Category Archives: Flight and Space

Discourse relevant to flight and/or space collections, events, or persons.

What’s in a Box? Processing the Neil A. Armstrong papers

People often wonder what archival processing means. In this blog post we explore some of the aspects associated with processing personal papers and archives. The Neil A. Armstrong papers are an excellent example to use for demonstrating a team approach to processing.

The term “processing” conjures all kinds of images in a person’s mind. According to the Society of American Archivists, archival processing is defined as:

Archival Processing, n. ~ 1. The arrangement, description, and housing of archival materials for storage and use by patrons.

Society of American Archivists, A Glossary of Archival and Records Terminology 

On the surface, this work may seem straightforward. However, it is the act of determining how best to arrange, describe, and preserve archival materials that requires a blend of skills, from knowledge of best practices in how to organize unpublished documents, photos, and artifacts according to provenance and original order, to knowing how to assign descriptions to unidentified items using archival descriptive standards, to assigning appropriate subject headings for discoverability, and how to take the right preservation steps (preventive, such as the right environment, security, and storage) or conservation steps (Item-level treatment, such as mending a torn page or removing adhesive from a photograph).

This blend of tasks requires a variety of skill sets, educational background, and training. Archivists, for example, are experts in appraisal, identifying what materials to keep in perpetuity. Archivists are also knowledgeable about privacy and confidentiality issues and donor requirements, both of which will impact which aspects of the collection will be made available immediately for use or require temporary access restrictions. In the Armstrong papers, for example, there are many third-party privacy rights and intellectual property and persona issues that can make providing access to the collection a challenge.

Archivists work with archival assistants to agree upon the right organization as part of the processing plan for a collection. Archival assistants and graduate student employees work under the direction of an archivist to sort and put the entire collection in order, and begin the painstaking process of identifying the contents of each series, or grouping, within the collection. Archival assistants also re-house archival materials into acid-free, lignin-free folders and boxes, perform preservation reformatting, and label materials in the collection.

With a large archival collection, staff may decide to process it as a team, divvying up tasks between archivists, archival assistants, and/or graduate student employees trained in processing. Working with unpublished, unedited personal papers requires a lot of decision making as well as extensive handling of the materials themselves. To cut down on wear and tear, it is important to identify in advance the steps to be taken during processing and who will perform each task.

Because each archival collection is unique, each collection will offer new questions to answer. There are some general questions that archives staff keep in mind when reviewing a collection to be processed. In particular, assessing the condition of a collection when it arrives is essential to avoid possible contamination affecting the rest of the archival collections.

An Armstrong box before processing.

Some of the processing questions to be asked

  • Are there any pests in the box? Evidence of any moisture?
  • Is there evidence of an original order to the collection, showing how the creator used it?
  • How would you group the material into series?
    • By original order?
    • By physical type?
    • By function (correspondence, career activities, volunteer work, etc)?
  • Are there any special housings/boxes needed?
  • Are there items in the collection that pose a threat to its preservation? For example, are there rusty staples or paper clips to be removed? Are there newspaper clippings adjacent to other documents? Are there extra preservation measures needed?

Anniversary publication, Neil A. Armstrong papers

Processing the Neil A. Armstrong papers

Although the bulk of Neil Armstrong’s papers were donated by his wife Carol in 2012, there have been additional donated boxes received periodically since that time. The boxes the materials arrive in can be a variety of sizes, some with materials in an original order, others with a variety of types of items within each. Collection materials range from paper documents to photographic negatives and prints, maps, audio-visual recordings, and 3-dimensional artifacts and memorabilia. Some published materials, such as newspaper clippings and journal articles collected by Armstrong are included.

Wooden model planes, Neil A. Armstrong papers








Items in an original Gemini VIII box of Armstrong papers.







There were hundreds of decisions to be made, such as…

  • Determine the order to arrange items in.


  • Decide what to do with a piece of the Berlin Wall!

Piece of Berlin Wall, Neil A. Armstrong papers








Once an arrangement scheme is determined, Items are placed in acid-free archival folders and labeled with the collection name, collection number, box and folder number.  Series titles and the contents also go on the folder. Pencil is used, as to not accidentally mark in ink on the contents. Folder labels are avoided, as they can deteriorate over time and fall off and leave adhesive residue on the folders.


