thumbnail-size sea snail known as a periwinkle, loved flying more than anything. In his fascinating memoir Wings on my Sleeve, he said that for large parts of his life he “had an aeroplane strapped to [his] rear end,” from his early days as a student in Edinburgh where he had joined the university’s Air Unit, until his retirement from the Royal Navy in 1970. He took his last flight as a pilot in 1994 at the age of 75.

During his flying years, Brown experienced the transition from propeller to jet flight. As an experimental test pilot, he was at the forefront of this development. Brown was also a pilot of the Fleet Air Arm in the Battle of Britain, shooting down two German Focke-Wulf planes, and in December 1941, surviving the bombing and sinking of the British escort carrier Audacity. His special piloting skills were quickly recognized, and in 1942, he was posted to the Royal Aircraft establishment at Farnborough, a testing site for new aircraft. Here he served as an experimental test pilot and chief test pilot from 1944 to 1949. In 1942, he was decorated with a Distinguished Service Cross, followed by the appointment as Member of the Order of the British Empire in 1944, the Air Force Cross in 1947, and Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 1970. Brown was the most decorated pilot of the Fleet Air Arm and served in the early 1950s as resident British test pilot at the U.S. Navy’s air test center at Patuxent River in Maryland. The California-based Society of Experimental Test Pilots made him an Honorary Fellow. Having been one of the first British pilots trained domestically on helicopters in the 1960s, Brown became director general of the British Helicopter Advisory Board in 1970, and later the vice president of the European Helicopter Association. In 1982, he was made president of the British Royal Aeronautical Society. His last prestigious award was the Founder’s Medal of the British Air League in May 2015.

The pilot’s short size, he claimed, was a big advantage in his work especially during difficult landings, including the 11 plane crashes he survived. Taller pilots would have lost their lives, but Brown was able to simply curl his short legs beneath his seat, or pull his head down, preventing his neck from being broken. More importantly, Brown was never a cavalier pilot, kicking the tires and racing down the runway. Although he had an amazing power to improvise in difficult moments, he meticulously studied the aircraft he was asked to fly, paying close attention to detail—not only for the British planes he tested, but also axis aircraft from Germany, Japan, and Italy captured during World War II, as well as Soviet and American planes. Often, he interviewed the pilots who had flown these aircraft previously. Among them was German pilot Jörg “Czyp” Czypionka, who delivered his Messerschmitt Me 262 to Brown at the end of World War II. “It was my last flight in the 262, and it would be Brown’s first,” Czyp told me. After his flight, Eric had the highest praise for the 262, the world’s first operational jet fighter, calling it, “the most formidable combat aircraft to evolve in World War II.”

Spectacular ejecta surround very young impact crater

The Museum’s Messerschmitt Me 262, similar to the one flown by Eric Brown in 1945.

Brown was also the only non-German pilot to take a powered flight in the Me 163 Komet. The Me 163 was a revolutionary aircraft with an unrivaled performance for its time, flying up to 1,127 kilometers per hour (700 miles per hour) and taking its pilots to the edge of the stratosphere. Driven by a volatile mix of two fuel components, Me 163s killed more pilots during fueling, starting, and landing than in actual combat. Before climbing into this explosive vehicle, Brown interviewed a number of Me 163 pilots, fully aware that, “there was so much to get wrong and virtually no escape route.” But that didn’t stop him from gaining experience on the Komet. Czyp said Brown “was an outstanding pilot, fearless, but when he flew an aircraft he always concentrated and was aware of the character of the aircraft and the task. This is the secret of his success, and his Guardian Angel.” Over the years, a friendship would develop between Czyp and Brown—the British aviator fondly remembering the young German pilot when he met him many years later. Indeed, Brown was deeply respected and beloved among his colleagues: At his 97th birthday celebration in London, just one month ago, he was joined by more than 100 pilots from all over the world.

Eric talked extensively about his experiences, publishing nine books and a truly fascinating series of articles under the title Viewed from the Cockpit. He kept his keen interest in aviation up to the last days of his life; lecturing, writing, patiently and openly talking to fellow pilots, aviation enthusiasts, and even researchers like me. In the late 1980s and 2000, he visited the National Air and Space Museum and talked about his amazing career in aviation.

