AidSpace Blog

10 Years on Mars

Posted on

For the last ten years while participating in the missions of the Mars Exploration Rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, I have watched in amazement as the beauty of Mars was revealed via images associated with discoveries made by the rovers. From stark alien landscapes, to others looking vaguely familiar, to gorgeous Martian sunsets, these images have often appeared to me to be both scientifically important and artistic.

sunset on Mars

The Mars Rover Spirit took this sublime view of a sunset over the rim of Gusev Crater, about 80 kilometers (50 miles) away. Taken from Husband Hill, it looks much like a sunset on Earth—a reminder that other worlds can seem eerily familiar. Sunset and twilight images help scientists to determine how high into the atmosphere the Martian dust extends and to look for dust or ice clouds. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Texas A&M/Cornell

Following that theme, I had the idea of displaying images from the rovers in an art gallery so as to highlight both their beauty and results from the mission. Over the past couple of years, and with the help of numerous members of the rover science team, an exhibition, called Spirit & Opportunity: 10 Years Roving Across Mars, was conceived and assembled in the Museum’s art gallery.

The exhibit consists of around 50 images selected from the thousands taken by the rovers and follows them in approximate chronological order as they trundled across the surface of the Red Planet. There is also a full scale model of the rovers surrounded by panoramas that give the impression of standing on the surface of Mars. Finally, there are several hardware artifacts that include engineering models of the rover “guts,” a wheel, and calibration target for the cameras that includes a sundial.


The Spirit rover acquired this mosaic on Sol 210 (August 5, 2004). The view spans about 55 degrees. Pancam’s 753nm, 535nm, and 432nm filters were used to create this image. Two versions are provided at full resolution: an approximate true color rendering, and a false color rendering which enhances the subtle color differences between different rock and soil units in the scene. Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell

The rovers were tasked with interpreting the role of water in shaping both landing sites, and a number of major discoveries were made by both rovers. In Gusev crater, Spirit documented craters and volcanic plains before reaching the nearby Columbia Hills and discovering ancient fumarole, or hot spring, deposits around a feature dubbed “Home Plate.” These deposits were initially discovered when a dragging, failed wheel on Spirit uncovered them from beneath a dusty surface cover. At Meridiani Planum, Opportunity discovered hematite concretions formed in ground water and dubbed “blueberries” by the science team, and ancient water-lain ripple marks that document past water at both the surface and in the ground. While locales explored by both rovers achieved the mission goal of understanding the role of water in shaping the landing sites, the water associated with ripples at the Meridiani landing site was relatively acidic as compared to fresh water in most lakes and rivers on the Earth. Nevertheless, had life been present, it may have been able to survive. Unlike Spirit, Opportunity landed very near to rocks that confirmed many of these discoveries, and the rover spent the ensuing years fleshing out the story of water in Meridiani that began in Eagle crater where the rover landed. These discoveries detail a long history of wind and water across the Meridiani plains.


These loose, BB-sized, hematite-rich spherules are embedded in this Martian rock like blueberries in a muffin and released over time by erosion. The Mars Rover Opportunity found this cluster of them at its Eagle Crater landing site and analyzed their composition with its spectrometers. Hypotheses about their formation have contributed to the story of water on Mars. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell University

LIon King

This approximate true-color panorama, dubbed “Lion King,” shows “Eagle Crater” and the surrounding plains of Meridiani Planum. It was obtained by the Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity’s panoramic camera on sols 58 and 60 using infrared (750-nanometer), green (530-nanometer) and blue (430-nanometer) filters. This is the largest panorama obtained yet by either rover. Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell

The exhibit includes images related to these and other discoveries and gives the visitor the sense of what it would be like to participate in field work on Mars. However, instead of donning boots and tools and leaving behind footprints, the visitor can see where the rover imaged and ground into rocks, leaving behind tracks that tell a story of exploration and discovery.

For more information about Spirit and Opportunity, watch this video of the Jan 7 panel discussion with Museum and NASA experts.

John Grant is a geologist in the Center for Earth and Planetary Studies at the National Air and Space Museum. He is a member of the Science Team for the Mars Exploration Rovers since 2002 and is one of six Science Operations Working Group Chairs responsible for leading day-to-day science planning of the rovers.