The folders are placed into archival boxes and await final processing decisions. Sticky notes are often used to temporarily mark the outside of boxes, but are never left on archival material to avoid adhesive damage to the collection.

    After all of the final processing decisions are made, the boxes make their way to the shelves to await the final labeling.   


One 2016 addition donated by Carol Armstrong was comprised of  14.2 cubic feet of material.

Here are a few of those items…


Items from Armstrong’s childhood.

Mixed materials, Neil A. Armstrong papers









Also found among the additions were documents from throughout his career.

Yes, it’s a Purdue postcard…

Purdue University mail, Neil A. Armstrong papers







And these various items…

A letter of thanks from the University of Cincinnati upon Armstrong’s retirement from teaching.

Special membership cards.




A wide assortment of Armstrong’s aviation themed tie tacks.


Processing challenges sometimes require a call to outside experts. Neil Armstrong’s Samsonite briefcase accidentally closed and locked during  intake of this 2016 addition to his papers. The Purdue locksmiths were called in.

(The briefcase was full of documents.)              


The current tally…

This large and complex collection took two years to process. However, because Neil Armstrong and his office assistants over the years had labeled and maintained his papers in groups, that order eventually became recognized in a large percentage of the collection as boxes and files were examined.  A team of three staff members met weekly to discuss the boxes and make processing decisions to best reflect the original order recognized. When obviously out of original order materials were encountered, the team discussed how to logically arrange that material according to best archival practices.  The careful processing of these papers honor Mr. Armstrong’s legacy.

Neil A. Armstrong papers
221.7 cubic feet (466 manuscript boxes)
364 page Finding Aid

Click on on this cover page from the finding aid for the full inventory.

Neil A. Armstrong papers finding aid


The Neil Armstrong papers at work…


Supporting Instruction, Learning, & Scholarship

Once the papers were processed and open to researchers, instruction archivists formed partnerships with teaching faculty in the History Department, English Department, American Studies, Honors College, and the Polytechnic School to integrate the Armstrong papers into course instruction. Students are introduced to Purdue Archives and taught how to conduct archival research as part of an information strategy. Since the opening of the papers in 2014, a number of students have explored topics related to the history, technology, international relations, engineering, computer science, and graphic design during the American Space Program. Several students have had their research published or have presented at the annual Purdue Undergraduate Research Conference. The Archives has also been a resource for documentary filmmakers, television news productions, and well-known authors who have used the collection to create films and new scholarly works. In addition, a small exhibit area has held two exhibitions based upon the collection and a partnership with Purdue Galleries in 2019 resulted in the first art exhibition inspired by artists’ use of the Armstrong papers.

All of this generation of new knowledge, scholarship, and creative works was made possible first by the generous donation of Neil Armstrong’s papers by Neil and his wife, Carol Armstrong, and secondly, by the two years worth of hundreds of hours of labor intensive processing by Archives staff to make the papers accessible and to preserve them.

Examples of courses that integrated archival literacy instruction & the Armstrong papers 

  • HIST 302H “Flight Paths: Purdue’s Aerospace Pioneers” (archival research seminar)
  • HIST 495 “Flight and Space Exploration: An Archival Research Seminar” (archival research seminar)
  • HIST 395 “Air and Space: The Technology and Culture of Flight” (archival research seminar)

    HIST 395 student Jaehyeok Kim references documents from the Neil Armstrong papers during his 2019 Apollo in the Archives undergraduate research conference presentation.

  • HONR 299 “Food, Kitchens, and the Politics of Taste”
  • TECH 299 “Seminar in Humanities & Technology”
  • HIST 494 “Science and Technology in American Civilization”
  • ENG 106 (multiple sections)

Student research and scholarship generated by use of the collection:

  • Quest: The History of Spaceflight Quarterly (Volume 23, No 4, 2016)
  • The Exponent The Literary Edition (Spring 2016)
  • The three engineering and science students (Sam Conklin, Alex Crick, and Jaehyeok Kim), in Think, the magazine of the College of Liberal Arts (fall of 2019).  See their full articles in “Man + Machine: Research from Purdue’s Neil A. Armstrong Papers,”


Examples of television and film productions using the collection:

  • First Man pre-production researchers (2018 release)
  • Tin Goose Films documentary, “Armstrong”. Directed by David Fairhead, narrator Harrison Ford, by Tin Goose Films (Theatrical release July 12, 2019)
  • CBS This Morning Saturday,  “The Armstrong Letters:  A Look at the Astronaut’s Collection of Correspondence” (Aired July 20, 2019, April 11, 2020.)


