It was about five years ago that Museum specialist Amanda Young announced that she had found a publisher, Powerhouse, for her book on the Museum’s collection of spacesuits. The book features the photographs of Mark Avino and the x-rays of many of the spacesuits in the collection that he and Roland Cunningham had created and assembled. The book represented an overview of Amanda’s work on the largest collection of spacesuits in the world. I am confident in that assessment as my specialty is Russia and the USSR and I have seen the only other museum collection that rivals it outside Moscow. Amanda also announced that she was retiring as soon as the book came out and that, oh, by the way, the Smithsonian Traveling Exhibition Service (SITES) wanted to do a traveling show based on the book. I had just finished my dissertation and had agreed to take on the collection. I brushed aside any concerns of the additional burden of a traveling exhibit with no inkling of what such work would entail.
As any curator knows a book and an exhibition are not the same thing. The latter requires objects, while the former is satisfied with illustrations. Of course, SITES’s first question about the exhibit was would they be able to borrow a spacesuit to travel with the exhibit. The answer was no. As Amanda explained in the book and the opening panels explain in the exhibit, spacesuits, built to withstand the harsh conditions of space for a short period of time, are made of a combination of materials that require strict handling, temperature, and humidity controls for preservation over the decades. With that answer, the SITES team swung into action, using the photographs and x-rays as objects in an exhibit on spacesuits. Project manager Devra Wexler developed a script that used preservation as one of its main themes and Registrar Viki Possoff incorporated ten small National Air and Space Museum items and a NASA replica suit into the exhibition. This show uses Mark Avino’s photographs and x-rays both as the artwork they are and as surrogates to tell the story of the history and preservation of the Museum’s spacesuit collection.
Beyond the production of the exhibit, SITES worked with DuPont, which had made many of the layers that shielded the Apollo astronauts, to arrange sponsorship of the show. Once the SITES exhibit was completed and about to open at its first venue in at the Chicago Museum of Science and Industry, the National Air and Space Museum and SITES presented a kick-off event in November 2010, sponsored by DuPont. The event covered the history, development, use and materials of the Apollo spacesuit. The evening featured talks by Vlodek Gabara of DuPont on the textiles of the Apollo spacesuits; Joseph Kosmo, a NASA spacesuit engineer for 50 years, who spoke on the Apollo suit requirements from the NASA perspective; astronaut Joseph Kerwin on his role testing, wearing and making sure that the suits worked and, of course, Amanda Young on preserving these national treasures after use. This framework of materials, development, use and preservation defines the exhibit.
Here is what you will see in the exhibit. As I said before, there are no real spacesuits in the exhibit. Suits from the national collection are far too fragile to travel throughout the country. But in Suited for Space, Mark Avino’s artistry has brought out the personalities of each suit. The x-rays allow the visitors to see beyond what is visible to the naked eye, through the protective layers of the suit, to see the complex systems embedded inside. As previously mentioned, there are ten items from the collection in the exhibit. We have a pre-human spaceflight Mark IV Helmet from the early days. From Apollo 11 we have on display: a Biobelt Pouch, a Pressure Suit Oxygen Coupler, and a Pressure Suit Purge Plug. We also have examples of the iconic Apollo artifacts including an A7-L Bubble Helmet, a Lunar Overshoe that was used for training and a Left EVA Glove that astronaut Vance Brand used for training. And, to combine the discussion of bodily functions with museum preservation in a unique and surprising way, we have included an In-Suit Drinking Device, an Apollo Fecal Collection Assembly and a Urine Collection and Transfer Assembly. The replica Apollo suit that NASA has generously loaned for this exhibition allows our visitors to place each of these objects into context.
Through rare and original photography, including unique, new x-ray images of the interiors of the spacesuits, the exhibit reveals how the modern technological marvel that is the spacesuit enables astronauts to live and work in space. This exhibit reveals the remarkable creativity and determination of the extraordinary few who ventured into space, as it highlights and showcases the brilliant ingenuity of the hundreds more who worked tirelessly—and often anonymously—to get them there. The show follows the chronology of American human spaceflight, through Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo. The show also includes examples of spacesuits that did not fly, including prototype, contract, and advanced spacesuits that were never meant to fly in space, but to demonstrate technological principles here on Earth. And it intrigues us with an image of a suit recently under development for human missions to lunar bases, Mars, and beyond.