First Flight?

Posted on

First Flight

With Orville Wright at the controls and Wilbur Wright mid-stride, right, the 1903 Wright Flyer makes its first flight at Kitty Hawk, NC, Dec. 17, 1903.

December 17, 2013, marked the 110th anniversary of the first powered, controlled flight of an airplane. Wilbur Wright had made the first attempt three days before, when the brothers laid their 60 foot launch rail down the lower slope of the Kill Devil Hill. That attempt ended with a hard landing only 105 feet from take-off, with minor damage to the machine. It was Orville’s turn to make the first attempt on December 17. He had set up a camera that morning, pointed at the spot where he thought the airplane would be in the air. When John T. Daniels walked up the beach with three other surf men from the nearby Kill Devil Hills Lifesaving Station, Orville asked him to squeeze the bulb operating the shutter if anything interesting happened. The result was what has arguably become the most famous photograph ever taken.

Recently, however, some skeptics have suggested that the image does not depict a real flight at all.  The over the ground distance of Orville’s first attempt, they note, was only 120 feet — only fifteen feet farther than Wilbur’s abortive first attempt on December 14. Neither of the trials achieved a distance of 300 feet, which, the Wrights later suggested, was the point after which an aviator has achieved sustained flight, and “…has really done something.”

But look a little closer. On December 14, Wilbur covered 105 feet in only 3.5 seconds, while Orville was in the air for twelve seconds. Why was the flight of December 17 so much slower? On December 14, Wilbur took off into a wind of just four to eight miles per hour. The combination of a very light wind and the launch rail laid on a downhill slope resulted in the airplane rushing into the air so fast that Orville could not keep up with it by running along on the ground. Because of the low wind speed, the distance travelled through the air (ground speed plus the velocity of the wind into which the machine is moving) was only 224 feet.

On December 17, on the other hand, Orville took off from the sand flats near their camp and flew into a headwind gusting from 24 to 27 miles per hour. The speed of the machine over the ground was perhaps eight miles per hour, so low that Wilbur, as seen in the famous photograph, had no trouble keeping up. This time, while the distance over the ground was only 120 feet, the true distance flown through the air into that headwind was calculated at 540 feet, well beyond the 300 feet the brothers had decided would constitute a sustained flight. Each of the four flights that the brothers made that morning was longer than the one before, culminating in Wilbur’s final effort just before noon, in which he flew 852 feet over the sand in 59 seconds. Proof that the Wrights were thinking in terms of speed and distance flown through the air, as well as over the ground, is to be found in the telegram that they sent to their father, in which they reported an average speed of over thirty miles per hour, almost three times their actual ground speed.

Other critics of the first flight photo point to the extreme positive angle of the canard elevator, arguing that the surface is stalled, which has caused the wings to stall, insuring that the flight is about to end.  In fact, the photo simply captured a moment in time when the elevator was at the extreme point. The hinge point was near the center of the surface, which, as Orville noted, “…gave it a tendency to turn itself when started, so that it turned too far to one side and then too far to the other.” Evidence that Orville was able to recover and continue flying is to be found in the photograph itself.

The airplane took off by running down a monorail track made up of four fifteen foot lengths of two by four, set on edge with a cap strip on top. The brothers tell us that the airplane took off that morning after a run of forty feet. The photo shows the craft directly over the end of the track. So, when the photo was snapped, the airplane had traveled only twenty feet or so over the ground and had been in the air no more than two or three seconds, moving slowly forward into the teeth of the strong headwind. Far from being stalled, the airplane is in full flight and still has one hundred feet to travel over the ground — and almost 500 additional feet through the air — in the next nine to ten seconds.  Given the distance flown through the air, and the evidence provided in the photo of Orville’s being in control of the craft under what can only be regarded as very difficult circumstances, the photo is just what it seems to be, an astounding image of the world’s first airplane at the outset of its first flight.

