I began work on processing the Avery-Abex Metallurgical Collection at the beginning of November 2019, and boy has it been a rollercoaster so far. This collection, which spans 248 cubic feet, consists of case files, general company records and correspondence, photo negatives, glass plate negatives, photographic prints, and some 40,000 metal samples encased in resin plugs (more on these later). The collection has largely been languishing in Special Collections since it was acquired in the mid-1990’s.
Over the years, several student employees have chipped away meaningfully at portions of the collection, but the majority of the boxes remained untouched. Because my time to process this collection is limited, I will need to strike a comfortable balance between getting all the work done on the remaining boxes before the end of July- a high priority- and processing the materials to the highest useful level- also a high priority. (Note that I did not say “to the highest possible level”. There is a point of diminishing returns to optimizing arrangement and description, and archival resources are scarce enough that frequently this equation must favor a more rough-and-ready processing style in order to reduce backlog and make more collections accessible faster.)
This balance is especially important to consider, given the large size of the collection. The boxes that much of the material arrived in are significantly bigger than the standard sized archival record carton, which necessitates a certain amount of space planning for both pre-and post-processed containers. The increased volume makes them very heavy and awkward to handle, and so much more prone to accidents when retrieving them from shelves.
I haven’t dropped any yet, but hauling them around really makes me appreciate the elegantly dainty standard sized boxes I’m moving the records into. This is infinitely more so the case with the boxes of glass plate negatives, which are substantially heavier than their paper-holding counterparts and have the additional challenge of being very fragile. Let no one tell you that the life of an archivist is boring or sedentary.
Another quirk of this particular collection is that the boxes were more or less put where they would fit in the offsite storage facility when they were first acquired about 25 years ago, without recording their shelf locations, which makes finding the boxes a bit of a scavenger hunt. Pictured is one of three aisles of shelves at the storage facility. Attempting to process the boxes in any particular order would be a waste of time as a result, and so I’ve had to change my approach to arranging this collection.
Instead of refoldering and replacing the records into their final resting places, I am processing box by box, keeping careful track of what ends up where, so that I can rearrange things as needed once I finish and have a better idea of what order best suits the materials. This way is much faster on the frontend than doing the boxes in order, and the surprise of not knowing what’s going to be in the next box has proved a lovely diversion from the occasionally tedious tasks of pulling boxes, refoldering, relabelling, and filling in spreadsheets.
My favorite part of the collection so far has definitely been the metal samples. There are approximately 40,000 squat resin plugs, each with a small chunk of metal embedded in it with one surface exposed for testing, and a serial number etched on the outside. They are quite unique, in my experience, and are an instant point of interest for anyone who sees them. Their quantity, their different sizes and shapes, and the complete obscurity of their purpose to the uninitiated, makes them a valuable showpiece for the collection. However, these characteristics also make them a challenging processing project. Several have sprouted highly colorful oxidation growths over the years, which are fascinating and delicate. I have not yet decided whether they are more valuable remaining intact, or if I should attempt to clean off this reaction residue, knowing full well that it will likely grow back in time, as the fresh metal is exposed to air and humidity.
Another slight wrinkle in processing that I’ve encountered was the significant presence of mold on the cabinets housing the metal samples in the basement storage room used for some Special Collections and University Archives materials. The samples themselves were not in immediate danger, because resin and metals do not tend to support mold growth, but the mold would need to be killed and the plugs cleaned before they could be moved into appropriate archival boxes and placed near other, more vulnerable materials. I had planned to process the plugs first, but this had to be put on hold until the mold issue was dealt with. Luckily, we managed to employ a company specializing in mold remediation fairly quickly, and the problem was taken care of before it could spread to other collections being stored in this space. Now, the work of cleaning and boxing up the sample plugs can commence.
With the growth of a literate middle class and the greater availability and affordability of paper and printing, children’s literature came into its own in the mid-19th century, and here in Special Collections and University Archives, we hold many of examples of colorful, richly illustrated children’s literature from the late 19th / early 20th century.
Included within our holdings are at least two “movable books,” publications that enhanced young children’s reading experiences by allowing them, though the use of pull tabs, flaps, and other gimmicks, to simulate action. Among our holdings are at least two examples of movable books: a reprint of Ernest Nister’s Revolving Pictures (1892) and a 1979 reprint of The Doll’s House by Lothar Meggendorfer, considered the father of the pop-up book, a form that continues to be very popular today.
