Christopher C. Kraft 1924–2019: A Miscellaneous Retrospective and Tribute, Including His Virginia Tech Connection, His Papers, and . . . the Story of a Close Call

Christopher C. Kraft
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.

Kraft, a sophomore, from the 1943 Bugle

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.

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.

Time Magazine 27 August 1965
Time Magazine 27 August 1965

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.

Opening of the Kraft Collection, 11 April 1986
Opening of the Kraft Collection, 11 April 1986

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.

Flight: My Life In Mission Control by Christopher Kraft
Flight: My Life In Mission Control by Christopher Kraft

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.

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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.

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)

Draft and typed copy of letter from Kraft to Hirsch, July 1952
Draft and typed copy of letter from Kraft to Hirsch, July 1952
A reply from Hirsch to Kraft, March 1952
A reply from Hirsch to Kraft, March 1952

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.

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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.

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.

As I said, quite the life!

For more on the life of Christopher Columbus Kraft, Jr. see an earlier blog post: Chris Kraft: Oral History of an Aerospace Pioneer.

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Hero’s Welcome

A Souvenir Menu Recalls Earhart’s Triumphant Return to the U. S.

The recent reports about possible new evidence in the 80-year mystery of Amelia Earhart’s disappearance reminded me of a little item in our collections: a menu for a 1932 dinner honoring the pilot. Housed, perhaps incongruously, within our Aviation Pamphlets and Brochures Collection (Ms1994-015), this souvenir  commemorates a milestone in aviation and women’s history.

Cover of the Earhart Waldorf-Astoria dinner menu. Though Earhart did not take her husband’s name after marriage and is invariably identified today by her maiden name, the press and others most often referred to her as “Amelia Earhart Putnam” or “Mrs. Putnam” during the years of her married life.

Though Amelia Earhart’s name endures, it may be difficult for us to imagine today the level of fame she attained through her derring-do.  The word “icon” has perhaps been devalued through overuse in recent years, but Earhart’s solo crossing of the Atlantic made her a true icon and arguably the most famous woman of her time.

Even before Earhart undertook her solo transatlantic flight in 1932, she had gained fame through her feats: as the first woman to cross the Atlantic via airplane (1928), as the first woman to make a solo transcontinental roundtrip flight across the U. S. (1928), and as the record holder for the highest altitude attained in an autogyro (1931). Despite occasional criticisms leveled against her skills as a flyer, Earhart through her personality and her penchant for self-promotion put a face on women’s advances in fields  that previously had been reserved for men.

The menu includes a brief list of Earhart’s accomplishments to 1932.

Earhart departed Newfoundland on May 20, 1932 and landed in Ireland the following day, exactly five years after Charles Lindbergh’s historic solo flight across the Atlantic. While most know that Earhart was the first woman to make such a flight, few may remember that no pilot had successfully made a solo transatlantic flight in the five years after Lindbergh.

Within the menu is this photo of Earhart in Ireland. The caption celebrates her crossing of the Atlantic in 13 hours and 30 minutes, a new record for a transatlantic flight.

In the following weeks, Earhart toured Europe, receiving a number of honors and being feted by various dignitaries. After several weeks of enjoying her celebrity, Earhart  embarked for home. Despite her accomplishment, transatlantic flight remained a dangerous undertaking reserved for pioneering daredevils. (The transatlantic passenger service established by Germany’s Graf Zeppelin in 1928 averaged only about 20 flights per year for the next decade. Weather and distance would prevent the commercial viability of transatlantic passenger plane flights until the late 1930s.) The singularity of Earhart’s feat is underscored by the fact that she returned to the U. S. via cruise ship.