I would like to point out that this exhibit is only a teaser to our visitors and all those interested in spacesuit development. It is our hope that in the future, we will be able to replicate closely the storage conditions for our suits into displays and will be able to make use of new imaging technologies for research and understanding. Our collection is precious, but as we learn more about the maintenance of the materials that comprise the suits, we hope to master increasingly sophisticated ways to display our collections so that audiences throughout the world can share them as well as their photographs and x-rays.
Cathleen Lewis is a curator in the Space History Department at the National Air and Space Museum.
One of the primary objectives in the Museum’s previous collection surveys has been to identify artifacts which are actively deteriorating and require stabilizing treatments prior to being relocated to the new storage facility at the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Virginia. These artifacts with active corrosion, mold contamination, hazardous materials, and physical insecurities were set aside for a team of three contract conservators to perform specialized treatments. Currently a one-year conservation treatment project is underway with a goal of completing 200 small artifacts. All conservation documentation, examinations, and treatment are being performed in the newly built Emil Buehler Conservation Laboratory at the Udvar-Hazy Center.
One notable artifact to pass through the lab during this project is this mock up antenna drive for the Ranger VIII. The Ranger VIII was an unmanned spacecraft that traveled to the Moon in 1965 to take pictures of the lunar surface. It crash landed on the surface, as was planned, but before it crashed it sent back thousands of images which were used to help determine a possible landing site on the Moon.
This antenna drive was flagged for immediate conservation treatment due to the large and unique nature of the magnesium corrosion.
As seen in these photographs before conservation, the magnesium corrosion is the white powder that is growing on the object. The corrosion is very interesting as it formed spiraling threads as it grew that are up to 3/4 inch long.
As this corrosion has a unique structure and is not often studied in art conservation, I conducted elemental analysis using X-ray fluorescence and x-ray diffraction (at the Museum Conservation Institute) to determine the composition of the base metal and the corrosion elements. I found that the metal is an alloy composed of magnesium and zinc that is plated with a layer of copper and topped with a layer of gold plating. I also looked at the corrosion through both a stereomicroscope and a HiROX 3-D microscope to see the corrosion structure.
Once I had an understanding of the corrosion, I began removing the corrosion products from the surface to stabilize the object. I used electrolytic reduction to soften the hard mass of corrosion spirals, then working with various scalpels and fine picks, I slowly removed the corrosion from the surface of the object. Under the corrosion products the magnesium surface was pitted and I was surprised to find some of the corrosion pits were very deep at about 1/8 an inch. This seemed very large as the object has only a two-inch deep magnesium core. Another interesting challenge was to avoid using water during the cleaning as it was found that this magnesium alloy is sensitive and corrodes when exposed to water. Once the corrosion products were removed and knowing this objects sensitivity to water it became important to add a moisture barrier to protect the antenna drive from atmospheric moisture. The moisture barrier was created by applying many layers of a clear acrylic resin.
Another research angle I am studying is the effect of the storage unit for this object. After the Ranger VIII mission was completed, this antenna drive mock up was stored in a custom made wooden box that was lined with polyurethane foam. The wood and foam unfortunately were off-gassing corrosive byproducts in this closed box. I am continuing to study how the corrosive byproducts accelerated and contributed to the magnesium corrosion formation. In discussion with the curator Roger Launius, it was decided to store the antenna drive separate from the wooden box since the box will continue to cause corrosion. The antenna drive is now stored in an archival box with custom-made foam supports and the original box is stored in a separate location. This object is now stable and safely stored, but this project sparked a larger study into the stabilization of magnesium corrosion on artifacts in the Museum’s collection.
This project is Phase I of a multi-phase plan and is supported by the Smithsonian Collections Care and Preservation Fund, administered by the National Collections Program and the Smithsonian Collections Advisory Committee.
Sharon Norquest is a contract conservator in the Collections Department of the National Air and Space Museum.