Though his books didn’t rely on movable parts, Peter Newell (1862-1924) was an innovator in creating novelties that appealed to young readers. The rare book collection includes two unusual books published by Newell. In both The Shadow Show and The Hole Book, as well as his other works, Newell manipulated the book form to help tell his stories.
Peter Newel (frontispiece from Through the Looking-Glass (1901))
Peter S. H. Newell (1862-1924) was born to a family of farmers in Illinois. He studied at the Art Students’ League and by the time he was in his mid-twenties had become a popular illustrator for various periodicals, his work regularly appearing in such publications as Harper’s Weekly, Scribner’s Magazine, and The Saturday Evening Post. He was particularly noted for his imaginative caricatures, some of which would be regarded today as racially insensitive.
In The Hole Book (1908), also one of Newell’s more popular works, the story follows the path of an errant bullet as it causes mayhem through a neighborhood. The story’s inventiveness is found in Newell’s imaginative use of an actual small, round hole that pierces each successive illustration in the book.
A sample illustration and rhyme from The Hole Book
Similarly, The Slant Book (1910) tells the story of a runaway baby carriage, with the story being enhanced by the book’s shape, which, instead of the usual rectangle, is a slanted rhomboid. (Newman Library holds a 1966 reprint of The Slant Book in its circulating collection.) Newell’s idea for The Slant Book led him to file a patent claim, in which he wrote, “In books made according to my invention the shape of the book itself and of the pages therein suggests the action or motion in which is intended to characterize the illustration contained therein.” Newell was granted patent 970,943 on September 20, 1910. It was one of several patents granted to Newell for book and toy designs.
Newell’s A Shadow Show (1896) relies on the translucency of paper for its gimmick. Rather than telling a story, the book simply presents a series of rather oddly contrived colored illustrations. When the reader flips the page, the previous page’s illustration appears in silhouette, revealing a much different subject. Unfortunately, the copy in the rare book collection has not held up well over time, and the illustrations have all transferred to adjacent pages, making the silhouettes difficult to distinguish.
A sample from A Shadow Show (Due to the condition of the original, this digital copy has been altered for illustrative purposes.)
Newell is perhaps best remembered for his first book, Topsys and Turvys (1893) and its two sequels. In the Topsys and Turvys series, each page contains an illustration and accompanying first line of a rhyming couplet as a caption. When the page is inverted, a much different illustration is revealed, and the caption appearing below the flipped image completes the rhyming couplet, explaining the illustration. Illustrations from these books continue to be frequently used as examples of optical illusions. A digitized version of The first Topsys and Turvys book may be found on the Library of Congress website.
In addition to providing illustrations for popular magazines and publishing his own books, Newell also illustrated the works of other authors of children’s literature, chief among them, perhaps, being his illustrated edition of Through the Looking-Glass (1901), which also may be found in the rare books collection. Later, Newell tried his hand at comic strip illustration. For 18 months in 1906/1907, Newell’s “The Naps of Polly Sleepyhead” appeared among such acknowledged comic strip pioneers as “Buster Brown” and “Little Nemo in Slumberland.” A second strip, “Wishing Willy,” wasn’t so successful and lasted through only six installments in 1913.
I’d planned here to provide the briefest of overviews on our holdings in children’s literature but instead got sidetracked by this Peter Newell tangent. Suffice it to say, the few books mentioned here comprise just the smallest part our children’s literature holdings, many of which overlap with our collection focus areas in the history of food and drink, the Civil War, local and regional history, etc. Together, these works can provide a different perspective on their subject matter or be used to examine popular culture and early childhood education in earlier eras. Or they can can simply be enjoyed for what they were intended: fun reading for the young and young at heart.
Here I am, on the final day of my grant-funded project to process the records of the Fries Textile Plant. It’s been a fun year, and I’ve truly enjoyed working on this project. Wrapping it up the past couple of weeks, I’ve found myself quite pleased with the amount of work I’ve managed to accomplish. Go me!