With the country in the throes of the Great Depression, Earhart had asked that her welcome home be an understated affair, but it was perhaps because of the desperate need for something to celebrate that the flyer’s request went unheeded. When the Ile de France arrived in New York on June 20, it was greeted by all the fanfare the city could muster, including a tickertape parade. Following a luncheon hosted by the Advertising Federation Convention and several rounds of interviews, the day’s activities concluded at the Waldorf-Astoria, where a full-course dinner was held in Earhart’s honor. Speakers included Charles Lawrence, president of the Aeronautical Chamber of Commerce of America; Don Brown, president of Pratt & Whitney Aircraft; W. Irving Glover, second assistant postmaster of the United States; and Earhart herself. The speeches were broadcast nationwide via radio.

The menu for Earhart’s dinner.

Unfortunately, as far as I was able to determine (in an admittedly cursory search), Earhart’s words that night seem to have gone unrecorded. She reportedly recounted the experiences of her flight. Perhaps she also repeated some of the responses she had given earlier that day to critics who derided her flight as a non-event. In interviews, Earhart said that she regarded her flight as a personal mission, a justification. After she had flown across the Atlantic in 1928 as a passenger, one commentator downplayed the feat, likening her usefulness on the flight to a sack of potatoes.

In The Sound of Wings, biographer Mary S. Lovell writes of Earhart’s solo flight, “[T]hough the flight in itself offered no particular breakthrough, the mere fact that there were pilots prepared to risk all to gain records encouraged manufacturers to further technological effort. … In the public eye, too, the flight was a triumphant success at a time when newspapers carried daily reports of fatal air crashes. So her success encouraged confidence in aviation as a principle.”

Despite her protestations to the contrary, Amelia Earhart had done much more than answer her critics, and the public responded in a big way, as evidenced in a little menu in our little collection.

In addition to the Earhart menu, the Aviation Pamphlets and Brochures Collection contains a number of interesting pieces relating to the first half century of aviation history. For a complete list, see the collection’s finding aid.

And Lift Off! Highlights of the Michael Collins collection are now online!

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Photograph of the Agena target vehicle rocket launch for the NASA Gemini 10 Mission, 1966 Link

Occasionally I get the chance to work with something in our collections that give me shivers, and the notebooks that astronaut Michael Collins used on the NASA Gemini and Apollo spaceflight missions definitely fall into that category. I mean, it isn’t often that you get to handle and scan items that have actually been in space! You can see the online collection here.

Michael Collins is probably most famous for his role as the command module pilot on the Apollo 11 Mission, the first manned mission to land on the lunar surface. Collins orbited the moon while commander Neil Armstrong and lunar module pilot Edwin E. “Buzz” Aldrin descended to its surface.

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Excerpt from Collins’ training notebook for the Apollo 11 Mission, diagramming his lunar landing flight maneuver See notebook 

In 1989, Virginia Tech Special Collections was honored to receive his papers, which cover Collins’ Air Force career, training at the U. S. Test Pilot School and Experimental Flight Center, participation in NASA’s Gemini and Apollo programs, and tenure at the State Department and NASM. While this collection has been heavily used by students and researchers for many years, it wasn’t until this past summer and fall of 2016 that we were able to get a large portion of it scanned and ready to go online. I’m really excited to get some of these items out there for the wider world to see.

Before the Apollo missions, Collins was also involved in the Gemini missions, serving as pilot of Gemini 10, launched July 18, 1966. During this mission, Collins and commander John Young set a new orbital altitude record and completed a successful rendezvous with a separate orbiting space vehicle, paving the way for modern day space vehicle maneuvers such as docking with the International Space Station. Another notable achievement from this mission was the successful completion of two spacewalks by Collins. Collins was the was fourth person ever to perform a spacewalk (referred to by NASA as an EVA, or Extravehicular Activity), and the first person to ever perform more than one. 

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Excerpt from the Apollo 11 onboard transcript, showing the moment Armstrong landed the spacecraft on the moon, 1969 See the transcript

 

After retiring from the NASA astronaut program in 1970, Collins worked for the US State Department and the Smithsonian Institute, serving as the first director of the National Air and Space Museum. The collection also includes many items related to his later work, as well as many items sent to him by adoring fans and space enthusiasts from around the world. What’s now online is just a portion of the collection, hopefully we’ll be able to get more up soon. You can see the finding aid for the collection here.