“Apollo in the Archives” exhibit. 2019

 Apollo in the Archives exhibit, 2019

Purdue student club tour of Apollo in the Archives exhibit. Students worked hard to finish Neil Armstrong’s calculus homework (on display) without calculators atop lunar descent and ascent planning diagrams display.  “Apollo in the Archives” exhibit. 2019.




“Return to Entry” exhibition,Purdue Galleries, 2019.

“Return to Entry” exhibition, Purdue Galleries, 2019.


Artist Frances Gallardo talks with Carol Armstrong about the artwork Gallardo created and what in the Armstrong papers inspired her to create the piece. “Return to Entry” exhibition, Purdue Galleries, 2019.



It has been an honor and a pleasure to process and share the Neil A. Armstrong papers!


This blog is by Mary Sego, archives processing assistant. The content is based on a poster presented by Mary Sego and Tracy Grimm, Barron Hilton Archivist for Flight and Space Exploration, at the 2017 Libraries “One Book Higher.” The information has been updated to reflect recent use of the Armstrong papers.

Remembering Amelia Earhart’s Round-the-World Flight: The 80th Anniversary of Her “Shining Adventure” (Part 2 of 2)

Amelia Earhart kept notes from the different legs of her flight, and those notes are part of her papers in the Archives and Special Collections at Purdue. Some pages of her notes exhibit oil stains or other indications that she made them while in flight. The New York Herald Tribune had exclusive rights to her story, and Earhart remained in contact with the paper throughout her flight, sending telegrams from the various locations where she stopped to refuel.

MSP 9, The George Palmer Putnam Collection of Amelia Earhart Papers, Archives and Special Collections, Purdue University Libraries



To read the entire telegram, please click on image.





Purdue Exponent, March 16, 1937

Purdue Exponent, March 17, 1937, p.1







The New York Herald Tribune shared Earhart’s account of the flight with the Purdue Exponent.








Paul Mantz, Amelia Earhart, Harry Manning, and Fred Noonan being photographed in front of Earhart’s plane, Oakland Airport, California, March 17, 1937. MSP 9.

Paul Mantz, Amelia Earhart, Harry Manning, and Fred Noonan standing in front of the nose of Earhart’s plane, Oakland Airport [?], California,  March 17, 1937. MSP 9.

The takeoff of Earhart’s Lockheed Electra plane from the Oakland Airport in California, March 17, 1937. This was the last test-hop of the flight before heading out over the Pacific. MSP 9.


The long anticipated flight had begun, and the Purdue Exponent shared the excitement with the Purdue community.

Purdue Exponent, March 18, 1937.






All three clips are from one front page Purdue Exponent article.








With 900 gallons of gasoline on board, Earhart finally takes off from Luke Field for Howland Island. Earhart’s first attempt resulted in disaster and a damaged plane.

Purdue Alumnus, March 1937, Vol. XXIV, No. 6, p. 3

Paul Mantz, members of the United States Army Air Corp, and others observing the wrecked Lockheed Electra plane after Earhart crashed while attempting to take off from Luke Field, Hawaii to Howland Island, March 20, 1937. MSP 9.

People watch as mechanics work on repairing the wrecked Lockheed Electra plane after Earhart crashed while attempting to take off from Luke Field, Hawaii to Howland Island, March 20, 1937. MSP 9.

The following are accounts from Last Flight, which was compiled from Earhart’s logs and journal writings by George Palmer Putnam after her death. It was to be titled World Flight.

“There was not the slightest indication of anything abnormal. Ten seconds later the airplane which brought us so gallantly to Honolulu lay helpless on the concrete runway, a poor battered bird with broken wings.”

“As for the crew, only our spirits were bruised when this sudden disaster overtook us. By good fortune, Harry Manning, Fred Noonan and I emerged without a scratch. But the plane, her landing gear wiped off and one wing damaged, was a sad sight to see. At that, the comparatively slight damage was a fine testimonial to the sturdiness of Lockheed construction – such an accident might well result in a total wash-out.”