Shameless self-promotion aside, I’d like to do a sort of post-mortem on the past year. More and more new (or not-so new) archivists are finding themselves in time- and scope-limited jobs, which require a different set of skills than the endurance race into posterity that is the lot of the traditional archivist. Rather than thinking about the long term health and wellness of the archives as a whole and wearing a variety of necessary hats as a result, we temporary members of staff are typically asked to execute very particular orders along a strict timeline, and then- frequently- to leave, occasionally with our work unfinished. It can be heartbreaking, and freeing, and terribly restrictive, and wonderfully lax.
Ultimately, the success of the project- and your own success as a project archivist- depends on the project you’re employed on, the team you’re working with, and your personal career goals. Unfortunately, almost none of us can afford to be picky these days when hunting for archival work. While I understand the temptation to take the first job offered in the field (boy howdy do I, but that’s another story), often it is the jobs taken out of desperation that lead to the worst fits professionally.
Luckily, that is not the case in this instance. I have loved working with the textile mill records, the other staff in Special Collections and University Archives, and the people of Fries. I have learned an enormous amount about the region, the textile industry, and being an archivist from my time here. I liked it so much, tomorrow I’m embarking on another collection processing project here at Virginia Tech, this time with the records of a defunct metallurgical company. To put a nice bow on the past year, though, I offer the following summary and thoughts.
The majority of my time this year was spent in processing the records. Previous student employees had made a dent in this work, but there still remained a large number of boxes as-yet untouched. The day-to-day of processing involves a certain tolerance for repetitive tasks, but the frequent discovery of interesting documents in this particular collection kept me engaged and happy with my job. Processing is often the bulk of project positions such as these, so it’s a valuable skill to be able to find joy it. This photo shows a (tiny) fraction of the staples I pulled this year, a task which does not give me joy but which does offer a certain small satisfaction.
By far the most rewarding part of the project has been working with the people of Fries, and bringing this collection back to them in the form of 3 community events I put together over the course of the year. The Fries-ians are warm, passionate, and deeply committed to their town, which was both refreshing and touching. They were wonderfully eager to interact with the collection and learn more about the place that they lived in. It has been an honor to facilitate their historical interest. This picture was taken of attendees at the first event I put on in Fries, March 30, 2019.
My work also involved a small digitization project, resulting in a digital exhibit hosted on the Special Collections and University Archives site, which can be found here. I am pleased with the result, overall. I gave several presentations on the project and my work for peers within Virginia Tech and the larger archival community as well, to make them aware of the collection and share what I had learned. I love being able to share my efforts, and I hope that these presentations have shed light on what we do in the archives and helped those facing similar processing projects.
Finally, I’d like to close with some thoughts about what I’d do differently, if I had it to do over. First, I would put more effort into the community engagement with the events I put on. My points of contact for setting up the events were frequently busy, so relying on them to spread the word in town about these events led to a poorer turnout than I had hoped for, given the deep interest in town history that I knew many residents had. In future, I will do more advertising for community events to make sure that everyone who might want to attend knows about them.
Second, I’d have liked to take more careful notes on items within the collection that I wanted to digitize. Several times, I found myself with such helpful comments as “Folder 7, really neat”, with no further context. In the haze of processing, I had prioritized moving on to the next folder over giving my future self any but the vaguest clue. This led to several instances of poring through folders, looking for the particular document I had been referencing. I will save time in the future by taking a few extra seconds to describe the materials I found “really neat”.
Lastly, I would have liked to do more digitization. I got the necessities done, the fascinating and the context-giving documents featured in the online exhibit, but ultimately I wish the whole collection could be made available online. I know that this is rarely feasible and occasionally not particularly desirable, but with this collection, I want very much for the people of Fries to be able to look through it at their leisure without needing to come up to Tech and sit in the reading room. Personally, I believe that as an archivist, access is my highest calling. In an ideal world, this small town would have its entire history to peruse at will. However, this is not that world, so I must be content with the circumstances as they lay.
All that being said, I am proud of what I’ve accomplished here, and I hope the next project will be even more successful.
We are very pleased to announce that our department has taken on a new addition to our name: Special Collections and University Archives (SCUA, for short). The University Archives have always been a meaningful part of our department, and this name change recognizes its significance in a more visible way.