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Collins during training for the Gemini 10 mission, 1966 link

The Flying Man: 18th-century style

One of the great things about working in a place like Special Collections is that “discovery” can be an everyday occurrence. I’ve written at this blog—either obliquely or directly—about this dimension of the job, as have many of my colleagues. Whether the find is a promotional flyer for D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation, a journal from an arctic expedition, a letter written by Victoria Cross (one of several pseudonyms of British writer, Annie Sophie Cory), or a copy of The Great Gatsby autographed by F. Scott Fitzgerald . . . there is always some excitement even if you know that the discovery really may mean that you haven’t seen the item before. Someone else, perhaps a colleague, likely a predecessor, may have very well known about the book, letter, paper that you’ve just “discovered.”

Cover of L’Uomo Volante per Aria, per Acqua, e per Terra
Cover of L’Uomo Volante per Aria, per Acqua, e per Terra

So, several years ago, when I was perusing the part of our stacks that deals with aviation (the TLs for all you library-folk out there), I saw for the first time a nondescript book with a rough, brownish, handmade paper cover and pages that were clearly handmade, a book with a lot of age on it. When I opened up the book, this is what I saw: L’Uomo Volante per Aria, per Acqua, e per Terra. Novissima Invenzione di un Anonimo Italiano Dell’ Anno 1784. In Venizia Presso L’Amico Dell’ Autore.

Roughly translated: Man Flying over the air, water, and land. New Inventions/Innovation of an Anonymous Italian of the Year 1784. In Venice at a Friend of the Author’s.

Title page ofTitle page of L’Uomo Volante per Aria, per Acqua, e per Terra. Novissima Invenzione di un Anonimo Italiano Dell’ Anno 1784. In Venizia Presso L’Amico Dell’ Autore.
Title page of L’Uomo Volante per Aria, per Acqua, e per Terra. Novissima Invenzione di un Anonimo Italiano Dell’ Anno 1784. In Venizia Presso L’Amico Dell’ Autore.

Most translations of the title that I’ve seen are close variations of this. Could be “through air” or “on water” or “on land,” I suppose, but the date is clear; that it was published anonymously is clear; and it is completely clear that I’d never heard of this work. A quick check showed that no English translation exists. A handwritten note on the inside front cover, reads (translated), “The author is Count Carlo Bettoni.” Again, he was unknown to me, but a little bit of investigating confirmed that is known to be the author of the book . . . and that only six copies are listed in Worldcat. This is the kind of discovery, a felicitous thing, that drives curiosity! That the two languages of the book, Italian and mathematics, are languages in which I am less than fluent, did nothing to quell my desire to know more.

"Dual-language" spread from L’Uomo Volante
“Dual-language” spread from L’Uomo Volante

So many things to investigate! What do we know about Count Bettoni? A few quick searches on the book title indicate that an individual named Giuseppe Avanzini contributed the mathematical content of the book, but what do all those equations seek to describe? Even more tantalizing . . . Worldcat shows that four of the six copies listed also include illustrations or folding plates! Our copy does not. The year of publication, 1784 is, itself, interesting. Only in late 1782 did the Mongolfier brothers of France start their experiments with balloons, with the first untethered balloon flight with a human aboard occurring on 21 November 1783 in a system of their design. It is fair to say that the early and mid 1780s saw the craze of ballooning emerge—especially in Britain and France, but also in Italy—as a popular craze and a seductive possibility for scientific investigation. Apparently, Bettoni took part, but he also seems to have let his imagination range over . . . what, improved methods of transportation over land and sea, as well?

