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Smithsonian Videohistory Collection

Naval Research Laboratory (NRL) Space Science
(RU 9539)


World War II and the advent of the Cold War led the United States government to underwrite basic scientific research that could be applied to military purposes. Because the United States Navy was concerned about the effect of nuclear radiation on its wireless radio communication system, it funded studies in astronomy and aeronomy--the examination of the earth's atmosphere--at the Naval Research Laboratory (NRL) in Washington, D.C. Wartime advances in rocketry and electronics enabled physicists and engineers to study non-visible radiation at ever greater distances from the earth's surface. These studies resulted in more sophisticated views of the composition of the atmosphere and of solar radiation, and in the revelation of the presence of stellar X-ray radiation between 1946 and the early 1960s. By the latter period, however, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) began to eclipse NRL's pre-eminence in space science.

David DeVorkin, curator at the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum (NASM), recorded five sessions with the men at the NRL who pioneered the sciences of X-ray astronomy and aeronomy. DeVorkin was particularly interested in how technologies and techniques developed for one purpose crossed disciplinary boundaries to affect or create others. Participants detailed how they adopted, applied, or improved on extant technologies for their hybrid research; throughout the sessions there is ample visual documentation of artifacts and working equipment used at the NRL. The video sessions were arranged in two collection divisions: 1) X-ray astronomy and 2) aeronomy.

Video Sessions and Participants

This collection consists of five interview sessions, separated into two collection divisions, totally approximately 16:00 hours of recordings, and 390 pages of transcript. There are three generations of tape for each session: originals, dubbing masters, and reference copies. In total, this collection is comprised of 22 original videotapes (22 U-Matic videotapes, some of which are 60 minutes in length, and some of which are 20 minutes in length), 15 dubbing master videotapes (15 U-Matic videotapes), and 8 reference copy videotapes (8 VHS videotapes).

Collection Division 1: Early X-ray Astronomy


In Sessions One through Three, DeVorkin interviewed all four participants in a group and then in pairs to review the progression of astronomical research at the NRL between 1945 and the early 1960s. Herbert Friedman was born in 1916, received his Ph.D. in physics from Johns Hopkins University in 1940, and began working at the Lab a year later. After two years of using X-ray radiation to detect manufacturing flaws, he was appointed head of the Electron Optics branch of the Rocketry Division. In 1958 Friedman took over the Space Science Division until his retirement. Edward T. Byram earned his degree in mechanical engineering from the University of Toledo before the war, during which he served in the U.S. Army for three years. He spent two years at the Glenn L. Martin Aircraft Company and joined the NRL's Electron Optics branch in December, 1947. Between 1962 and 1972 he contributed to 54 papers on X-ray astronomy. Talbot A. Chubb was born in 1923 and took the B.A. in physics that he received from Princeton University to the Clinton Engineer Works in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, in 1944. His doctoral advisor in physics at the University of North Carolina referred him to the NRL in 1950. Chubb headed the Lab's Upper Air Physics branch from 1959 to 1981. Robert Kreplin spent the summers of 1948 and 1949 at the NRL while finishing his B.A. in physics at Dartmouth University. After receiving his M.A. in 1952, Kreplin returned to the Lab permanently.

Session One (November 12, 1986), in the Director's Conference Room at the National Air and Space Museum, featured Friedman, Byram, Kreplin, and Chubb on the chronology of NRL's astronomical research, c. 1945-1964, including:

  • backgrounds of interviewees;
  • research freedom, and lab culture at the NRL;
  • development of gas-tube radiation detection technology;
  • technical problems with different rockets;
  • defining research goals in stellar and solar astronomy;
  • 1950s' rockoon program and ultraviolet research;
  • solar flare and X-ray studies;
  • participation in International Geophysical Year, 1957-1958;
  • Vanguard satellite program and influence of NASA on NRL;
  • reasons for U.S. Navy's commitment to astronomy.

Visual documentation included:

  • assortment of gas tubes for radiation detection;
  • 1950s' cartoon of NRL personalities;
  • period photographs of tubes, NRL staff, rockets and launch sites;
  • diagrams of instrument components.

Original Masters: 6 U-Matic videotapes
Dubbing Masters: 4 U-Matic videotapes
Reference Copies: 2 VHS videotapes
Transcript: 114 pages
6 hours

Session Two (July 8, 1987), in Rooms 219-A and 231-A of Building 209 at the Naval Research Laboratory, featured Byram and Chubb on the functions of their respective laboratories, c. 1949-1987, including:

  • operation of vacuum chamber for High Energy Astrophysical Observatory (HEAO);
  • cooperation with NASA;
  • comparison of NASA and NRL standards for testing;
  • Byram's training for work with vacuums;
  • operation of gas filling station;
  • comparison of gas filling techniques, 1950s' and current;
  • collective approach to equipment development;
  • development of halogen gas tube;
  • development of gas quench agents;
  • Chubb's training for work with gases.

