What does a piece of World War I Army surplus have to do with early rocketry? Well, a helmet from the war, painted white for easier visibility, provided protection for American Rocket Society members during rocket testing in the 1930s.
One such member was G. Edward Pendray a newspaper reporter and editor, freelance writer, and public relations man in New York City. In the 1920s, he and his wife, Leatrice “Lee” Gregory, became excited about the prospect of space travel. They began meeting with friends — mostly science fiction fans and writers — at Nino and Nella’s, an Italian restaurant/speakeasy in New York City, to talk about the possibilities of space flight. One day a regular at the meetings, David Lasser, the editor of the science fiction magazine Science Wonder Series, suggested they organize. Thus, in 1930 the American Interplanetary Society (AIS) was born, and Lasser became its first president. Pendray replaced Lasser as president in 1932, and the focus of the AIS began to change from a group that promoted the wonders of space travel into a society that built and tested small rockets. As the organization evolved, the members decided to rename it the American Rocket Society (ARS) in 1934. Eventually, most of the original science fiction devotees began to drift away and were replaced by scientists and engineers. Much later, in 1963, the ARS merged with the Institute of the Aerospace Sciences (originally the Institute of the Aeronautical Sciences) to form the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA), which is now the world’s largest technical society dedicated to the global aerospace profession. Pendray contributed to the field of aerospace throughout his life. Today, the AIAA awards the “Pendray Aerospace Literature Award” in recognition of his achievements. The helmet used by ARS members during early rocket tests is made of steel and was mainly used from 1935 to 1941. It was given to the Museum by Ed Pendray in 1968. The helmet is now on display in the 1,000 Years of Rocketry case at the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center.
For additional reading on the subject, see Tom D. Crouch, Rocketeers and Gentlemen Engineers: A History of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics…and What Came Before (Reston, Va: AIAA, 2006) and Frank Winter, Prelude to the Space Age (Washington, DC: SIP, 1983)