Bettoni was born in 1725 to a wealthy landowning family in what is now Brescia in the Lombardy region of north Italy. The aptly-named [?] Biographical Dictionary of the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge (1842–44) describes him as “a nobleman passionately fond of science, and a munificient patron of scientific men.” In 1768, he founded the Academy of Agrarian Brescia and, apparently, conducted experiments to protect mulberry trees from a rampant epidemic. In some circles, (see A General Collection of the Best and Most Interesting Voyages and Travels in All Parts of the World . . . Digested on a New Plan by John Pinkerton, vol. 4, 1809), and as a result of these experiments, Bettoni was credited with discovering a new silkworm! Bitten by the ballooning bug in 1783, Bettoni went to work with Avanzini on what would become L’Uomo Volante.

Born in 1753, Avanzini studied theology and mathematics at Brescia, while preparing himself for the priesthood. He came to Bettoni’s attention and had gained recognition for his skill as a mathematician by the time he collaborated with Bettoni on Thoughts on the Government of the Rivers (1782) a work that reported on the practice of planting specific kinds of trees along riverbanks to impede erosion and decrease the dangers of flooding. They would work together again after L’Uomo Volante on a large and unfinished project to produce a topographical map of the area surrounding Lake Garda, the largest lake in Italy located about halfway between Brescia and Verona. Whatever the nature of the collaboration between the two men, it is clear that the substance of the mathematical element Avanzini contributed to L’Uomo Volante and to other projects, was the work of a man who would go on to become professor of mathematics and, later, of physics and applied mathematics at the University of Padua. His work, primarily in the area of fluid dynamics, would earn him membership in the Italian National Academy of Sciences (Società Italiana). While I am not qualified to judge the quality and appropriateness of the mathematics in L’Uomo Volante, I would guess that it could be evaluated seriously.

The Enciclopedia Italiana di Scienze, Lettere ed Arti describes L’Uomo Volante, in one of the few characterizations I have found, as “miscuglio piuttosto audace di prosa scientifica e di progetti palesemente utopistici” (translated as “a rather bold mixture of scientific prose and blatantly utopian projects”). The Enciclopedia, also known as Treccani says that Bettoni, an “agricultural and technical aviation pioneer,” was the first to propose a dirigible balloon and a system of propulsion based on rowing. Other sources also suggest his is the first recorded version of an elongated airship, a spindle-shaped balloon, rather than the spherical balloons either in use or proposed at the time. (The use of the word “dirigible” suggests a rigid frame, but I do not know if this is part of the Bettoni/Avanzini design.)

Macchina volante per aria (Flying machine for the air, Tav. 2 (with permission:  Fondazione Istituto Internazionale di Storia Economica "F. Datini" Biblioteca in Linea)
Macchina volante per aria (Flying machine for the air, Tav. 2 (with permission: Fondazione Istituto Internazionale di Storia Economica “F. Datini”
Biblioteca in Linea)

Of course, there were plans for the more typical version, as well, but with some accommodation for steering and/or propulsion.

Macchina volante per aria (Flying machine for the air, Tav. 1 (with permission: Fondazione Istituto Internazionale di Storia Economica "F. Datini" Biblioteca in Linea)
Macchina volante per aria (Flying machine for the air, Tav. 1 (with permission: Fondazione Istituto Internazionale di Storia Economica “F. Datini”
Biblioteca in Linea)

There were also two drawings included for water travel, one involving an elongated system of paddles:

But now, when we come to land, well, this giant-sized hampster wheel really got my attention! Check it out!

Carro volante per terra, Flying chariot/cart/wagon for land (with permission: Fondazione Istituto Internazionale di Storia Economica "F. Datini")
Carro volante per terra, Flying chariot/cart/wagon for land (with permission: Fondazione Istituto Internazionale di Storia Economica “F. Datini”)

So, should we ignore this work that seems to have garnered little attention over a couple of centuries? Is it the work of a wealthy amateur scientist (read: crackpot) whose mathematician colleague lent his skills for a free ride? Is it to be taken seriously? Doesn’t someone want to translate it? Is this the basis for a thesis or dissertation just waiting, screaming, in fact, to be tackled? Surely, some student in the history of science and technology wants to rediscover Signori Bettoni and Avanzini. Ladies and Gents, Studente e Studentesse . . . step right up!