I am not alone in that view. Dr. Paul Dees, a Boeing aerodynamicist and an authority on the aerodynamics of pioneering aircraft, remarks: “Was the December 17, 1903, famous first airplane flight shown on that famous photograph really a flight?  You bet it was!” NASA engineer Norm Crabill, who was involved in wind tunnel testing a full-scale reproduction of the 1903 Wright airplane concurs: “…the physics substantiate the picture — the airplane is flying.” Is all of this important? I certainly think so! The first flight photo is familiar to millions around the word as a symbol of the Wright achievement. That is worth understanding, explaining, and defending.

Tom Crouch is senior curator in the Aeronautics Department of the National Air and Space Museum.

The WASP in the 2014 Rose Parade

Posted on


Members of the WASP (Women Airforce Service Pilots) are pictured at Lockbourne Army Air Field in World War II. From left to right are Frances Green, Margaret (Peg) Kirchner, Ann Waldner and Blanche Osborn. The WASP were civilian women pilots who flew in non-combat situations for the U.S. Army Air Forces during the war.

The fearless WASP are at it again and if you know who I mean you will not be surprised at their latest mission –  “flying” a float in the annual Tournament of Roses Parade on New Year’s Day 2014 in Pasadena, California. These intrepid women, the Women Airforce Service Pilots aka WASP, easily illustrate the theme of this year’s Rose Parade, Dreams Come True, as that is what happened for each woman selected to be a WASP.  And although their dreams of flying for their country were realized for only a short but critical time during World War II, their dreams came true in the form of today’s female military pilots. Now, the WASP will be a part of a great American tradition thanks to their determination and to the continuing generosity of their supporters, the Wingtip to Wingtip Association.

Nancy Love

Nancy Love, director of the WAFS (Women’s Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron).

In September 1942 two programs were established at the request of U.S. Army Air Forces Gen. Henry H.  “Hap” Arnold for utilizing women pilots for the domestic war effort:  the Women’s Auxiliary Ferry Squadron (WAFS) headed by Nancy Love and the Women’s Ferrying Training Detachment (WFTD) led by Jacqueline Cochran.  On August 5, 1943, the two organizations merged into the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP) with Cochran as director.

The increasing deployment of military pilots to the Atlantic and Pacific theaters resulted in the need for more pilots to ferry the increasing number of military aircraft from U.S. manufacturing facilities to bases and points of embarkation and women wanted to be a part of the effort.  Cochran and Love had very different strategies but the same goal – to create a women’s air corps, a pool of qualified female pilots to deliver military aircraft to wherever they needed to go, and free up male pilots for combat duty.

As head of the WAFS, Love initially recruited 27 highly experienced women pilots between the ages of 21 and 35 with high school diplomas, a commercial license, and minimum of 500 hours of flight time.  After their flight checks, the WAFS immediately began repositioning military aircraft.  Meanwhile Cochran’s Women’s Ferrying Training Detachment (WFTD) recruited female pilots with as little as 35 hours and gave them a 23-week flight training program, the same as male cadets and with military instructors, in a segregated group at Avenger Field in Sweetwater, Texas (after a brief stint in Houston) where they followed strict military procedures including drilling and taking an oath of allegiance. The women wore ill-fitting male mechanics suits, known as Zoot suits, or pants and A-2 leather jackets until Cochran oversaw the design of official WASP uniforms, the color known as Santiago Blue, on which they could pin their silver WASP wings. The important difference was that the women were civilians; militarizing them was too controversial.  Still, more than 25,000 women applied and 1,830 were selected for the program. The first WFTD class graduated in December 1942.

Jacqueline Cochran

Jacqueline Cochran, director of the WASP (Women Airforce Service Pilots).

Ultimately 1,102 women flew 60 million miles for the paramilitary WASP and the U.S. Army Air Forces. They delivered 12,650 aircraft representing 78 different types. They flew every aircraft in USAAF inventory including high-performance pursuit aircraft, such as the P-51 Mustang, and large four-engine B-17 and B-29 bombers.  In addition, they towed targets for cadet fighter training, transported military personnel and cargo, and flew engineering tests flights, including one in the second model of America’s first jet, the YP-59.  WASP also flew radio-controlled target planes (early drones), flight tested repaired aircraft or became flight instructors in aircraft or Link trainers/simulators. In essence, they did or flew whatever was asked of them.