“Witnesses said the tire blew. However, studying the tracks carefully, I believe that may not have been the primary cause of the accident. Possibly the landing gear’s right shock absorber, as it lengthened, may have given way.” “Watchers on the ground saw the wing drop. Suddenly the plane pulled to my right. I reduced the power on the opposite engine and succeeded in swinging from the right to the left. For a moment I thought I would be able to gain control and straighten the course. But, alas, the load was so heavy, once it started an arc there was nothing to do but let the plane ground loop as easily as possible.”

“With the excessive weight, the landing gear on the right was wrenched free and gasoline sprayed from the drain-well. That there was no fire was surely the result of the generous good wishes which had come from all over the world. No one of the three of us on board was even shaken, a testimony to the safety of a modern metal plane such as mine.”

“In retrospect, I am thankful that the failure occurred where it did rather than in some isolated corner of the world far from help.”  “And I must say a good word for Fred Noonan and Harry Manning. They were both as game as could be. In fact, when the first when reached the plane and opened the cabin door, they found Fred Methodically folding up his charts. He said that when I flew again he was ready to go along” (Last Flight, 70-72).

From March – May, 1937 the Lockheed Electra was back in California being repaired.

Again, in Earhart’s words:

“Like broken bones which Nature knits slowly in her own special process, the injured parts of an airplane must be painstakingly restored.” There is no short cut to full usefulness in either case if perfect healing is desired. In addition to “healing,” a strengthening of certain members to withstand the excessive strain to which overloading subjects them was in order in my Electra. This meant some actual redesigning, another process which could not be hurried. As to the precious engines, they were already in the Pacific Airmotive shops at Burbank being thoroughly checked. After the plane and engines were together, some time would have to be allowed for testing.”

With the rebuilding of the plane in hand, our next task was to appraise the effect of delay upon our flying plans. We had picked mid-March as about the best time for the flight from standpoint of weather – so far as one could expect consistent “bests” on such a long route. Setting back the date three month would see seasons relentlessly progress. In some places progress would be with benefit to pilots, in others the reverse. Here rains began, there they abated, here winds were favorable, there monsoons and choking dust storms were due. So we set to studying again the weather maps of the world and consulting with meteorologists who knew the habits of fogs and rains with temperatures around the long equator.”

“The upshot of those consultations was that I decided to reverse the direction originally chosen for the flight. Earlier it had seemed that the advantage lay in passage to the west; at the later date the contrary appeared true. After all, for practical purposes and disregarding Mr. Einstein, the world measures the same distance from west to east, as east to west, on any given route”  (Last Flight, 75-76).

Stay tuned, as we relive Amelia Earhart’s Round-the-World Flight, in celebration of the 80th anniversary…


Earhart, Amelia, and George Palmer Putnam. Last Flight. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1937. Print.

MSF 450, Amelia Earhart at Purdue Collection, Karnes Archives and Special Collections, Purdue University Libraries

MSP 9, The George Palmer Putnam Collection of Amelia Earhart Papers, Archives and Special Collections, Purdue University Libraries

Vertical Files, Karnes Archives and Special Collections, Purdue University Libraries

Purdue Student Publishing Foundation, and Purdue University. The Purdue Exponent (1889). Print.

Editor’s Note: Writer Mary A. Sego is an archival assistant and processing specialist within Archives and Special Collections.

Remembering Amelia Earhart’s Round-the-World Flight: The 80th Anniversary of Her “Shining Adventure” (Part 1 of 2)

Eighty years ago Amelia Earhart attempted to become the first person to fly around the world at the longest distance, along the equator. She disappeared during this flight, and the mystery of what happened to Earhart, her navigator Fred Noonan, and her Lockheed Electra airplane continues to fascinate and intrigue us. During that fateful summer of 1937, the Purdue Exponent student newspaper, with the co-operation of the New York Herald Tribune, kept readers updated on Earhart’s flight progress. In this post, we will relive her amazing 27,000-mile journey by sharing features from the Exponent, a first-hand account from one of Earhart’s friends, and handwritten notes that Earhart took to summarize each leg of her flight, which she subsequently shared with the news media and planned to compile into a book.

Letter to Amelia Earhart from President Elliott, thanking her for accepting the position at Purdue in the fall, dated June 4, 1935. MSP 9.

