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.
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.
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.
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 Gatsbyautographed 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.”
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.
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.
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.)
Of course, there were plans for the more typical version, as well, but with some accommodation for steering and/or propulsion.
There were also two drawings included for water travel, one involving an elongated system of paddles:
Bastimento volante per acqua (anche Kraken de’ legni nautici), Ship flying through water, Tav. 1 (with permission: Fondazione Istituto Internazionale di Storia Economica “F. Datini”
Bastimento volante per acqua (anche Kraken de’ legni nautici), Ship flying through water, Tav. 2 (with permission: Fondazione Istituto Internazionale di Storia Economica “F. Datini”
But now, when we come to land, well, this giant-sized hampster wheel really got my attention! Check it out!
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!
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
Or, if you’re just needing to see a photograph of a Virginia Tech graduation . . .
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.