Throughout the program, the  accident and fatality rates  for women and men were the same.  Thirty-eight women gave their lives in the course of duty to their country but because they were civilians, their families, and in some cases their fellow WASP, had to pay the funeral expenses.

The WASP program ended abruptly in December 1944 after a bitter fight over the possible incorporation of the program into the military.  With the end of the war in sight, perceptions were that women were no longer needed or even wanted—military pilots (men) would return to reclaim flying jobs.  In addition, a headstrong Cochran, determined to remain in charge of any women’s air corps, complicated efforts to merge the WASP with other existing female military units, such as the Women’s Army Corps (WACs), in which they would have served as experienced military pilots. The dreams of WASP were over.

The WASP went home, most married and raised families; many continued to fly but only a few established real aviation careers. But the legacy of the WASP remained as they had soundly proven that women could fly military aircraft.  Still, it took more than 30 years of social, cultural, and legal changes to allow American women to train as military pilots, beginning in 1977, albeit for limited aircraft and flight duties, i.e. no combat.  In fact, women have only recently been widely accepted as fully-vested military pilots.

The first installment of the nation’s debt to the WASP was paid in 1977 with a bill authorizing retroactive partial veteran status.  Since then, with continuing World War II anniversary celebrations, the WASP have received acknowledgment and gratitude for their service.  Then, in 2009, President Obama signed legislation awarding the Congressional Gold Medal, the nation’s highest civilian honor, to these extraordinary women who served their country as first-rate stateside pilots during World War II.

Congressional Gold Medal

Congressional Gold Medal

The National Air and Space Museum is honored to display the Congressional Gold Medal awarded to the WASP in March 2010 at the U.S. Capitol (each WASP or her family received a bronze medal).  Sitting on a shelf in the Military Women’s Case at the Museum’s Udvar-Hazy Center, it is surrounded by uniforms and memorabilia of women of the WASP, the Women’s Auxiliary Ferry Squadron (WAFS), the Air Force (USAF) and the Navy (USN).  WASP uniforms and flight materiel are also displayed in the flagship Museum’s World War II gallery.

Riding the float in the Rose Parade will be a walk in the rose garden for the surviving WASP but more importantly it will be their largest public recognition ceremony ever — the estimated worldwide viewing audience is 74 million people!  Be one of them on New Year’s Day!

For further information on the WASP and their Rose Parade Float project please contact or Kate Landdeck. Texas Woman’s University Libraries serves as the official repository for WASP archives, oral histories and collections.

Dorothy Cochrane is a curator in the Aeronautics Department of the National Air and Space Museum.

Archeoastronomy of the Longest Night

Posted on

As our northern hemisphere days begin to lengthen, I like to think about the many ways people have marked the Winter Solstice throughout human history. Like Summer Solstice (the longest day), the equinoxes, and motions of the planets and Moon through the sky, Winter Solstice has long been observed, recorded, and used to construct special buildings.

Some of these buildings were erected so long ago that no written record of their use is available today, but they clearly point at cultures that valued the knowledge of precisely when the longest night of the year occurs. Two ancient cultures in the northern hemisphere whose monuments I’ve visited come to mind: Celtic and Anasazi.

Maeshowe was built ~5000 years ago, making it one of the oldest Neolithic monuments we know of in the world, on Orkney Island in the far north of what is today Scotland. It is a large mound that is green and grassy in the summer, and has a special relationship with the setting Winter Solstice Sun. On December 21, at the end of a dim day when the Sun skims along the horizon, sunlight creeps along a long passageway in the mound and illuminates the back wall of a small stone chamber at the heart of the mound. Long ago people decided that this was an important enough day to warrant building a huge monument to mark its happening.


The rays of the Winter Solstice setting sun reach the same stone chamber at the center of the Maeshowe mound. Photo by Evie McRae with Creative Commons license.


Were they motivated by a spiritual desire to connect to the natural rhythms around them? Were they a small elite group of early astronomers, or were they made up of an entire community of interested individuals? The Maeshowe chamber is too small for more than a dozen or so people to be in at once, so whatever activity happened 5000 years ago in that seemingly sacred space was seen by only a few people at a time. (Note: sunlight actually reaches into the chamber for several days before and after the Winter Solstice, since the sunset moves slowly across the horizon at this time of year…creeping as far north as it will set all year, and then creeping back south along the horizon as the days lengthen again).