Visual documentation included:

  • HEAO vacuum chamber and components in operation;
  • late-1960s'-model Geiger counter;
  • procedure diagram for Oriented Scintillation Spectrograph Experiment;
  • equipment for ultraviolet astronomy in room 231A;
  • 1950s'-model gas-filling station and components in operation;
  • BS-1 halogen tube;
  • tube-testing equipment in operation;
  • Seyea-Namioka spectrograph and its components.

Session Three (July 31, 1987), in the Building 209 video studio at the Naval Research Laboratory, featured Byram and Kreplin on instrumentation for rocket-launched astronomic research, c. 1948-1979, including:

  • development of Geiger counter tube technology;
  • development of ionization chamber technology;
  • integration of radiation detectors to Solrad satellite series;
  • development of collimator and X-ray detector technology;
  • solar radiation research, 1950s through Solrad;
  • discovery of Scorpius X-1 and Crab Nebula X-ray sources;
  • application of telescopes to stellar ultraviolet astronomy;
  • development of HEAO detector;
  • NRL relationships with contractors and NASA;
  • determining the aspect of a rocket;
  • quality of computer hardware and software.

Visual documentation included:

  • assortment of gas tubes and components for ultraviolet and X-ray radiation detection;
  • Lyman alpha ionization chamber and sensitivity curve chart;
  • collimator components;
  • period photographs of rockets, instruments, and scientists;
  • collimated telescope experiment components;
  • HEAO detector and components;
  • aspect calculator;
  • Sco X-1 telemetry printout.

Original Masters: 4 U-Matic videotapes
Dubbing Masters: 4 U-Matic videotapes
Reference Copies: 2 VHS videotapes
Transcript: 109 pages
4 hours

Collection Division 2: Aeronomy

In Sessions One and Two of this second collection division, DeVorkin interviewed the two men who led the NRL's study of the upper atmosphere between 1945 and 1980. Charles Y. Johnson was born in 1920 and received his B.E.E. from the University of Virginia in 1942. After serving in the U.S. Navy during World War II he joined the Cosmic Ray Section of the NRL. He headed the Air and Ion Composition Section from 1954 to 1958 and the Aeronomy Section until his retirement. Julian C. Holmes was born in 1930 and received his A.B. in physics from Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine, in 1951. He joined Johnson at the NRL in 1956 as a Physicist.

Session One (July 8, 1987), in Building 209 of the Naval Research Laboratory, featured Charles Y. Johnson on lab testing of equipment, c. 1945-1987, including:

  • development of mass spectrometers;
  • development of vacuum chambers;
  • comparison of spectrometers in lab and at launch site;
  • electronics of electrometer unit;
  • Johnson's training for vacuum chamber construction;
  • reasons for U. S. Navy's commitment to upper atmosphere research;
  • specifications for laboratory construction.

Visual documentation included:

  • Bennett mass spectrometer vacuum test chamber and components in operation;
  • mass spectrometers and electrometers;
  • period photographs of lab and launch site testing facilities, 1950s;
  • array of equipment in Room 324A;
  • construction of electronically shielded room;
  • equipment for current NRL projects.

Original Masters: 4 U-Matic videotapes
Dubbing Masters: 2 U-Matic videotapes
Reference Copies: 1 VHS videotape
Transcript: 41 pages
1 hour, 20 minutes

Session Two (July 30, 1987), in the video studio in Building 222 at the NRL, featured Julian C. Holmes and Charles Y. Johnson on the instrument payloads of Aerobee rockets, c. 1949-1979, including:

  • composition and contents of Aerobee payload and nosecone;
  • determining and maintaining aspect of rocket;
  • changes in instrument technology and sources of its manufacture;
  • examining telemetry and mass spectroscopy data;
  • development of instrumentation rack;
  • factors in successful group design;
  • checking Aerobee and payload at launch sites;
  • early use of V-2 rockets;
  • mechanics of date and nosecone recovery;
  • significance of upper atmosphere research.

Visual documentation included:

  • Aerobee rocket components;
  • instrumentation rack and instruments;
  • aspect-sensing and -calculating devices;
  • telemetry and data printouts and charts;
  • despin components;
  • collimators, photometers, and channeltron;
  • mass spectrometers and components;
  • photographs of various rockets, especially Aerobees;
  • diagram of spectrometer operation.

Original Masters: 3 U-Matic videotapes
Dubbing Masters: 3 U-Matic videotapes
Reference Copies: 2 VHS videotapes
Transcript: 83 pages
3 hours


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