With seed funds from the National Science Foundation (NSF), the Observatory first opened in 2009 as part of the Museum’s celebration of the International Year of Astronomy. Since then, visitors and students have experienced astronomy through our educational activities while the observatory enjoyed support from the NSF and the Goodrich Foundation. With the new gift from the Thomas W. Haas Foundation, the observatory will be refurbished, and it is now named the Phoebe Waterman Haas Public Observatory in memory of Thomas Haas’ grandmother. The Museum’s astronomy education program, with the observatory as its centerpiece, will be active in sharing astronomy with Museum visitors and students for years to come.
So, who was Phoebe? We are learning more each day, but much of what we now know comes from an article by Thomas R. Williams that was published in The Journal of the American Association of Variable Star Observers in 1991. Phoebe was a woman who loved astronomy and pursued it to a level reached by few women of her time. She was one of the first women in the United States to earn a doctorate in astronomy. Her PhD was awarded by the University of California, Berkeley 100 years ago, on May 14, 1913. At the time when she was a student, women who were professionally involved in the field of astronomy worked as computers, performing data analysis and making calculations to support the work of research astronomers, all of whom were men.
A few years after graduating from Vassar with degrees in mathematics and astronomy, Phoebe worked at the Mt. Wilson Observatory in California as a computer, classifying and reducing the spectra of stars and studying the rotation of the Sun. She worked with many leading astronomers of the day: George Ellery Hale, Walter S. Adams, J.C. Kapteyn, and Harold D. Babcock. But she realized that she wanted to make her own observations and analyze the data herself. She wanted to be a fully professional astronomer, because she really loved the science.
And so she did. Phoebe went to graduate school at the University of California, Berkeley and made observations at the Lick Observatory near San Jose. She was perhaps the first woman to operate a major telescope — the 36-inch refractor at Lick — to gather her own data for her research program. In fact, the spectrograph she used with the 36-inch refractor is on display here in the Explore the Universe gallery. Phoebe’s research was a study of the spectra of Class A stars. Hers was the first dissertation by a woman published at Lick Observatory, and her degree was awarded on the same day as another female classmate of hers. Upon completion of her doctorate, Phoebe was on her way to work at the Argentine National Observatory at Cordoba when she met businessman Otto Haas. Not long after, they married, and her life’s path shifted course from professional astronomer to wife and mother.
Phoebe’s completion of a PhD in astronomy was, indeed, a major accomplishment for a woman in her day. That she chose to marry and not continue on as a scientist is also revealing of her times, and we hope to learn more about how she made this decision, and how she felt about it in later years. But we at the observatory are just as excited that she continued to be involved in astronomy and shared her love for it with her children, a devotion every bit as significant, we feel, as choosing to be engaged in astronomical research professionally.
Phoebe purchased a telescope in 1927 and began observing the night sky again. She taught her sons astronomy and shared views through her telescope with friends and family. She also made observations of variable stars — stars that change in brightness — and reported them to the American Association of Variable Star Observers (AAVSO), reviving her involvement in observational astronomy and data collection. Later on, she supported the AAVSO by performing calculations of the brightness of variable stars, as well as by making a financial gift each year.
The thing that resonates with us as astronomy educators is that there are many ways to be involved in astronomy, and Phoebe is an example of nearly all of them at some point in her life: studying astronomy in school, taking observations with telescopes and analyzing the data, working at an observatory professionally, amateur stargazing in the back yard, teaching children, family, and friends about astronomy, making scientific observations and performing calculations to participate in citizen science efforts, reading about the latest discoveries in astronomy, and even donating money to support research efforts and astronomy education.
We hope you will join us at the Phoebe Waterman Haas Public Observatory — your place to be involved in astronomy, whether by making an observation through a telescope, talking with others who share your interests, or even serving as a volunteer to help us share an enjoyable observing experience with others. You’ll be in good company with the over 170,000 other people from around the world who have already observed with us, and millions more who have looked through a telescope at some point in their life.
We are only starting our own journey, getting to know Phoebe. Join us!
Katie Nagy is the astronomy education program manager at the National Air and Space Museum’s Phoebe Waterman Haas Public Observatory.