Click here for the Full Text of L’uomo volante per aria, per acqua e per terra. (Will open in a new window.)

Not Every University Has One of These. . . .

It’s graduation weekend and maybe you’d expect us to serve up some nice photographs of past graduations, the whole pomp and circumstance thing. Well, certainly congratulations to the graduates!!! But, no, we’ll have no old caps and gowns this time. No historic commencement addresses. Not this year. After being in Washington, D.C. this past weekend, I was reminded of a small part of Virginia Tech history—Montgomery County history, really—that just might offer some bragging rights to graduates and alumni alike. Of course, some might shrink from this decades-old bit of business, but I get that, too.

Look around this campus and you’ll see the Virginia Tech name and/or logo on many different kinds of objects. Banners, posters, rings, flyers, diplomas(!), buildings, and signs just to mention a few. But how many universities have had their name emblazoned on a Boeing B-29 Superfortress? That’s right, 99 ft. long, a wingspan of 141 ft 3 in, and a top speed of 365 mph . . . and “Virginia Tech” written right across the nose. How did this come about?

B-29 "Virginia Tech" from The Techgram, 15 August 1945
B-29 “Virginia Tech” from The Techgram, 15 August 1945

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In May 1944, The Techgram, a V.P.I. publication, ran its first announcement for a war bond drive that, if successful, would result in a B-29 named “Virginia Tech.” This effort was administered by the war bond committee of Montgomery County. It ran from 12 June to 8 July and was part of the fifth nationwide War Loan Drive. Over $500,000 in Series E bonds would have to be sold in or attributed to Montgomery County for the drive to be successful. (That’s nearly $7 million in today’s money!) The article also claimed that if the required total was reached, an attempt would be made to have the bomber’s crew be made up entirely of Tech graduates.

Techgram, 15 May 1944, announcing the war bond drive to name a B-29 "Virginia Tech."
Techgram, 15 May 1944, announcing the war bond drive to name a B-29 “Virginia Tech.”

By 8 July, the drive was still $75,000 short, but purchases reported through 31 July could still be credited towards the necessary total. An article in the 15 July issue of The Techgram reminded readers that purchases from folks outside of Montgomery County—especially from university alums—could be counted towards that figure. The 15 August edition announced, “Soon a bomber named “Virginia Tech” will be flying against enemies of the U.S.” The drive had been successful, though as later articles would announce, the plan to have only “Techmen” serve onboard the new airplane was not feisible.

Techgram, 1 October 1944
Techgram, 1 October 1944

The “Virginia Tech” (serial number 44-61529) arrived on Tinian in the Pacific at the end of May 1945 as part of the 45th Bombardment Squadron, 40th Bombardment Group, 58th Bomber Wing, 21st Bomber Command. First Lieutenant C. Thornesberry was listed as the airplane commander. “Virginia Tech” was first deployed on 7 June on a mission over Osaka, Japan. It flew eight missions over Japan that month, each lasting approximately 15 hours. It continued to fly with a variety of crews until the war ended following the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki on 6 and 9 August, respectively. (The only atomic bombs/nuclear weapons ever used during wartime were, of course, dropped by B-29s. That’s where the potential ambivalence comes in.) On 8 October 1945, “Virginia Tech” received orders to return to the States via Kwajalein to Mather Field, California. Under the command of Captain John Mewha, it arrived home sometime around 14 October and by the end of November 1945 was assigned to March Field in southern California.