Amelia Earhart and Purdue’s paths first crossed in September 1934 when she addressed the fourth annual “Women and the Changing World” Conference sponsored by the New York Herald Tribune. Purdue President Edward Elliott was at the same conference to speak on “New Frontiers for Youth.” He stayed to listen to Earhart speak on aviation’s future and the role of women in its advancement. Elliott, intrigued by her speech, arranged to meet her and her husband, George Palmer Putnam. Elliott and Putnam hit it off. After they dined at the Coffee House Club in New York, Elliott got right to the point, letting Earhart know that he wanted her to work at Purdue, where she would be in a role to inspire Purdue’s approximately 800 women students to seize new opportunities in America’s changing society.


MSP 188, Collection of Amelia Earhart Related Materials, Archives and Special Collections, Purdue University Libraries


Elliott and Earhart sat down and worked out the details. Due to Earhart’s busy schedule, she could not be a full-time faculty member, but she would attempt to spend at least one month at the university during the school year as a careers consultant for women students. Purdue in turn would pay her a $2,000 salary (Boomhower, 38). Along with guiding women students toward new careers, she also served as a technical adviser in aeronautics to Purdue, which was, at that time, the only university in the country equipped with its own airport. The connection between Amelia Earhart and Purdue University had begun. It would later expand in ways they could not have imagined.

Vertical Files, Amelia Earhart.

Although she spent only a short amount of time at Purdue, Earhart’s ties to Purdue played a key role in securing the money and equipment necessary for attempting her round-the-world flight. On April 19, 1936 the university announced the establishment of the Amelia Earhart Fund for Aeronautical Research. With contributions totaling approximately $50,000 from J.K. Lilly, Sr. and David Ross, and later donations of cash and equipment from companies such as Bendix, Western Electric, Goodrich, and Goodyear, Earhart purchased her “flying laboratory,” a twin-motored Lockheed Electra 10E airplane that would allow her to attempt her greatest long-distance flight yet, to circumnavigate the globe.


Letter from Amelia Earhart to Edward Elliott acknowledging receipt of letters concerning her leave of absence from her position as Consultant in Careers for Women, and the use of the Purdue University Airport in connection with her flight, May 8, 1936. MSF 450.














The Purdue Research Foundation established the “Amelia Earhart Fund for Aeronautical Research” and Earhart purchased a new “flying laboratory,” April 21, 1936.

Purdue Exponent, April 21, 1936








Financial statement in regard to Lockheed and flight expenses, provided by George Palmer Putnam to President Elliott, September 26, 1936. MSF 450.

The plane was constructed at the Lockheed factory in Burbank, California, and included special features, such as extra gas tanks for long-distance flights, automatic pilot, deicing equipment, a radio homing device, and a two-way radio.

Close-up view of Amelia Earhart standing in the cockpit and looking over plans prior to finished construction on her Lockheed Electra plane, Burbank, California. MSP 9.

Vertical Files, Amelia Earhart.

Amelia Earhart sitting atop her Lockheed Electra plane with group of Purdue students, September 20, 1936. MSF 450.

Preparing for the world flight was a huge undertaking. During preparations, Earhart was asked numerous times why she decided to attempt this flight. Her answer was always “because I want to.” She called the trip a “shining adventure, beckoning with new experiences, adding knowledge of flying, of peoples, of myself” (Boomhower 41).  She also noted that with the flight behind her, she would become more useful to herself and to the aeronautical program at Purdue (Earhart, Last Flight 55). She called the Electra her “flying laboratory” because her intent was to use the plane to conduct research on the effects of long-distance flying on pilots . Once the flight was accomplished, the plane would be returned to Purdue where it would be used to further pure and applied scientific research in aeronautics. Royalties from the book Earhart planned to write about her flight would also support this research.

Bo McNeeley, Earhart’s mechanic, Amelia Earhart, and Captain L.I. Aretz inspecting the Lockheed Electra plane at the Purdue University Airport, circa 1936. MSF 450.

Earhart was to attempt her world flight twice. Originally, her flight team included Fred Noonan and Harry Manning. The original plans were for Noonan to navigate from Hawaii to Howland Island, a particularly difficult portion of the flight; then Harry Manning would continue with Earhart to Australia and she would proceed on her own for the remainder of the project.