In 1911, the first airplane to fly across the United States completed the more than 4,000-mile journey over 49 days, in 82 hours flying time, at an average speed of 51.5 miles per hour. It was an extraordinary aviation milestone in its day. Just eight years after the Wright brothers inaugurated the aerial age with their historic first flights at Kitty Hawk, Calbraith Perry Rodgers, also flying a Wright airplane, demonstrated the feasibility of crossing the country by air. Fast-forward 102 years and a century’s worth of aviation progress and we are heralding another US trans-continental flight. An unusual looking, four-engine, single-place, 200-foot wingspan airplane called Solar Impulse is making the same journey the pioneering Cal Rodgers did in 1911. Solar Impulse flies at a little less than 50 miles per hour average speed and is covering the 4,000 miles over about two months in a little more than 80 hours flying time. Wait a minute. Less than 50 miles per hour, over two months, in 80 hours flying time? Doesn’t sound like progress, does it? Why are we pointing to Solar Impulse as a significant aviation achievement? Here’s why. On the flight across America, Solar Impulse does not consume a single drop of fuel!
As the name implies, Solar Impulse’s four electric motors run entirely on solar energy. The airplane is an extraordinary engineering accomplishment. It can take off in the morning, fully charge its batteries in just a few hours by the solar cells in the wings, and store enough energy to fly all night. It is a totally self-sustaining, clean energy, environmentally friendly aircraft. Solar Impulse won’t be setting any new speed marks or carry any payload or passengers. But that’s not what pilots Bertrand Piccard and André Borschberg, and the Solar Impulse team, are after. They are not out to break any traditional aviation performance records. Their goals are much more visionary. They want to take aviation in an entirely new direction, and show the potential of solar energy.
As has so often been the case since the Wright brothers first flew, path breaking achievements in aviation have influenced the world well beyond flight technology. In numerous ways, the world we live in was shaped and defined by progress in aerospace. Everything from the composition of our material world, to the commerce of our economic system, to the social and cultural dimensions of globalization, to the philosophical contemplation of our place in the universe, has been influenced by developments related to flight technology. The Solar Impulse team seeks to take their place among the trail blazers who have done more than achieve another aviation milestone. They wish to be pioneers in shaping a world where solar energy has a profound role in the way we live. At the beginning of the first aviation century, when Cal Rodgers rolled the wheels of his Wright airplane into the surf of the Pacific Ocean at the end of his transcontinental journey, many sought to envision where aviation would take us. Today, in the second decade of the second aviation century, we are asking the same questions. What will the next hundred years of human flight bring? In the year 2113, how will we be flying and what broader applications of flight technology will be influencing our daily lives? It may be hard at this moment to see the long-term influence of Solar Impulse. But in 1911, when Rodgers made the first flight across America, it wasn’t so clear that in a hundred years we would be routinely jetting back and forth from coast to coast in just a few hours. Maybe, decades from now, if solar energy technology becomes a prominent component of human sustainability, we’ll recall the name Solar Impulse and say, those people had pioneering vision and helped to build the future. I think Cal would agree, even if his airplane did fly faster.
Peter L. Jakab is Chief Curator of the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum
Historic photos in this post are from the National Air and Space Museum Archives
In this video, Peter Jakab talks with pilots Bertrand Piccard and André Borschberg about Solar Impulse’s place in aviation history:
Uncle Sam and two lovely ladies cruise serenely above the clouds — avoiding all those holiday traffic jams — in this patriotic postcard by the great postcard artist Ellen Hattie Clapsaddle (1865-1934), who had a real talent for holiday-themed airships. The postcard was mailed in July, 1910 by a woman named Rose of Charleston, West Virginia to her friend Emma in Homestead, Pennsylvania. “Dear Old Girlie,” she wrote, “Guess you will take your ‘4th’ swing in a porch swing instead of an air ship.”
Hoping you’ll have a festive Fourth, either aloft or earth-bound. I’ll be sticking to my porch swing, myself.
Allan Janus is a museum specialist in the Archives Department of the National Air and Space Museum.