Brown was not only a witness to the incredible development in aviation technology since the 1940s, he was also a true witness to history, as I noticed that April day at the Royal Air Force Club. He deeply loved Germany and took great interest in the country, its politics, and people. Brown’s father had been a pilot in the Royal Flying Corps in World War I, fighting the Germans in the air. In 1936, Brown traveled with his father to Berlin to attend a meeting of British and German fighter pilots. There, he met German flying aces of World War I like Herman Goering, then head of the German Luftwaffe, and Ernst Udet, then Luftwaffe’s director-general of equipment. As he told me, it was the latter that suggested he learn to fly, and it was these early encounters in Germany that inspired him to learn German and to develop a deep interest in the country.

Brown was in Germany when World War II started on September 1, 1939, and he was back in Germany when the war ended in May 1945. His knowledge of the German language, and his acquaintance with leading personalities of the Third Reich, put him in a unique position: Brown was not only the leading British test pilot for captured German aircraft, he was also the leading expert to interview and interrogate important German aviation personalities: rocket designer Wernher von Braun, aircraft designers and manufacturers Ernst Heinkel, Willy Messerschmitt, Kurt Tank, brothers Walter and Reimar Horten, test pilot Hanna Reitsch, as well as Luftwaffe General Robert Ritter von Greim. But he also interviewed personnel of the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, where about 70,000 inmates had died between 1941 and 1945; half of them from typhus in the last months of the war and in the first weeks after its liberation by British troops in April 1945. Eric interrogated the camp commandant, Josef Kramer, and the female head guard, Irma Grese. When touring the camp, he wrote in his memoirs, “I saw for myself the piled dead, and the still open graves. I tried to speak to some of the silent, shuffling ghosts of men, in their striped rags. They would listen, staring dully at the ground, then step aside and move on. I had known the Germans, I had been happy in Germany. In the war I had made excuses for them, blamed the Nazis. There could be no excuse for this.”

Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, April 1945. A British soldier talks to an emaciated camp inmate after the liberation. Image: Imperial War Museum

In the 1950s, Brown helped to re-establish the Navy Air arm of the young Federal Republic of Germany. A true friend of Germany, he supported the country on its way to democracy, and would keep visiting Germany for many years. In June 2015, at age 96, he even returned to the memorial site of the Bergen-Belsen camp, accompanying the British queen during her visit and sharing his experiences with her.

“Winkle” was a humble and modest man, an unusual hero in the world of flying so often full of big egos blindly fixed on chasing the next record. Flying in the era of outstanding test pilots, during the 1940s and 1950s, Brown never achieved the celebrity status that was afforded to some of his contemporaries—he was not the first pilot to break the sound barrier, he never held a world air speed record, he never performed spectacular public stunts. Yet he was an astounding pilot, of extraordinary skill and versatility, with the perfect mix of courage and caution—one of the best pilots the world has ever seen. The quiet man with the diminutive height was a hero larger than life and a remarkable witness to history. He simply was “the right stuff.”

Many thanks to Jörg “Czyp” Czypionka for sharing his memories of Eric Brown with me.

Evelyn Crellin is the curator for European Aviation in the Museum’s Aeronautics Department

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A New Moon Rises: An Exhibition Where Science and Art Meet

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Scientific images can rival those of the most talented artists, a fact that is now on display in A New Moon Rises at our Museum in Washington, DC. Take, for example, an image of Reiner Gamma, a beautiful and strange feature on the Moon that looks as though a tadpole has been painted across the flat surface of Oceanus Procellarum. The image demonstrates the phenomenon of lunar swirls – bright patterns that some scientists believe may result from the solar wind striking the lunar soil. A localized magnetic field anomaly may have given this swirl its peculiar shape. The photo is densely packed with scientific information. And it is as visually interesting as it is informative. The same can be said of an image of the central peaks of Plaskett Crater, which rise mountainously to more than 1.9 kilometers (1.2 miles) above the shadowed, cratered floor. A nature photographer could hardly ask for a more dramatic landscape.

Spectacular ejecta surround very young impact crater

Spectacular ejecta surround this very young impact crater about 1,400 meters (4,600 feet) across. Image courtesy of NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center/Arizona State University. 

This map shows the highs and lows over nearly the entire Moon, using colors for elevation

This map shows the highs and lows over nearly the entire Moon. The colors represent elevation, from lowest (purple to black) to highest (red to white). Image courtesy of NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center/Arizona State University.