This is just a recent change in a long line of them in SCUA’s nearly 50 year history. Virginia Tech has been collecting manuscript collections, university archives, rare books, artwork, and historical maps and photographs since the early days of its history, and many of those items constitute the foundations of our department’s collections. However, before SCUA’s establishment, the activities we engage in today were all separate. For example, the rare books were kept in locked cages serviced by the Reference Department, and an Archives section was created in 1968/1969 with Mary Larimer as archivist.
In 1970, the new Library Directory Gerald A. Rudolph formally established Special Collections, combining the rare books, manuscripts, university archives, and historical photographs and maps into one department. The first head of Special Collections was the aforementioned Mary Larimer. During her tenure, she expanded the southwest Virginia collections, such as the acquisition of the J. Hoge Tyler Family Collection, Ms1967-002; began the science and technology collecting area, including the John W. Landis Papers, Ms1969-001; and acquired a number of American literary works through the estate of professor Dayton M. Koehler, including both the Dayton M. Koehler Papers, Ms1971-002 and his rare book collection. The University Archives also expanded, with President Hahn sending all presidential records from before 1960 to the department and encouraging the members of the Board of Visitors to donate their papers in 1973.
Stephen Zietz was the third director of Special Collections from 1993 to 1995, and he spearheaded the development of the Friends of the University Libraries, an advisory board to help build collections and funding. During his tenure, Special Collections began collaborating with other departments on campus to digitize some of its collections and launched its website. The Elden E. “Josh” Billings Collection of over 4,000 volumes on the American Civil War was catalog, and processing the university presidents, such as President Hahn’s 100+ box collection, and vice presidents became a priority. The University Archives also began actively collecting materials related to underrepresented and traditionally marginalized groups at the university, such as the Black Women at Virginia Tech Oral History Project, Ms1995-026.
The Director of Scholarly Communication, Gail McMillan took on the additional role as the fourth director of Special Collections in 1995. Both departments were under the aegis of Digital Library and Archives (DLA), starting in 2000 with McMillan as DLA director. From 2001 through 2003, Jennifer Gunter King served as the fifth head of Special Collections, but following her departure, McMillan once again became de facto head in her role as director of DLA.
While part of DLA, Special Collections began digitizing materials in bulk, including the creation of ImageBase and the Bugle yearbooks for online access of these materials. McMillan was also influential in the development of the history of food and drink collecting area, acquiring the Peacock-Harper Culinary Collection in 2000 and the Ann Hertzler Children’s Cookbook and Nutrition Literature Collection & Endowment Fund in 2006. That same year, the department also expanded with a newly renovated reading room.
Following an outside consultant’s report in 2006, Dean Eileen Hitchingham decided to split Special Collections and DLA into separate departments. In 2007, the seventh and current director Aaron D. Purcell was hired. Major developments in the department over the past few years have included the mass creation of finding aids in Virginia Heritage, the first redesign of the department website in 20 years, the active collection of LGBTQ+ history at Virginia Tech and in Blacksburg, expansion of the processing of the University Archives records and publications, and of course, the new and improved name Special Collections and University Archives.
The Fries Textile Mill was established in 1903 by Col. Thomas Fries, then the president of Wachovia Bank. He built the mill on a bend in the New River, which he had dammed in order to provide power for his new venture. He also built a town nearby to house, educate, and supply the employees of the mill. For 85 years, the town of Fries and its people were overseen by the company administration, which owned and operated the school, the stores, and the housing. The mill processed cotton from large bales that were brought in via train into a variety of finished fabrics, which they sent all over the country. Through the years, this fabric was used to make gloves, fine garments, military uniforms, and many other industrial and commercial goods.
The mill managed to stay open during the Great Depression by dramatically cutting hours without firing workers in order to keep at least a little money coming in for all of its employees, and stashing the fabric produced in a warehouse the company owned in New York. This plan worked out for the Fries Mill, it managed to stay open and running through the lean times of the late 20’s and 30’s. It also meant that it had plenty of stock on hand for World War II, when textiles were in high demand and many mills had closed. The 40’s and 50’s were a boom period for the mill. It was employing more people than ever and utilizing the most state-of-the-art technologies and techniques to create high quality cotton-based fabrics.
