Cartoon by Richard Thompson (NASM 9A02888); Richard Thompson and Smithsonian Magazine
It was about twenty years ago, but no one in the Museum’s Archives Division can now remember who first asked us the immortal question - what‘s the wingspan of a Lockheed P-38 Lightning? The answer, by the way, is fifty-two feet – exactly. It’s a classic example of the countless “ready reference” questions that have challenged the Archives staff over the years. And for some reason, the Division’s staff has adopted it as something of a motto, or slogan, or battle cry – it’s the premiere aerospace fact that’s taught to new staff members, and they’re expected to be able to rattle it off on command. Besides our primary responsibility of acquiring, arranging, and preserving the documentary material of air and space history for public and curatorial use, we assist visiting researchers and also handle great numbers of letters, emails, and telephone calls through our reference desk – everyone from historians and congressional offices to school kids working on their homework, plus the odd bar bet from time to time. We take pride in the fact that we answer every question, or provide guidance to other reference sources. Here’s another question we get asked from time to time - Number of golf balls on the Moon? Answer – two. No, we don’t know what brand. Got a question for us? We're trying out a new reference feature this week that we're calling Ask an Expert. We're looking for easier ways for people to contact us, and we'd also like to build up a searchable FAQ of answers to useful questions - so starting today and running through Friday, August 7, ask us something and we'll do our best to shoot you back an answer. Some questions may require that we do a bit of digging in the files, so we can't quite guarantee an instant reply - not quite yet.
Researchers world-wide ask us challenging questions and make all sorts of requests. Television programs like "Jeopardy" routinely present questions that have to be investigated, while countless made-for-television documentaries, books, and periodicals have also been significantly assisted by the Archives staff. Fact – we supplied data on the Curtiss F8C to the production staff of Peter Jackson’s 2005 version of King Kong that aided in the construction of the fighters that harassed the poor ape. And there was the man who told us that he planned to build a full-size replica of the Convair B-36 Peacemaker bomber in his backyard (length: 162 feet; wingspan: 230 feet) – well, we talked him out of ordering the drawings.
Sometimes, sadly, we have to disappoint researchers, like the people who ask to purchase a copy of the film footage of the Wright brothers’ historic first flight at Kitty Hawk, 1903. They swear they’ve seen it, but it’s a fact that no moving pictures were made at Kitty Hawk – just still photographs, including the famous First Flight photograph. And over the years several people have called to give us the exciting news that they’ve acquired the ignition key to Amelia Earhart’s Lockheed Electra – the plane that she and Fred Noonan disappeared in back in 1937. Regretfully, we have to tell them that they’ve bought a key to a piece of Amelia Earhart luggage. And to the inmates who write to us from prison: sorry, no - we will not send you plans for rocket belts, or for the Hiller Flying Platform. The Archives Division’s collection is currently divided between the main Museum building on the third floor, and in Building 12 at the Paul E. Garber Storage and Restoration Facility in Silver Hill, Maryland. Our files and collections are open to everyone, either by coming to do research in person (we do request appointments), or by our online email inquiry form - or until Friday, give our experimental Ask an Expert feature a try. We’ll have a spacious new reference area when the Archives Center, part of the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center Phase Two expansion, is completed in 2011 – we hope you’ll visit us there and ask a few questions of your own.