As Earhart prepared for her world flight, anticipation continued to grow both on campus and in the minds of the public. Americans wanted to keep up to date on the progress of Earhart’s latest adventure. Purdue students claimed her as one of their own, and waited anxiously to hear of her progress.

Amelia Earhart and Fred Noonan with map of the Pacific showing the route for their world flight, circa 1937. MSP 9.

Earhart is ready for flight, March 11, 1937.

Purdue Exponent, March 11, 1937, p. 1, c. 2-3

Earhart is ready for flight, March 11, 1937. MSP 9.


 To be continued…                            


Boomhower, R. “Amelia Earhart at Purdue: The aviatrix and the university.” Traces, Summer (1994): 36-41.

Earhart, Amelia, and George Palmer Putnam. Last Flight. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1937. Print.

MSF 450, Amelia Earhart at Purdue Collection, Karnes Archives and Special Collections, Purdue University Libraries.

MSP 188, Collection of Amelia Earhart Related Materials, Karnes Archives and Special Collections, Purdue University Libraries.

MSP 9, The George Palmer Putnam Collection of Amelia Earhart Papers, Karnes Archives and Special Collections, Purdue University Libraries.

Vertical Files, Karnes Archives and Special Collections, Purdue University Libraries.

Purdue Student Publishing Foundation, and Purdue University. The Purdue Exponent (1889). Print.

Editor’s Note: Writer Mary A. Sego is an archival assistant and processing specialist within Archives and Special Collections.

1967 Rose Bowl, Purdue Astronauts and the Anticipation of the Moon


January 2, 2017 marks the 50th anniversary of Purdue’s win against the University of Southern California in the 1967 Rose Bowl game. The theme for the 1967 Tournament of Roses parade was “Travel Tales in Flowers.”

Rose Bowl program from alum, Gary J. Glazer papers

Rose Bowl program from alum Gary J. Glazer papers

This comes as no surprise considering NASA’s success with the space program and its mission to land a man on the Moon, per mandate of recently slain President Kennedy. In 1967 the American public was waiting with bated breath to see NASA land an astronaut on the Moon. The Soviet Union had entered the race first with the successful launch of Sputnik 1, the first artificial satellite, on October 4, 1957.  President Eisenhower reacted slowly, but eventually set the gears in motion to launch the United States’ first satellite, Explorer 1, four months later on February 1, 1958.


Pamphlet distributed to nation-wide outlets hailing the achievements of Purdue, from Purdue University Athletics Collection.

In anticipation of the Rose Bowl game and the guaranteed national media coverage, the Purdue University News Service created promotional documentation that they sent to newspapers, radio stations, and television stations all over the country so that they could accurately tell news stories about Purdue.  These news bulletins documented information about the school ranging from the official colors, mascot, and famous alumni to different education programs. Also included were photographs, the float that the students created for the parade, and stories about the astronaut alumni anxiously awaiting their ride to the Moon. One bulletin boasts “Purdue University had aviation ‘in its blood’ before it had Rose Bowl fever.”  This bulletin goes on to celebrate the pioneering history of Purdue aviation by telling of early years of the airport and the connection the university has with Amelia Earhart.  Another bulletin titled “Purdue Astronauts on Moon, Natural as Apple Pie,” opens with the eerie prediction, “It would be hard to imagine reaching the moon without a piece of Purdue going along.”  The bulletin continues talking about how there is as much anticipation for the Apollo mission as there is the Rose Bowl.


“A Purdue tribute to the heroism of her men” 1967 Debris, p. 549.

The float that Purdue students constructed for the 1967 Tournament of Roses parade honored four of their own Purdue alumni astronauts at the time of the game. The float depicts a Gemini capsule and the names of the four current Purdue astronauts: Armstrong, Cernan, Chaffee, and Grissom, along with the caption, “Alma Mater of Astronauts.”

Footage of 1967 Tournament of Roses Parade Courtesy of Purdue University Athletic Department



Above is Armstrong’s Debris yearbook photo from 1954. He is second from the left.

Neil A. Armstrong

At the time of the Rose Bowl, Neil Armstrong had already completed the Gemini 8 mission. The significance of this mission was the successful rendezvous and docking with another spacecraft.

Finding Aid for the Neil A. Armstrong papers

Gene Cernan


Above, third from the left, Cernan is pictured here in his 1956 Purdue Debris yearbook photo.

