It’s incredible to think about how much has transpired over the last century. From the birth of aviation to landing on the moon, from piloted supersonic aircraft that can travel at more than three times the speed of sound (which, for reference is around 767 miles per hour at 68 degrees Fahrenheit) to sending probes to the deepest reaches of space, NASA Langley Research Center in Hampton has been a major contributor to inspiration and innovation.
Between now and March 11, 2018, you can travel back in time with those innovators through an incredible display of photographs at the Chrysler Museum of Art that chronicles it all. “When we first started putting the idea for this exhibition together, there were literally millions of photos to choose from,” says Seth Feman, the Chrysler’s curator of photography. “It was a pretty daunting task, to say the least.”
Fortunately, Feman teamed up with Joe Chambers, a retired NASA engineer, turned historian, who had already done gobs of research for a book he was putting together. “Joe was able to help me understand more about why one image of a wind tunnel might be more important than another, because of what that wind tunnel was depicting or what was discovered at that wind tunnel,” says Feman. “So he was able to guide me in identifying key discoveries, which cut down the number of photographs we needed to review pretty significantly.”
Feman was also assisted by Ann Marie Trotta, who is a government liaison. “NASA Langley is a big place, and it was really confusing as an outsider on how to approach a very complex institution,” Feman says. “She has been there a number of years and knows exactly who to talk to and where to go to get things done. She was also able to highlight key events to make sure we weren’t forgetting about key people or key discoveries while doing the research for this project.”
The result is an amazing display of more than 100 photos that depicts many of Langley’s pioneering innovations, including pilots testing experimental planes, engineers operation the facility’s famous wind tunnels and astronauts preparing to take the first steps on the moon, among many others. The exhibit is free and open to the public.
Langley researcher Elton W. Miller stands in the exit cone and ponders the future of
the Sperry M-1 Messenger, the first full-scale airplane tested in the Propeller
This multiple exposure shows a simulated Moon landing of the Lunar Excursion
Module simulator/trainer at Langley's Lunar Landing Research Facility, now a
National Historic Landmark.
A researcher inspects a Gemini spacecraft mounted on a sting in the 11-inch
Hypersonic Tunnel in 1962. Why the spacecraft is pointed forward in its ascent
attitude, but without its service module or Titan II booster for this test is not certain,
but it may have involved launch abort aerodynamics.
“My favorites are ones that may not be the most obvious,” says Feman. “There’s one of a ‘human computer’ that I really love. Human computers were mostly women doing calculations and computations before automated computers were available to do so. There’s this picture of one woman—it must be from the late 40s or early 50s—and she has all of this ticker tape around her. She’s totally overwhelmed by these machines that are spitting out little pieces of paper, but she’s completely put together. Her hair is done perfectly and everything is in place, and it just feels like that’s what research is like. You’re trying to keep your cool with all this data around you, and you’re trying to make heads or tails of it while working really fast to figure it out. This woman has it figured out, and I just love the sense of finding your way through the masses of information. I just think it speaks on a lot of different levels.”
For people who have viewed the exhibit already, some of the crowd favorites seem to be of the wind tunnels. “Very early in the history of the institution, they built what is effectively a full-scale wind tunnel—a structure that was big enough to put a full-sized plane in,” says Feman. “We have pictures of people standing inside of it and you realize how enormous it is. I think over the course of the show, visitors fill in that story and realize how that kind of research made it possible for what we take for granted today—commercial flight, getting to the moon, getting into space. None of these things could have happened without the research that was going on there. So a little visual impact goes into a much bigger story.”