At the heart of this exhibition is a scientific instrument—the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Camera (LROC). LROC is in fact a system of three separate cameras, two telescopic Narrow Angle Cameras (NACs), and one Wide Angle Camera (WAC), that together have taken the highest resolution photos of the Moon to date and have mapped its surface in visible, near infrared, and ultraviolet light. These images are contributing to a new understanding of the Moon and its geology. But surrounded by the images these cameras have produced of the Moon and its dramatically cratered and ridged features, elegantly framed and hung like fine art photography on the walls of the gallery, one is struck by just how interesting—in a way simultaneously familiar and alien—the lunar landscape is. It is art as much as it is science.

Photography and lunar exploration have a long relationship. When the Apollo astronauts landed on the Moon, they carried with them Hasselblad cameras. They used these cameras to document their activities on the Moon, snapping pictures that have become some of the most iconic still images of the space race. They also used photography to provide contextual information for scientists about the areas where they collected the lunar rocks they brought back with them.

But astronauts didn’t take the first pictures on the Moon. By the time of the 1969 Apollo 11 landing, when humans set foot on the Moon for the first time, more than 100,000 pictures of the Moon had already been sent back. Beginning with the Soviet 1959 Luna 3 mission, a host of robotic spacecraft had crashed into, landed on, and orbited the Moon, radioing photographs back to Earth so the Moon could be studied and mapped. Captured on film, processed, and scanned automatically onboard the spacecraft for transmission, or captured using television cameras, these images were key to identifying interesting and safe landing sites for the astronauts to explore. Some of the probes even filmed or took pictures from a similar height to that of the human eye, so astronauts and scientists would have some idea of the landscape they would see when they walked out of the Lunar Module.

Mosaic of the far side of the Moon made with 1,686 images

This mosaic of the far side of the Moon was made with 1,686 images, most of which were acquired during two weeks in 2011 by the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter.

Still, even with such a vast collection of images, some geologists and planetary scientists felt that a human with a camera would be able to identify interesting features that a robotic craft might miss. The Apollo 8 astronauts, who photographed the Moon from the spacecraft, recognized that they had an advantage over the “programed systems of unmanned spacecraft” that had come before them: “This was an opportunity,” the astronauts reported after their flight, “for the observation of another planetary surface in a situation that combined continuously varying viewing geometry and lighting with the exceptional dynamic range and color discrimination of the human eye. Add to this the potential of the experienced human mind for both objective and interpretive selection of data to be recorded.”

Geologists back home on Earth agreed. When the geologist Thomas A. Mutch wrote the very first textbook in the new field of planetary geology, Geology of the Moon: A Stratigraphic View, he collected together the most scientifically interesting photos that had been captured up through Apollo 11. But he began the book not with a picture taken on the Moon, but one taken of the Moon from Earth almost a decade before the Soviet launch of Sputnik ushered in the Space Age. It was the photographer Ansel Adams’ photograph, Autumn Moon, The High Sierra from Glacier Point that adorned the title page of Mutch’s book. Using Adams’ photograph, Mutch made the visual argument that the Moon was the next great frontier for human geologists to explore – a terrain whose geological history could be told in the same way as that of the American West.

The photos on display now in A New Moon Rises bear out Mutch’s prediction that geologists exploring the Moon can reveal interesting things about its history. Just like the images taken by the pre-Apollo spacecraft, these images are being used to identify possible landing sites for future manned missions. But rather than waiting for humans to get to the Moon to perform geologic exploration, the LROC cameras are being used today by geologists on Earth to map the minerals in the lunar surface; analyze the lunar soil; map and characterize lunar surface features; and to refine a chronology of the Moon’s geologic history. With higher resolution and no reliance on film—the cameras use charge-coupled devices (CCD’s), the same technology used in digital cameras and smartphones—scientists are able to collect and compile hundreds of thousands of images, each containing a wealth of geologic information. Along the way, they are also producing stunning images of the Moon the likes of which Ansel Adams may only have dreamed.

Matthew Shindell is a curator in the Space History Department

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Arthur C. Clarke Collection of Sri Lanka Now Publicly Available

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Almost a year ago, the Museum announced that it had acquired papers and artifacts of Arthur C. Clarke (1917-2008), renowned science fiction author and futurist.  Now we can share that the Archives has completed processing the collection and it is open for research.

As we discussed in blogs last year, Clarke was a seminal figure of the 20th century, with his influence still evident in today’s science fiction literature; in the continuing, lively cultural interest in futurism; and, of course, in movies. His collection does what we hope for from any collection of a well-known, highly accomplished individual: to see into his or her processes of creativity and the network of family, friends, and peers that shaped their world.