Sunrise at Winter Solstice shines light along a narrow path into the heart of Newgrange. Megalithic art decorates the entrance. Photo by Hofi0006 with a Creative Commons license.


Newgrange is located in Ireland, and is also an ancient mound of the same era with a small, central stone chamber and a narrow passageway pointing out to the Winter Solstice sun. In this case, the passage is aligned with sunrise, when sunlight comes in a small stone box above the entryway to shine on the far back wall of the central chamber. Another contrast to Maeshowe is that human (cremation) remains have been found in Newgrange, indicating that it was perhaps a tomb or a site for ritually remembering the dead. Perhaps remembering the dead was linked to the Winter Solstice because the Sun was associated with life and therefore the darkness with death? Or maybe it was a burial tomb for one fantastically powerful ruler, and that person had a special connection to the longest night of the year?

One detail that points to Newgrange and Maeshowe being more than just practical, observational devices for tracking the motion of the Sun in the sky is that the weather is often overcast. Would the Sun shine along these passages every year, or would clouds prevent it nine times out of ten? Was the window of a few days on either side of the Winter Solstice when the Sun rises and sets in approximately the same place on the horizon useful so that at least one of those days every year might be cloud-free? With no written records, it might not ever be clear what the people who built these architectural wonders intended them to be used for.

Another ancient culture that built great structures to mark the motion of the Sun on the horizon is the Anasazi. They also left no written records, but some inkling of their Sun-observation practices and motivations might be gleaned from modern Zuni and Hopi Sun-watchers, who are using the same landscape for their practice, if not necessarily for the same reasons as the people did 900 years ago in what is now southwest Colorado and northern New Mexico.

In Mesa Verde, the two towers of the Sun Temple can be viewed from a special location across the canyon at Cliff Palace such that the Winter Solstice sun rises between them. That special spot is marked with a divot in the rock, and is not far from a tall tower that may have been used to watch the Moon as well, as inferred from pictograms inside the tower that seem to mark out its motion across the horizon, a pattern that repeats every 18.6 years, something a few ancient cultures observed and recorded. This set of buildings had more kivas, circular ceremonial rooms of stone sunken into the ground, per house than any other village in Mesa Verde, itself a hub of agricultural and ritual life ~900 years ago. Apparently keeping close track of the Sun and Moon was important at Cliff Palace, and perhaps for the entire community who lived in the area.

One mystery about the site remains unsolved though: were the towers the Sun rises between tall enough to see from Cliff Palace, or was the apparently unfinished structure of the Sun Temple, and indeed the entire set of villages in Mesa Verde, abandoned before it could be regularly used? Was there a temporary wooden structure built on the Sun Temple tower foundations every year, or was the divot at Cliff Palace used only to determine where to build the Sun Temple in the first place?

Sun Temple

From across the canyon, the Winter Solstice Sun appears between the two circles in this Sun Temple. National Park Service photo.


Further south and east is the collection of Chaco Canyon villages that were built at the same time, when perhaps the climate was more conducive to farming and supporting large populations in what is now an arid landscape. Again a special location in one village, in this case a room with an unusual corner-window in the Pueblo Bonita archeological site, has a great view of the horizon, and is oriented such that the Winter Solstice sunlight would come through the window and illuminate the back wall of the room.

Nearby is perhaps the most convincing Anasazi archeological site for telling us, without words, that they carefully watched the Sun throughout the year. A huge butte sticks up out of the landscape, with several giant slabs of stone leaning against its side. Behind one of these are a few petroglyphs, spirals carved into the stone. They precisely mark the solstices and equinoxes. The Winter Solstice Sun, around midday, creeps through gaps between two slabs of stone and sends two narrow daggers of light down the rock behind them, along either side of the larger of the spirals. At Summer Solstice, instead one light dagger pierces the middle of the spiral, and at equinoxes a smaller nearby spiral is traced down its center by a smaller dagger of light. (See an animation.) Clearly this location was a place to confirm the special days of the Sun’s motion in our sky. Today Sun-watchers in local cultures keep track of the Sun’s motion both for the sake of timing important ceremonies and to let their communities know when it is time to plant seeds, two aspects of life that perhaps cannot be disentangled. Was this true for people at Chaco Canyon and Mesa Verde? Were their Sun-watching practices pragmatic, ceremonial, or both?