Unfortunately, as time wore on the mill began to decline. The infrastructure necessary to maintain a competitive edge in the textile industry was expensive to acquire and maintain, and pressure from a globalizing market made it all the more difficult, so a series of owners decided to simply sell the business on. After several such transfers, the mill finally closed in 1988. Because the company had effectively owned the town of Fries for the better part of a century, the reactions to its closure were understandably negative. The binding force of the community had disappeared, and the town suffered. However, many residents chose to stay and forge a new way of life around that bend in the New River. The mill building itself was torn down not long after, and now all that remains is a bare patch next to the dam.
Because of the terms under which this collection was given to Virginia Tech, it had largely sat in the backlog at Special Collections since it was acquired in 1988, although an inventory was conducted and several boxes of papers were partially processed in the interim. The work of Special Collections and the town of Fries, as well as a recent grant from the NHPRC, has allowed me to finish processing the entire collection (165 boxes!) revealing a trove of information about 20th century textile mills and the industry in general, mill towns, and life in rural Appalachia.
This processing included removing damaging metal fasteners (pictured is a small fraction of the staples removed from collection materials), rehousing the documents, getting intellectual control over the collection by creating a detailed inventory of folder titles, dates, and interventions, and evaluating any preservation or privacy concerns for the materials. The finding aid, which will be available soon, has a folder-level description of the contents of the boxes.
The collection includes records illustrating the work of the mill, including production reports, textile samples, and company correspondence, but also materials that give insight into life in a mill town, such as housing repair documents, letters to and from pillars of the community such as the town doctor and the school, and oral histories from residents and former residents of Fries.
We have also recently acquired another 2 large storage bins worth of blueprints from the town, as well as about 20 decks of slides. These new materials are currently being processed, after which I will add them to the finding aid. They were being stored in the basement of the Recreation Center in Fries, and were discovered entirely by coincidence on a visit to the town (picture three excited archivists spreading blueprints over every flat-ish surface in a basement lounge area while several bemused residents look on). The building that the bins were in had severely flooded not long before, but the blueprints were unharmed by the water, thankfully. It is entirely possible that we will continue to receive similar trickles of mill-related items as more materials are discovered and we continue to engage with the community.
Sadly, the picture is not complete. We only have the materials that were left at the mill when it closed, which heavily favor the early years of operation, and certain kinds of records. It is unclear whether the missing documents were destroyed as part of a regular records management cycle, or whether they were taken at some point. Despite the gaps, the collection offers a valuable look at life in a 1900’s mill town. Starting August 22nd, there will be an exhibit up in the Special Collections reading room of selected materials from the collection illustrating the broad influence of the mill administration on the town, stop by and check it out!
In the couple of weeks since the passing of Christopher Kraft, there have been many well-deserved tributes to a life of historic and significant scientific and technical achievement. As many folks may know, he joined the NASA Space Task Group in November 1958 as NASA’s first flight director, created the concept of NASA’s Mission Control, served as Flight Director for all of the Mercury flights and several Gemini missions before becoming NASA’s Director of Flight Operations. In 1972, he became Director of the Manned Spaceflight Center, soon thereafter to be named the Johnson Space Center. Kraft served as its Director until his retirement in 1982, having gone on to play an essential role in the latter Apollo missions, Skylab, the Apollo Soyuz Project, and early space shuttle flights. He was an indispensable force and presence in this country’s space program.
For readers interested in Kraft’s Virginia Tech connections, they are many. He graduated at the age of 20 in December 1944 (officially, Class of 1945) with a degree in aeronautical engineering. He had also been elected president of the Corps of Cadets his senior year. In November 1965, he was honored with a Convocation at Burruss Hall, where he was presented with the highest award the university can bestow on any person or alumnus, the Distinguished Alumnus Citation.
Commemorative Program from Convocation to Honor Kraft, November 1965 (cover)
Commemorative Program from Convocation to Honor Kraft, November 1965 (inside cover)
Commemorative Program from Convocation to Honor Kraft, November 1965 (interior page)
Roanoke Times article, 12 November 1965
At the same event, he received from Time Magazine the original portrait used on the cover of the 27 August 1965 issue in which Kraft was featured, and, also, from the university, a Steuben Glass Eagle “on behalf of the entire VPI family.” According to the Roanoke Times, a crowd of over 3,000 was in attendance, including students, faculty, university officials, NASA colleagues, members of Kraft’s graduating class, and locals. Following the program, Kraft was also honored by a review of the Corps of Cadets on the Drillfield.