Arthur C. Clarke reads in his study

From the Collection: Arthur C. Clarke reads in his study, circa 1936. Image: Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum (NASM 9A12591)

For Clarke, too, such shaping was about place: of the countries he called home, Great Britain and Sri Lanka, as well as his strong personal and business attachments to the United States. Not least, though, was his perception and those of others that he was a citizen of a global world, in the throes of rapid change from advances in science, technology, and space exploration. His entire work life was aimed at grappling with the fact and meaning of this change.

The collection, thus, provides a robust, multi-dimensional portrait of Clarke and his time period. As can be seen in the finding aid, the collection is particularly rich in correspondence (especially after 1960); book, short story, and article manuscripts; and photographs. In combination, these materials provide substantial insight into both his professional and private life.

In one of his oft-quoted aphorisms, Clarke offered, “I don’t pretend we have all the answers. But the questions are certainly worth thinking about.” This rich collection captures his pursuit of the questions he saw as central for his time, done in his inimitable style with unfailing wit, optimism, and humanity. The Museum is proud to be stewards of this legacy that will benefit researchers for years to come.

Martin Collins is a curator in the Space History department and Tyler Love is an archivist with the Museum.


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Inventing Underwater Training for Walking in Space

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Training underwater for extravehicular activity (EVA)—popularly known as spacewalking—is now critical for preparing astronauts to work in weightlessness. But when cosmonauts and astronauts first ventured outside their spacecraft 50 years ago, in 1965 and 1966, they had no such training. Spacewalking did not appear difficult, nor did space program officials think that underwater work was needed.

In the United States, it took Eugene Cernan’s June 1966 Gemini IX EVA to change attitudes. Fighting against his pressurized suit, while trying to do work without adequate handholds and footholds, Cernan quickly became exhausted and overheated. Only afterward did NASA Manned Spacecraft Center in Houston reach out to a tiny company outside Baltimore: Environmental Research Associates, Inc. (ERA). Funded by another agency center, it had been experimenting with EVA simulation in a rented school pool on nights, holidays, and weekends. That project became the foundation for Houston’s first underwater training facility. In parallel, NASA Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, had begun doing its own experiments. Together they effectively co-invented “neutral buoyancy training,” so-called because astronauts in weighted, pressurized suits have to be made neutrally buoyant to simulate zero gravity.

G. Samuel Mattingly in the Orbital mockup in 1966

G. Samuel Mattingly, ERA co-founder, in the Orbital Workshop mockup in 1966. Image courtesy of Sam Mattingly.

Medical researchers had been aware for some time that water immersion could be a useful simulation of weightlessness. A handful had been experimenting with it to understand the effects on the human body. But when human spaceflight began in 1961, with the Yuri Gagarin and Alan Shepard flights, EVA concepts were fairly primitive. In the space advocacy and science fiction literature of the 1950s and earlier, one can find magnetic shoes, jetpacks, and “bottlesuits” (miniature spacecraft), but no systematic attempt to understand work in space. Little thought had been given to the implications of Newton’s third law of motion—for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction—even though it was the foundation of rocket motion. For an individual in zero-G, however, a simple act like turning a bolt would be become difficult if not anchored in place: twisting a wrench would result in one’s body rotating in the opposite direction. But working outside the spacecraft was not an urgent problem when it was challenging simply to orbit a man (and in those days only a man). It was not until the Soviet Union and the United States began working on their second human spacecraft—Voskhod and Gemini—that EVA became something to train for. But both sides already had zero-G airplanes, in which weightlessness could be created for about 30 seconds by flying parabolas. Underwater training seemed like too much trouble.

In the U.S., neutral buoyancy experimentation began in 1963 and 1964 at aerospace companies and at NASA Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia. Space station studies were the primary motivation. These stations, both civilian and military, were supposed to be launched in the late 1960s or 1970s, meaning that work inside and outside in zero-G would become essential. Boeing in Seattle was the first company to build its own facility, followed by General Electric and others. Yet corporate work petered out in the late 1960s with the decline in the government space budget, leaving little legacy.

Neutral Buoyancy Test

McDonogh pool with Gemini equipment in 1966. Image courtesy of Sam Mattingly.

