Ask A Curator Day 2016 - Questions and Answers

Posted on Wed, September 14, 2016

Ever wondered how we move objects, what's not on display that we'd like to exhibit, or what rocks from the Moon feel like? #AskACurator Day on Twitter is your chance to get those burning questions answered about aviation, spaceflight, planetary science and more. Here is a selection of questions and answers that you submitted on September 14, 2016.

Question: Do you have an agreement w/ @NASA to collect objects from recent missions?

Valerie Neal, Chair of the Space History Department: Yes, but our agreement covers objects that NASA no longer needs; it usually takes a few years before NASA is ready to release them.

Question: Some items (rockets, etc.) that are on loan to other museums. How do you track these items? Care instructions?

Jeannie Whited, Museum Specialist: Artifacts on loan have a signed Loan Agreement, basically a contract spelling out what we will lend for how long, who pays for things like shipping and insurance, and any special care instructions. There are general professional standards for light, humidity, temperature, and display barriers (ie – cases or railings). Some items have extra instructions because they are very fragile or made of sensitive materials – these vary on a case by case basis.

Question: What aircraft are currently in restoration?

Anthony Wallace, Supervisory Museum Specialist: Currently Preservation Restoration staff are working on our B-26 Marauder, Flak Bait. They are also working on the Apollo Telescope Mount for Skylab. The cruciform section containing the instruments is currently on display in the James S. McDonnell Space Hangar.

Question: What aircraft in the collection would you would you want to take out and fly, and why?

Russ Lee, Curator and Chair of Aeronautics: The Lockheed F-104 Starfighter. Pilots nicknamed it the “missile with a man in it.” I have heard several retired military pilots say it was their favorite.

Roger Connor, Museum Specialist: The Hiller YROE-1 Rotorcycle. It was a brilliantly designed little one-man helicopter that was not practical for its intended military mission, but it would be a blast to tool around in at low level.

Question: Do you have or plan on having an exhibit related to the growth of private industry astronautics (eg SpaceX, Etc.)?

Jennifer Levasseur, Curator: Our Moving Beyond Earth exhibition does speak to future human spaceflight in terms of entrepreneurship, new destinations, use of robots and possible tourism to space, but with more developments to come, we’ll be updating that space when possible.

Question: If you had to pick one, what is your favorite plane/spaceship in your collection?

Emily Martin, Postdoctoral Fellow: For me personally, I have two favorites. 1) Sputnik because it was the first Earth satellite that escalated the space-race which was fundamental in utimatly creating the field of planetary science. 2) Voyager Spacecraft which gave us the first glimpse of all the weird worlds of the outer solar system!

Tom Lassman, Curator: Good question, but a tough one.  If I had to choose, I’d pick the V-2 rocket engine that North American Aviation built right after World War II as an engineering model to learn the latest advances in propulsion technology.  The German rocket engineer Wernher Von Braun invented the V-2, the world’s first operational ballistic missile, during World War II, and engineers at North American Aviation, a big West Coast aircraft manufacture, drew on the V-2’s technology to produce what became the main line of America’s liquid fuel rocket engine technology through the post-World War II period.  No other single artifact in my collection captures that historical lineage across such a long time span—more than fifty years.  

Question: How did astronauts fit inside the spaceship on the way to the Moon?

Allan Needell, Curator: Relatively comfortably. There were three couches, and the middle couch could be stowed under one of the others leaving room for an astronaut to stand up, put on or take off a spacesuits and even look through a telescope.

Question: How do you move/share large artifacts?

Anthony Wallace, Supervisory Museum Specialist: That's a good question with a long answer. We have a number of large pieces of equipment that we can utilize to move the majority of our collection. Most of us in the Collections Department hold a certification that allows up to move most of our collection using internal staff only. The majority have forklift and aerial work platform operator certifications, 5 of us are crane operators and 5 are licensed tractor-trailer operators. We also have the support system in place to fabricate custom transport stands for large artifacts if they are needed. Over the years we have developed a good rapport with local jurisdictional entities including local and state law enforcement and transportation departments. As an example of how we move an object here are just some of the steps we go through when moving a large artifact between our various locations.

  • Identify the current status of the object. Will it need any restoration and conservation work prior to movement.
  • Speak with our Archives Department to identify any maintenance manuals that would assist in the disassembly of the artifact or specific tooling of custom support pieces. In the case of the FW-190 we did not disassemble the aircraft and transported it over the road completely assembled. We needed to ‘hang’ the tail wheel off the side of the trailer on an I-Beam roughly 8 feet. This narrowed our load to approximately 32 feet wide.
  • Locate any previous handling fixtures that were created in the past. If there are none design and fabricate them to assist with the loading/offloading and transport of the artifact. This also includes installing road tires that allow us to move an artifact without putting any pressure on the original tires. Most recently this was done with the Spirit of St. Louis in our Boeing Milestones of Flight Hall.
  • Determine the specific equipment needed for the move. Will this need to be moved in an enclosed or open trailer on the road? We have 4 different trailers we can use depending on the size and weight of the artifact. This is also when we determine how we are going to load the artifact. Something we do frequently is to lift the artifact using either a crane or forklifts off the ground. When it is high enough we back our tractor trailer underneath the artifact and lower it onto our trailer.
  • We identify the structural components of the artifact that we can use to attach straps to secure the artifact to the trailer. Sometimes we need to fabricate a custom piece to give us the standoff room necessary so that our straps do not rub against the artifact.
  • Depending on the size/weight of the artifact we need to apply for special oversized load permits with each jurisdiction we will be traveling through. We pick a delivery date while taking weather and road conditions into account. During the winter we have more to deal with because of the chemicals used to treat the roads for snow and ice. We do not want these chemicals spraying up onto our artifacts.
  • We also need to determine when we get to our destination how we are going to offload the artifact from our truck. Do we have the same or comparable equipment at that location that we used to load the artifact? Sometimes we need to move the equipment to the delivery location just so we can get it off our trailer.

These are just some of the steps that we go through when transporting a large artifact over the road. We also hang our large artifacts at both of our museums. For this we need to work with our exhibit designers and curators to determine the desired orientation of the artifact. After that is determined we need to fabricate any specialized lifting fixtures needed to get the artifact into position so that we can attach the cables needed for the suspension. The process is very complicated and takes a lot of time beforehand to ensure that you do not run into any issues. This includes working in the overhead of our galleries where we have mechanical work such as HVAC ducts, electrical conduit and fire suppression systems already installed. Since these works cannot move we need to work around them and come up with unique ways to suspend our artifacts for exhibitions.

I hope this answers your question, and it is just a small look into how we move large artifacts.


Question: Is there anything not on display that you would love to have out for people to enjoy?

Roger Connor, Curator: Many things. We are only able to display less than a quarter of our collection, so there are a number of aerospace wonders we would like to have available, but cannot for a variety of reasons. For me, my first choice would be the Cierva C.8W Autogiro, the oldest successful rotorcraft in the United States.

Question: How often do you get new artifacts?

Jeannie Whited, Museum Specialist: In 2014, we averaged 172 objects/month, but we had two very large accessions (group of artifacts from a single donor) that year.  A more normal number is closer to 100-125/month.  Every new object is approved by a Collections Committee, which is guided by the Collections Plan, where curators state the sort of things they want to collect and why.