From 1970 to 1978, Kraft served on this university’s Board of Visitors. Among the many times he spoke on this campus, he gave the Founder’s Day Address at Burruss in April 1974, titled, “The Frontiers of Space . . . America’s Space Program in the 1970s” and was the featured speaker at the 110th annual commencement in June 1982. Well before he achieved the national spotlight and while he was working for the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA, precursor to NASA) back in April 1954, he presented a technical paper, “Gust Alleviation,” to the Fifth Annual Engineering Conference on campus.
With regard to the University Libraries, 11 April 1986 was, likely, the most significant date in its relationship with Kraft as that was the day of the ceremony marking the opening of the Christopher C. Kraft, Jr. Papers and the establishment of the Archives of American Aerospace Exploration at Special Collections. On the program that day, in addition to Kraft himself, were Paul Gherman, Director of Libraries; David Roselle, Provost; and William Lavery, President of the University. Kraft had donated his papers, approximately 28 cubic feet of material when processed, that documented his 37-year professional career, and he would prove essential in helping Special Collections to acquire the papers of many of his NACA and NASA associates. In fact, collections from several individuals from NASA present at the 1965 Convocation went on to donate their papers to Special Collections, including Melvin Gough, Hartley Soule, John Duberg, and William Hewitt Phillips. Other collections in the group of over thirty include the papers of Robert Gilruth, Michael Collins, Blake Corson Jr., Marjorie Rhodes Townsend and James Avitabile.
As the details of Chris Kraft’s life can be found in numerous and just-published obituaries and tributes, as well as in his 2001 autobiography, Flight: My Life in Mission Control, I would rather offer a glimpse into certain early stages or moments in his career as represented in his Papers, and to choose a selection of items readers may find interesting, surprising, or, simply, less well-known. The collection includes more than 27 boxes and 5 large folders, so we’ll only be touching the surface. Check the finding aid for the collection to see a list of the collection’s contents. Lastly, I’ll end by retelling a story about Kraft involving a very close call that I discovered only in my preparation for this post.
You may be surprised to find that there are a few items in the collection from Kraft’s days at Tech. There are seven lab reports from the summer and fall of 1944, all from class(es) taught by L.Z. Seltzer (and all graded, by the way . . . one “B” and all the rest “A” or “A-“) on topics such as: Turbulence Test on the V.P.I. Wind Tunnel, Yaw Characteristics of Pitot-Static Tubes, Wing Tunnel Test on Low Wing Monoplane, and Airplane Propellers Problem, among others.
Lab Report cover, 28 July 1944
Diagram from Lab Report, 19 December 1944, Airplane Propellors Problem
After leaving Blacksburg, Kraft went to work for NACA (National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics), the US government’s agency for aeronautical research, at Langley Field, near Hampton, Va. (though not before a very funny brush with Chance Vought Corp. in Connecticut: see Flight, page 27). The war was still raging and Langley was doing important work. Kraft had been excluded from active military service because of a serious burn he sustained to his right hand as a child, and he clearly saw this work as his way to make a contribution. In those early days at Langley, Kraft did extensive work on the P-47D Thunderbolt and the P-51H, a late model Mustang, both piston-driven advanced fighters of their day. Kraft’s Papers include a good selection of this work, including various reports, calibrations, photographs, and memoranda.
You might notice that the photo farthest to the right in group above shows some of the instruments ready to be loaded aboard the Bell XS-1. Beginning in 1946, NACA began testing this aircraft and one other like it to explore flying conditions at transonic speeds. On 14 October 1947, Chuck Yeager flew faster than the speed of sound in the Bell XS-1, and Kraft’s Papers show his own involvement in this area of research. One of the documents, dated 23 June 1948 and titled, “A Free-Fall Test to Determine the Longitudinal Stability and Control Characteristics of a 1/4 Scale Model of the Bell XS-1 Airplane at Transonic Speeds” shows Kraft’s name at the top of the cover page and identifies him as Chairman, FRD [Flight Research Division] Stability and Control [Branch].
