Interested in reading a letter Charles Lindbergh carried on his 1927 solo flight from New York to Paris? Or inspecting a pair of Jimmy Doolittle’s goggles? How about an engineering prototype of the Mars Pathfinder airbag? It used to be you could see such historic objects only by visiting the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. But now you can browse through the museum’s collections database from home. Since early last year, the Museum’s staff has been loading photographs and descriptions of thousands of artifacts into the online database—not just the aircraft and spacecraft displayed in the museum galleries, but smaller items too, everything from emergency rations to tuning coils.
Approximately 12,700 objects have been entered in the database already, some 20 percent of the Museum’s collection. Visitors to the web site can search for specific objects by keyword, or browse any of 16 categories covering aeronautics and space history. Entering “Earhart” as a keyword, for instance, brings up information about the bright-red Lockheed Vega 5B she flew on two historic flights in 1932, as well as a picture of the radio used on her transatlantic flight and myriad commemorative medals.
Searching with the “Artifact on Display” finder will tell you if—and where—the object can be seen in person. Amelia Earhart’s Vega, for example, is on display on the National Mall Museum, while her flight suit is at the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center.
“The initial priority is to get objects on public display represented on the web site,” says Victoria Portway, manager of interactive media and electronic outreach at the Museum. Pre-1920s aviation is especially well represented in the artifacts posted to date, including the Wright Flyer and the Wright EX Vin Fiz, a biplane flown by Calbraith Perry Rodgers—and named after a grape soda—in a 1911 transcontinental flight competition. “I’m hoping visitors will discover objects they didn’t even know we had in the collection and learn a great deal more about aviation and space history as a result,” Portway adds.
“One of the great things about the database is that it gives equal weight to the Concorde or a spark plug,” says Thomas Yarker, program manager of the collections division. “We’ve introduced longer scholarly essays into object records now, and you’ll find some very good work.”
Among the curios in the collection are a small bar of soap found in Alan Shepard’s Freedom 7 Mercury capsule (the curator’s note reads: “The reason for its location in the capsule is unknown.”); a feline-theme lamp inspired by Lindbergh’s cat, Patsy; silver spoons from Thor Solberg’s 1935 flight commemorating Leif Erikson’s crossing of the Atlantic; and a model of the alien mother ship used in the movie Close Encounters of the Third Kind. (The model holds hidden, smaller models that can’t be seen in the film, but were added by the model makers as inside jokes. They include a Volkswagen bus, a U.S. mailbox, and a cemetery plot.)
The database also includes the recently released NASA art collection, with paintings and drawings going back to 1962. James Webb, then administrator of NASA, encouraged artists to commemorate the historic events of the U.S. space program, and gave them the freedom to paint whatever interested them. Examples include a simple pen-and-ink sketch of a deep space antenna; a vivid acrylic of the Saturn rocket blockhouse; and portraits of astronauts and cosmonauts.
Areas that curators hope to emphasize in coming months include the armament collection and the Museum’s large assortment of air travel posters, recently highlighted in Joanne London’s book Fly Now! The Poster Collection of the National Air and Space Museum (National Geographic, 2007).
With more than 40,000 items still left to inventory, the digitization project, which is supported by outside grants as well as Museum funds, is expected to be an ongoing venture. The staff hopes to have examples from all collection areas on the site within a year or two.