Whether or not the “Virginia Tech” flew missions in Korea is unclear, at least to me. How long it kept its name is also unclear. In the post-war era, nose art and named designations for individual aircraft started to become less common than they had been during World War II. We know that when B-29 serial #44-61529 met its end in 1951, it was part of 22nd Bomb Group, 19th Bomb Squadron, a unit that did serve in Korea. We also know, according to US Air Force accident reports, that on 2 April 1951, while stationed at March Field and under the command of Captain Max G. Thaete, the B-29 formerly(?) known as “Virginia Tech” crashed in the California desert, about 20 miles ENE of Desert Center. An engine fire was reportedly the cause of the accident. No one onboard was seriously injured, but the airplane was damaged beyond repair.

Owosso Argus Press, 3 April 1951
Owosso Argus Press, 3 April 1951
St. Petersburg Times, 3 April 1951
St. Petersburg Times, 3 April 1951

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 
 

So, the next time you speak with your friends from some other university and you’ve unaccountably run out of things to say about Virginia Tech, you can ask whether their school has an airplane of the type that brought World War II to a close named after it.

And if you’ve never seen a B-29, there is only one still in flying condition (named Fifi, by the way) and it flew over Washington, D.C. just last week to commemorate the 70th anniversary of V-E Day along with over 50 other WWII warbirds.

B-29 Over Washington, D.C., 8 May 2015
B-29 Over Washington, D.C., 8 May 2015

Or, if you’re just needing to see a photograph of a Virginia Tech graduation . . .

From the Col. Harry Temple Collection, Ms1988-039: Cadets in cap and gown at commencement - VPI
From the Col. Harry Temple Collection, Ms1988-039: Cadets in cap and gown at commencement – VPI

Congratulations!!

Cameras on the Moon

“One small step for a man . . . one giant leap for mankind,” Neil Armstrong spoke these immortal words when stepping from the Lunar Module Eagle onto the lunar surface on July 20, 1969. Just over eight years after President John F. Kennedy set a national goal for putting an American on the moon, Neil Armstrong, Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin, and Michael Collins brought that goal to fruition. While Armstrong and Aldrin engaged in a roughly two and a half hour EVA in the Sea of Tranquility, Michael Collins piloted the Command Module Columbia. Together the three astronauts made history.

Special Collections has an extensive collection of Michael Collins’s personal papers and artifacts from his impressive and lengthy career as an astronaut in Projects Gemini and Apollo, director of the National Air and Space Museum, and published author, just to name a few. As can be imagined, the collection contains some pretty neat items, many of which give insight into one of the most exciting decades of space travel in the twentieth century.

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Earthrise as seen by the Apollo 11 crew

Perhaps one of my favorite elements of the collection is a partial set of black and white and color photographic prints made from the film shot during the Apollo 11 Mission. Many of these images are so iconic they have become almost ubiquitous in popular memory. There are, however, also a great many that are not as recognizable but just as compelling. The photographs are stunning in their beauty, and it is easy to understand how monumental their impact must have been after their initial release. Although the images are fascinating themselves, the story behind the photographs is interesting as well.

Astrophotography was certainly not new by the time Apollo 11 launched in 1969. Indeed, people had been pointing their lenses skyward since the nineteenth century. Photos taken from space were not new either. Surprisingly, though, when NASA launched Project Mercury in 1959 with the primary goal of placing an American in space, photographing the mission from the astronauts’ perspective in spacecraft was not NASA’s main concern. Cameras were taken on board to be sure (John Glenn took an Ansco Autoset with him on the Friendship 7), but photography was not a major part of the missions. Things changed, however, with the last two one-man Mercury missions of 1962 and 1963. Walter Schirra took a Hasselblad 500c, which he slightly modified to ensure better operation in space, with him during the Mercury-Atlas 8 Mission. The resulting images were very good, and NASA teamed with Hasselblad to create specially modified cameras for spaceflight.