About this time, Kraft was handed another assignment to work on—gust alleviation—that is, creation of an automatic system that would smooth out the motion of an airplane when it encountered turbulent air. This is the same topic Kraft presented on at the 1954 Engineering conference at Virginia Tech mentioned above. As he was beginning this work, and as described in his autobiography:
I found a French aerodynamicist, René Hirsch, who’d designed and built a gust-alleviation airplane and was beginning to test it. We corresponded about our various plans and concerns and seemed to be in some agreement. Then he was injured when his airplane crashed. I never learned the cause of the accident. Gust alleviation was not only a mysterious quest, but now I knew it was dangerous as well. (page 41)
Well, of course this correspondence is available in Kraft’s Papers! In some cases, we have a draft version and a typed copy of Kraft’s letter as well as Hirsch’s reply. Through most of the first half of the 1950s, this problem took up much of Kraft’s time and there are many documents on the topic in the Papers. I’m no engineer, but I imagine this kind of exchange would be interesting to explore.
The collection of Kraft’s papers are arranged chronologically by year, and in the materials from 1959, following the creation of NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration, in case you wondered) in July 1958, documents that refer to Project Mercury begin to appear. During this time, Kraft stopped being a flight research engineer and became an engineering manager, and these documents include Mission Documents for the first Mercury-Atlas and Mercury-Redstone missions. In NASA lingo, each mission was typically (there are exceptions) named by the spacecraft, booster rocket, and number. Thus, MA-5, which took place on 29 November 1961 with Enos, a chimpanzee, aboard, was the fifth mission to fly a Mercury spacecraft atop an Atlas booster. MR-3, NASA’s first manned suborbital mission, with Alan Shepard aboard on 5 May 1961 (about three weeks after Yuri Gagarin’s “first man in space” mission), was the third Mercury mission with the Redstone rocket. Also among the documents for 1959 are notes and materials related to a talk Kraft presented to a symposium titled, The Pilot’s Role in Space Exploration (a controversial and dicey topic) offered by the Society of Experimental Test Pilots, 8–10 October 1959.
Test procedures and reports; project discussions; post-Launch reports; flight plans; post-flight debriefings of Shepard and then Gus Grissom, the second American to fly a suborbital mission: these are among the documents to be found in Kraft’s papers from these early years of the space program. The success of Shepard’s 15-minute flight was followed three weeks later by President Kennedy’s public proposal “that the US “should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth.” We would do well to remember Kraft’s response, as recalled in his autobiography:
The moon . . . we’ve only put Shepard on a suborbital flight . . . an Atlas can’t reach the moon . . . we have mountains of work just to do the three-orbit flight . . . the moon . . . we’ll need real spacecraft, big ones and a lot better than Mercury . . . men on the moon, has he lost his mind? . . . Have I?
Well, the rest is history. And it can all be followed in Chris Kraft’s Papers: the technical aspects, the failures, the tragedies, and the successes, but mostly the development towards that success, as revealed through the documentation accumulated by Kraft over the course of a storied career.
But wait. There is one more thing. I promised to describe a close call in Chris Kraft’s life before ending this post. It does not involve a rocket exploding on a launch pad or anything like the difficulties of Apollo 13. In fact, I did not know about this story. Never heard it before. If you’ve read Kraft’s book, Flight, you probably do, unless you were blinking for the couple of paragraphs at the bottom of page 238 and the top of 239. Here’s what I found as I was going through our biographical file of newspaper clippings on Kraft.
Associated Press report, 18 November 1965
That’s right. Just a few days after Kraft left Virginia Tech following the Convocation in his honor, he was flying with several other NASA officials on a National Airlines flight from Houston to Miami with a scheduled stop in New Orleans. As they were climbing out of New Orleans, a young man whom Kraft describes as “sickly” and carrying “a small paper bag” was seated by the flight attendant in the seat across from him. As Kraft tells it, the attendant said, “He’s acting funny. Do you mind if I put him in that seat across from you?”(Flight, page 238). The young man—Thomas Robinson, age 16, from Brownsville, Texas—pulled a gun out of the bag and pointed it at Kraft. As quoted in the newspaper article, Paul Haney of NASA’s Public Affairs Office and also a passenger, said, “He pointed it at Chris . . . it was only six inches off his jaw. . . . There was a click which I thought was a cocking action . . . it did not fire. That’s why I thought it was a cocking action. The kid stood up and backed toward the cockpit door and fired three shots in the floor of the lounge.”