All we really know in the case of Neolithic structures built in Ireland and Scotland ~5000 years ago, and in the case of markers of the Sun’s motion used by people in the southwestern United States ~900 years ago, is that they built precisely aligned structures to mark the special days they observed year after year, particularly when the Sun was the lowest in the sky and up for the shortest amount of time. Just like today, the coming of longer days was likely a cause for celebration by the communities that created these amazing examples of archeology.

Happy lengthening of the days!

Michelle Selvans is a geophysicist in the Center for Earth and Planetary Studies at the National Air and Space Museum.

A Very Wellman Christmas

Posted on

If any snow falls in Washington, DC, locals scramble for their milk and toilet paper, turn up the heat, and hide under their blankets.  Imagine celebrating the Christmas holiday inside a hut 600 miles south of the North Pole!

“Winter Coming Down on the Little Hut”

“Winter Coming Down on the Little Hut” – The Wellman Polar Expedition’s headquarters, dubbed “Harmsworth House” at Cape Tegetthoff, Hall Island, Franz Josef Land. (NASM 9A10651).


In 1898, Walter Wellman led an attempt to reach the North Pole using ship and sledge via Franz Josef Land, a group of uninhabited Russian islands in the Arctic Ocean.  A journalist who had already made an unsuccessful polar attempt in 1894, Wellman also hoped to discover what had become of Swedish explorer Salomon A. Andrée, who had attempted to reach the Pole via balloon in 1897. Many notable names provided funding for the expedition, including President William McKinley, Vice President Garret Hobart, J.P. Morgan, and William K. Vanderbilt.

The expedition arrived at Franz Josef Land in July 1898 and built their headquarters, “Harmsworth House.”  Wellman sent Evelyn B. Baldwin, a meteorologist with the United States Weather Bureau and a veteran of one of Robert Peary’s Greenland expeditions, ahead north to establish an outpost to be used in the spring for their push to the Pole.  Leaving two of their Norwegian colleagues to winter in the outpost, Baldwin returned to Harmsworth House.

In two photographs from the National Air and Space Museum’s Walter and Arthur Wellman Collection (Acc. No. 2004-0007), Wellman and Baldwin celebrate Christmas 1898 at Harmsworth House.  Wellman writes in his journal and Baldwin is cutting part of his Christmas “feast.”

Walter Wellman

Walter Wellman celebrates Christmas in Franz Josef Land on December 25, 1898. (NASM-9A10648).


Walter Wellman

Evelyn Baldwin celebrates Christmas in Franz Josef Land on December 25, 1898. (NASM-9A10656).












































































In a New Year’s Eve letter to his brother Arthur, Wellman outlined his plans for the spring trip to the Pole, noting “But if we are not heard from in 1899 do not despair.”  Listing all of the possibilities for their silence, he adds, “…if fate orders it otherwise I shall still have faith in our ability to take care of ourselves and get back safe, somehow, from some quarter.  And I want you, [Arthur], to have the same faith that I have.”  Reflecting on his travels, Wellman writes, “I feel that I have been ‘born again’ up here.  It was just what I needed – it was worth coming for, that alone – and now, do my best here and my duty when I return are my watch-words.”

Sadly, when Wellman’s expedition finally made it to the northern outpost in February 1899, they found that only one of the men left behind had survived.  The expedition continued north, but on 22 March an “ice-quake” cut off their progress and they returned to Harmsworth House.  Wellman broke his leg on the way.

Having failed to reach the North Pole by land, Wellman decided to try the aerial route.  His 1907 attempt in the airship America  only covered twenty miles and the second attempt in 1909 went only a little farther at forty.  With two other expeditions having claimed to reach the Pole, Wellman set his sights on another milestone.  In 1910, he unsuccessfully tried to cross the Atlantic Ocean in the America, Wellman’s last attempt at aerial exploration.

Elizabeth C. Borja is an archivist in the National Air and Space Museum’s Archives Department.