Fast-forward a few years to July 1969 and the Apollo 11 Mission. Among the various pieces of equipment taken aboard ship for the mission were several cameras specially modified for optimal performance in space and among these were four Hasselblads one Hasselblad Electric Camera carried in the Command Module, two Hasselblad Lunar Surface Superwide-Angle Cameras carried in the Lunar Module, and one Hasselblad EL Data Camera taken to the lunar surface.

The Hasselblad images from the landing almost seem effortless in their beauty, but what they do not show is how much consideration was taken in designing and creating cameras for the mission. Operating a camera in the vacuum of space is pretty different from operating one on earth. The camera taken to the surface needed to work well in extreme temperatures. Traditional lubricants in the camera body had to be removed and replaced with those that would operate in a vacuum without hampering the camera’s functions. The body also had to be stripped down to reduce weight. The act of actually snapping a picture was also different with this camera. It was fixed to a handle with a button that triggered an exposure when pressed, and it was mounted at chest level on the astronauts’ suits (mostly Armstrong’s as he took the majority of the images on the lunar surface). As can be imagined, the position of the camera presented its own challenges for framing shots. That particular camera was also fitted with a special glass apparatus for winding film called a Reseau plate. Unlike traditional metal winders, the glass plate was designed to prevent sparking via static electricity when the film was wound in the film magazine. Also, if you look closely at the exposures made on the lunar surface, you will see small cross markings. These markings were located on the Reseau plate itself and appear on every image made with the lunar 500EL. The markings on the prints were used for measurement and analysis purposes back on Earth. So when it was all said and done, lunar photography was a little more complicated than point and click.

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The astronauts took several photographs like this of their footprints in the lunar dust

After the film was shot and safely secured in its removable magazines and the astronauts were ready to climb back into the Eagle and dock with the Columbia, there was something that was not loaded back into the module: the camera. Although it may seem shocking that such a fine piece of carefully crafted photographic technology was just left behind, the sacrifice was necessary so that as many lunar samples as possible could be taken back to earth. This was a practice continued throughout the subsequent manned lunar missions meaning that there actually quite a few abandoned Hasselblads, their shutters indefinitely silenced, sitting on the moon to this day. It almost gives a whole new meaning to the concept of the disposable camera.

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Buzz Aldrin setting up an experiment on the lunar surface

So, if you want an opportunity to view some of the extraordinary results of the first camera on the moon, as well as those taken by the other Apollo 11 Hasselblads, I encourage you to come view the Apollo 11 photographic prints in the Michael Collins Papers (Ms1989-029) here at Special Collections. They truly embody the beauty and wonder of space that has captivated humankind for centuries and seeing them in person is a very special experience indeed.

Have You Ever Seen A Pancake Fly? How Does It Do It?

Among the materials in the Robert R. Gilruth Papers (Ms1990-053) is his 1936 Master’s thesis from the University of Minnesota, “The Effect of Wing-Tip Propellers on the Aerodynamic Characteristics of a Low Aspect Ratio Wing.” Gilruth, who would move on to work, first, as a flight research engineer at Langley Aeronautical Laboratory of the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), and then for NASA, became the first director of that agency’s Manned Spacecraft Center in Houston in 1961. The Master’s paper, however, was what interested the folks at the Vought Aircraft Historical Foundation, who contacted Special Collections as they were preparing a history of the company’s V-173 and XF5U-1 “Pancake” series of aircraft.

A look at the model used in this early work of Gilruth’s and the prototypes built by Vought in the 1940s suggests the significance of his work for the company’s engineers at the time. So, how does a pancake fly? For those of you who want to know, check out Gilruth’s Thesis for all the theory, specs, charts, and diagrams.

Aviation and Aerospace define an important collecting area for Special Collections. The Gilruth Papers, for example, contain research articles, speeches, photographs, agency and professional papers, and more that span a fifty year career in aerospace.

For more information, read about our Archives of American Aerospace Exploration or visit us at Special Collections!