Robinson demanded the plane fly to Cuba. He actually had two guns and fired both into the floor of the cabin. Kraft writes, “He fired both into the floor of the lounge in front of me, then he was tossed sideways as the pilot put the plane in a high-g turning descent, heading back to New Orleans.”
At that point, another passenger, Edward Haake, described in the newspaper as an electronics executive and a decorated B-17 pilot (of course) got involved. Again, from the newspaper:
Haake was the only other person in the lounge, Haney said. The husky 6-footer talked to Robinson calmly, pretending to go along with the wild plans about going to Cuba, even though Robinson now had a revolver in the other hand. “He even fixed him a drink,” Haney said.
“Then the kid calmed down and Haake pulled out a plastic holder full of gold coins. He asked the boy if he would like to see them. The kid said he was a coin collector.
“At some point along the way, the kid lowered his hands. I think he was going to reload the gun. When he put his hands together Haake grabbed them.
“Chris and I immediately jumped. I was the first one there. Haake held his hands and I threw him against the seat.
“And while Haake held him, both Chris and I helped subdue him.”
According to Brendan I. Koerner, author of The Skies Belong to Us: Terror in the Golden Age of Hijacking, Robinson pleaded guilty to attempting to intimidate a pilot, a less serious charge than air piracy. He served a brief sentence at an Arizona prison camp for youthful offenders.
July 20 marks the 50th anniversary of humanity’s first moon landing, and Special Collections is commemorating the monumental achievement of the Apollo XI mission with an exhibit of materials from our collections.
Curated by Special Collections Public Services & Reference Archivist Marc Brodsky, the exhibit features items from the Christopher C. Kraft Papers (Ms1985-001), the Michael Collins Papers (Ms1989-029), and the Evert B. Clark Papers (Ms1989-022). The three collections comprise part of Special Collections’ Archives of American Aerospace Exploration (AAAE), which itself represents part of our larger collection focus area in science and technology. The papers of Christopher Kraft, who graduated from Virginia Tech in 1944 (BS, aeronautical engineering) provided a seed from which the AAAE grew. Kraft, a 1944 graduate of Virginia Tech (BS, aeronautical engineering), served as director of flight operations for the Apollo missions before being named deputy director of the Manned Spacecraft Center (now the Johnson Space Center) in 1970. The donation of his papers to Special Collections in 1985 encouraged others with ties to the space program to donate their papers to Virginia Tech. Among these were Michael Collins, command module pilot on Apollo XI. Providing a somewhat different perspective on the space program are the papers of Evert Clark, a journalist who worked as a science correspondent for the New York Times and Newsweek during the 1960s.
More about the materials featured in the exhibit may be found in an online story that appeared on VT News on July 3. The exhibit’s profile was heightened earlier this week with a story in the Roanoke Times and a WFXR live remote in which Project Archivist Sam Winn discussed the exhibit and the space program. A second news story featuring Sam and the exhibit appeared on Roanoke’s WSLS News yesterday. Thanks to the media attention, “Celebrating the 50th Anniversary of Apollo 11” has proven to be one of the department’s most popular exhibits to date and has drawn a number of off-campus visitors. The popularity of the items in the display cases spurred staff to pull more materials from the collections and make them available for viewing in the reading room.
Somewhat downplayed in the nationwide commemoration of the Apollo XI accomplishment is the fact that it wasn’t a single, spontaneous event but was instead a milestone in a continuum of space exploration achievements initiated more than a decade earlier. Special Collections’ holdings document not only the moon landing itself but the years of work that went into reaching the goals and objectives that led to the mission’s successful accomplishment. The Marjorie Rhodes Townsend Papers (Ms1986-003), for example, chronicle her work as a project manager at NASA, overseeing three Small Astronomy Satellite launches. Reports in the Otis Jerome Parker Papers (Ms1987-065), meanwhile, detail an early effort to develop devices for astronaut extravehicular activity propulsion. And the many manuals in the papers of James J. Avitabile (Ms2001-057), who served as an astronaut mission operations instructor at Cape Canaveral/Cape Kennedy, provide insights into the training of astronauts in a pre-digital age. Together, these and many other primary source materials (not to mention the related materials in our book collection) give us a broader understanding of the many elements that had to successfully work in tandem to reach the landmark achievement of July 20, 1969.
“Celebrating the 50th Anniversary of Apollo 11” will run until August 16.