December 3, 2012
If you grew up near Bethpage, New York in the early 1960s, you probably were obsessed with the Apollo Lunar Module built by the Long Island-based Grumman Corporation. And if you were an extremely prescient teenager, you might have started amassing your own world-class collection of space-related items, including photographs, manuscripts, and prints.
This Wednesday, Bonhams is auctioning off one such private collection. In a video on Bonhams’ Website, the collector (who wishes to remain anonymous) explains that he grew up “during the height of the windup to the Apollo era,” just a few miles from Grumman, and many of the fathers in his neighborhood worked on the Lunar Module. “I was working towards a goal fairly early on,” he recalls in the video. “In my early- to mid-teens, what I wanted to do was to have an exhibition focusing on unmanned space travel.”
Many of the items are one-of-a kind. The lunar photomosaic above (see the full image here), was made as a five-foot-wide presentation piece in 1966, and was painstakingly assembled by Kay Larson of the U.S. Geological Survey using images captured by Surveyor 1. “I’m lucky to have found this—it would have been thrown in the trash, eventually,” the collector notes.
There are objects relating to Mars, Mercury, Venus, and Jupiter, but Earth’s moon is the centerpiece of this show. Some of the items predate the space age. One particularly lovely object is a photograph made up of four large-format quadrants of the moon, taken in 1899, and probably created for the 1900 Paris Exposition. The photogravures, by Pierre Henri Puiseux and Maurice Loewy, were taken at the Paris Observatory. “It was only with NASA’s Lunar Orbiters in the 1960s,” reads the collection note, “that images substantially better than those of Loewy and Puiseux were obtained.” The plates are from Puiseux and Loewy’s Atlas photographique de la lune. The two men were able to photograph the moon only during perfect weather, the catalog notes, which meant just 50 or 60 nights each year—explaining why the Atlas took 14 years to complete. These may be the first oversize plates from the Atlas to come up for auction, and are expected to bring $12,000 to $18,000.
British pastel portraitist John Russell (the appointed painter to the King and the Prince of Wales) was so fascinated with the moon that he created a lunar globe in 1797, which he called a Selenographia. Russell spent many years drawing and observing the moon; his globe even accounts for lunar motion, or libration. No more than 11 Selenographias are believed to exist; six are in public collections. This example, lot number 23, is expected to fetch between $200,000 to $300,000.
October 31, 2012
As we celebrate all things weird and wonderful on Halloween, let’s take a look at some of the stranger objects donated to the Smithsonian over the years. The photograph above shows two model airplanes designed and built by Frank Ehling in the 1970s. Take a closer look — the models are powered by flies. As Kathy Hanser wrote for the National Air and Space Museum’s blog in 2009, “The one-fly design [on the right] has a wingspan of two inches, and the two-fly version, which features a delta-wing design, is four inches wide.” Ehling’s 2001 obituary in the Washington Post, writes Hanser, described the designer’s fly-harnessing method: “…Ehling honed an effective technique involving cupping a fly with his hands and then hurling it to the ground to knock it unconscious. He would then dab glue on its rear end, carefully avoiding its delicate wings, and attach the fly to the plane.”
The strange device on the right, known as an Armbrust Cup, traveled around the globe with Charles and Anne Lindbergh in the 1930s. The cup, writes Museum education specialist Tim Grove, “converts condensation from breath into drinking water—for use in emergency landings at sea. Since weight restrictions were an ever-present challenge, the Lindberghs could take only a limited supply of water. Lindbergh had read about this new invention before his solo flight across the Atlantic and took one along.”
The Armbrust Cup was originally donated to the American Museum of Natural History in New York, but was eventually sent to the United States Air Force Museum. In 1959 the cup was transferred to the Smithsonian Institution’s Air Museum. It’s currently on display in the Boeing Aviation Hangar at the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center.
Our final item is this somewhat creepy-looking android. It was built around 1962 at the Illinois Institute of Technology, writes Paul Ceruzzi, the Museum’s Chair of the Division of Space History, to test space suits for NASA. “It was intended to be installed in a prototype suit (on Earth), and its limbs would be set in motion that closely resembled what a human suit wearer would do. Strain gauges would tell how much force was required to move in a suit, and therefore how much effort an astronaut needed to wear the suit. It was never intended to fly in space, and could not operate without a control console connected to it.”
The designers managed to have a bit of fun with the android. “As a dramatic demonstration of its capabilities,” Ceruzzi writes, “its designers got it to dance ‘the Twist,’ and to mimic the pelvic gyrations of Elvis Presley.”
The android was donated to the Museum in 1986 by Larry Graham, and is on (static; no dancing) display at the Udvar-Hazy Center.
July 31, 2012
Conversation overheard this morning between astronaut Suni Williams, onboard the International Space Station, and NASA’s payload science center in Huntsville, Alabama:
Huntsville: We did see [on video] Nefertiti eating a fly.
Williams: Did she jump to get it? How did she get it?
Huntsville: She did jump, she’s adapting well.
Williams: Pretty awesome!
This is exciting news, presumably, to 19-year-old Amr Mohamad of Alexandria, Egypt, whose investigation of the weightless eating habits of two jumping spiders* named Nefertiti and Cleopatra was one of three winners of the global YouTube Space Lab competition for high-school students. Mohamed’s experiment arrived on the station just a few days ago on a Japanese cargo ship, and here the spiders are already munching away on fruitflies.
Mohamed thought Nefertiti and Cleopatra, who jump on their prey rather than trap them, would find zero-g hunting to be more of a challenge. Here’s his experiment proposal:
*Note: An earlier version of this post misidentified both spiders as zebra spiders. Nefertiti is a redback jumping spider.
June 22, 2012
A team of student engineers from the University of Maryland are attempting to keep their pedal-powered helicopter, Gamera II, off the ground for at least 60 seconds — which would set a new world record.
Here’s video of a (40-second) flight earlier this week.
May 11, 2012
These kids yawn at your typical roof egg-dropping challenge. Tomorrow, 100 teams will compete in the Team America Rocketry Challenge. The teams are made of three to ten middle and high school students, who have already bested hundreds of other teams from around the country to make it to the D.C.-area competition, where they’ll send handmade rockets into the sky for top-notch prizes.
The Challenge started in 2002 as a celebration of the centennial of aviation, but the response and support was so big, it’s continued annually ever since. The kids register in the fall and spend all year with a teacher-supervisor and a mentor from the National Association of Rocketry to learn the math and physics required to blast up to the required altitude (this year it’s 800 feet), while carrying two raw eggs safely up and back down to Earth.
The top ten teams split $60,000 in cash and scholarships, and are given opportunities with NASA’s Student Launch Initiative and trips to international air shows with member companies from the Challenge’s sponsor, the Aerospace Industries Association.
If you’re in the D.C. area, you can head over to see the teams compete tomorrow during an event that’s part celebration of science, engineering, and nerdery (people have been known to dress up in costume), and part introduction to the competitive world of the aerospace industry. The “Final Flyoff” happens in the Great Meadow at 5089 Old Tavern Road, The Plains, Virginia, just about an hour drive from Washington, D.C. Bring a picnic and watch the launches throughout the day, from 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. In between, wander around the exhibition area that will feature aerospace company displays, mini-rocket demos and contests, and college representative to talk about their science and engineering majors. Then see the Rocketry Challenge winners, and very likely the future leaders of the aerospace industry, crowned at 5 p.m.
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