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 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.
To celebrate women’s history month, we are highlighting a small selection of the pioneering women professionals in our collections. These particular women entered their respective careers in the 1950s and 60s, a time when women had limited access to higher education and professional opportunities. Women in historically marginalized groups (including LGBTQ communities, rural communities, and communities of color) faced additional challenges beyond gender barriers. The four women profiled below overcame several obstacles to work as accomplished professionals in fields traditionally dominated by men.
In 1951, Marjorie Rhodes Townsend became the first woman to earn an engineering degree at George Washington University. One of few women in a traditionally male-dominated field, Townsend experienced significant discrimination from both coworkers and managers. In spite of these challenges, she enjoyed a lengthy and distinguished career at the forefront of aerospace technology. Townsend spent eight years with the Naval Research Laboratory developing sonar signal-processing devices for anti-submarine warfare. Townsend went on to work for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s Goddard Space Flight Center from 1959-1980. As a project manager for NASA’s Small Astronomy Satellite (SAS) program, Townsend helped coordinate some of the earliest advances in satellite technology and spacecraft systems design.
As an eighth-grade student, L. Jane Hastings was told that women could not be architects. When she secured a coveted spot in the University of Washington’s architecture program, Hastings recalls being asked to give up her place to make room for returning veterans. Hastings received her Bachelor of Architecture degree with honors in 1952, having worked full-time throughout most of her program. In 1953, she became the eighth licensed woman architect in the State of Washington. Hastings founded her own practice in 1959 and went on to form the Hastings Group, a prestigious firm that completed over 500 residential, commercial, and university projects across the greater Seattle area. In addition to practicing and teaching architectural design, Hastings was active in several professional organizations. In 1992, Hastings was appointed the first woman chancellor in the American Institute of Architects’ College of Fellows.
Learn more about the L. Jane Hastings Architectural Papers here:
Dr. Laura Jane Harper was the first woman to serve as an academic dean at VPI. She lead the College of Home Economics from 1960-1980, chartering a new program that emerged from the consolidation of the Home Economics programs at VPI and Radford University. Dr. Harper was lauded for mentoring other women and supporting them in leadership positions throughout the university. In her 1999 Master’s thesis “A Fighter To The End: The Remarkable Life and Career Of Laura Jane Harper”, Saranette Miles recounted Dr. Harper’s decision to turn down a marriage proposal for the sake of her career (p. 55) and how she frequently challenged VPI President T. Marshall Hahn to uphold his commitments to create meaningful opportunities for women at the university (p. 70-75) .
Linda Adams Hoyle (class of ‘68) was the first black woman to graduate from Virginia Tech. As a statistics major, Hoyle was frequently the only woman in her classes and one of few black students. Her experiences on campus – friendships, dorms assignments, political activism, and safety concerns – were shaped by the intersection of race and gender. After graduation, Hoyle went on to work as a statistician for the Census Bureau in Washington, D.C. In her oral history interview for the Black Women At Virginia Tech History Project, Hoyle discussed the challenges of raising a family while pursuing a career:
….. So when you have this full time career–my job at that time was extremely demanding. It was difficult because I had to attend to my children as well as do the job. My husband, the way he worked, it was difficult. He could not just stop in the middle of a job say to pick up a sick child. His work did not permit him that flexibility. Those were things I had to do.
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.