The Langley project came out of a study for a small NASA station. ERA founders Samuel Mattingly and Harry Loats had been working on a contract for the Virginia center and were briefed on it. Mattingly suggested that the station lacked an airlock for getting in and out in a vacuum without losing its entire atmosphere. That led to a discussion of how big the airlock should be and what the mechanics of entering, exiting, and turning around in it were. Their Langley contract monitor, Otto Trout, had a clear plastic airlock mockup built for testing, but it was immediately obvious that one-G simulations had limited realism. Mattingly and Loats borrowed some Navy pressure suits and one day in spring 1964 they sunk the mockup in the officers’ club pool on the adjacent Air Force base. But effective work was hardly possible, so Trout let them take the mockup back to Baltimore. Mattingly quickly made a rental arrangement with the McDonogh School, a private military boys’ school in the northwest suburbs, near Owings Mills, Maryland. In July, the ERA project began with time-and-motion studies. At the only dive shop in the area, Mattingly and Loats recruited college-aged scuba enthusiasts to serve as test subjects and safety divers. Scuba tank and regulator technology were only 20 years old and had led to a fast-growing hobby. It became an enabling technology for inventing neutral buoyancy training.

Neutral Buoyancy Test

Neutral Buoyancy test in the McDonogh pool with the NASA Langley airlock mockup, October 1965. Image courtesy of Sam Mattingly.

Because of the ERA project’s effectiveness and low cost, Otto Trout managed to extend the contract several times through mid-1966. But Mattingly had had no luck interesting NASA’s Houston center. Before and after Edward White’s first U.S. spacewalk in June 1965, officials there told him that they just did not need neutral buoyancy. They had the zero-G airplane and a frictionless air-bearing surface at the center, which provided a two-dimensional analogue to weightlessness. White’s EVA had been easy, except for getting back in his seat and closing the hatch over his head, but he had done no real work other than that. Aleksei Leonov’s dangerous crisis three months earlier, when he tried to get back in his airlock with an overinflated suit, had been concealed from the world. The next U.S. spacewalk, by David Scott on Gemini VIII in March 1966, was canceled because the spacecraft made an emergency return to Earth. So when Cernan had frightening problems on June 5, Houston officials were caught off guard.

Coincidentally, Mattingly and Loats staged a demonstration at the McDonogh pool 10 days later in the hope of keeping their project afloat. Representatives came from both Houston and Huntsville (Marshall had been conducting its own experiments since fall 1965). Don Jacobs from Houston saw neutral buoyancy’s value in preparing for the rapidly approaching Gemini X, XI and XII missions, all of which had spacewalks. But ERA’s work on procedures came too late in the rushed schedule to be of help to the first two crews. But there was time to train Buzz Aldrin at McDonogh, the EVA astronaut on the last Gemini flight. His November 1966 spacewalks demonstrated that careful procedures, plus the extensive use of tethers, handholds, and footholds, could manage the workload of working in a rigid, pressurized spacesuit in zero-G. It gave a clear message that the EVA problem could be mastered. (The other critical technology was the water-cooling undergarment introduced in Apollo suits.)

Buzz Aldrin Trains at McDonogh Pool

Buzz Aldrin training for Gemini XII in the McDonogh Pool, fall 1966. Image courtesy of Sam Mattingly.

Back in late July, Manned Spacecraft Center Director Robert Gilruth had already decided that Houston needed its own pool. A tank used for water egress training was moved and retrofitted by summer 1967. That pretty much was the death knell for ERA’s project, and eventually for the company, which had served its purpose in inventing the appropriate tools and procedures for neutral buoyancy. In parallel, NASA Marshall had gathered its own experience and had seen what ERA had accomplished. In late 1968 it finished the construction of a much larger tank that became essential to the Skylab and Shuttle programs. Houston went on to build two more facilities. The last, the gigantic Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory opened in 1997, has made the construction and maintenance of the International Space Station feasible. Yet it all went back to a handful of people working in a school pool outside Baltimore.

Buzz Aldrin Signed Photo

Buzz Aldrin signed a photograph for Sam Mattingly to thank him. Image courtesy of Sam Mattingly.

Michael J. Neufeld is a senior curator in the Museum’s Space History Department. For an in-depth examination of the above story, see his co-authored article with John B. Charles of NASA Johnson Space Center, “Practicing for Space Underwater: Inventing Neutral Buoyancy Training, 1963-1968,” Endeavour 39, 147-159.

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