By 1967 Gene Cernan had completed the Gemini 9A mission. Lasting from June 3 to June 6, 1966, NASA planned for Cernan to complete a spacewalk, strap into the Manned Maneuvering Unit (MMU), and perform tasks while rendezvousing with an Agena Target Vehicle. This task was not easily completed. Cernan struggled tremendously moving about while spacewalking. His suit became rigged, his visor fogged up, and there were not enough hand-holds and foot-holds on the craft for Cernan to steady himself. To make things worse, the Agena Target Vehicle failed to release its casing, making it impossible for Cernan to complete that part of the mission.

Finding Aid for the Eugene Cernan papers


Virgil “Gus” Grissom’s yearbook photo from the Purdue Debris 1950. Grissom is on the far right.

Gus Grissom

Gus Grissom was the first Purdue graduate that NASA chose to be an astronaut.  NASA selected Grissom as part of the Mercury 7.  This group of astronauts flew the single piloted Mercury missions.  NASA selected Grissom, along with Alan Sheppard and John Glenn, for the first Mercury flight.  Sheppard eventually received the seat on the first flight, but Grissom flew the second sub-orbital mission.

Virgil I. Grissom papers

Roger Chaffee


Roger Chaffee’s yearbook photo from the 1957 Purdue Debris. He is first on the left.

At the time of the 1967 Rose Bowl, Roger Chaffee was a rookie. He had not yet completed any spaceflights but was the capsule communicator for the Gemini 4 mission. Chaffee graduated from Purdue in 1957 with Bachelor of Science in Aeronautical Engineering. Chaffee was killed along with Gus Grissom and Ed White in the Apollo 1 fire.

Roger B. Chaffee letter and postcard

The 1967 Rose Bowl was the first time Purdue had ever been to a bowl game, and it was a special milestone to many. The astronauts were just as excited about the 1967 Rose Bowl as other fans. Memorabilia from the game can be found among various astronauts’ papers.

Ticket and Pamphlet from the Jerry L. Ross papers

Program and Ticket from the Jerry L. Ross papers

Jerry Ross was not yet an astronaut at the time of the 1967 Rose Bowl. He was a student at Purdue in his junior year and watched the game from the stands.  His ticket and program from the Rose Bowl are a part of his papers, which he donated to the Purdue Archives in 2012.

Jerry L. Ross papers

“For Purdue, it was enough that we were there playing in the Rose Bowl. We didn’t have to win it to be satisfied. I had many great football memories after that, but certainly, the 1967 Rose Bowl was the pinnacle of my collegiate career. I felt a great sense of responsibility and was real proud of what we did. Taking the fans and everyone to the Rose Bowl was the greatest highlight, for me. Just being out there, seeing all the people, going to the Christmas party, visiting Universal Studios, eating at Lowery’s. The overriding factor was that we were taking part in something no one else had. We were the first, and there’s something to be said for that.”   – Bob Griese, 2002

The overriding factor was that we were taking part in something no one else had. We were the first, and there’s something to be said for that.” The astronauts most likely felt the same about their mission to reach the Moon.

roseFootage of 1967 Rose Bowl Game:


1967 Debris, page 558








The Purdue football team gave Neil Armstrong, Gene Cernan, Gus Grissom, and Roger Chaffee each a football signed by the 1967 Purdue Football team. The football pictured here was given to Armstrong. It is part of the Neil A. Armstrong papers, which reside in the Virginia Kelly Karnes Archives and Special Collections Research Center at Purdue.

MSA 5, Neil A. Armstrong papers, Karnes Archives and Special Collections, Purdue University Libraries

MSA 5, Neil A. Armstrong papers

Note that near the “Made in the U.S.A.” text on the football, below the laces, is the signature of star quarterback and Purdue football legend, Bob Griese.

Note that near the “Made in the U.S.A.” text on the football, below the laces, is the signature of star quarterback and Purdue football legend Bob Griese.











champsThis football game represents a moment in the history of the Space Age filled with anticipation. Both the American public and NASA knew that the impending goal of landing a man on the Moon crept ever closer each day. As 1966 came to a close, so did the Gemini series of missions. These missions set the groundwork for the Apollo missions that lay ahead. Gemini proved that astronauts could stay in space for long periods of time and survive a lengthy three-day trip to the Moon. It also proved that spacecraft could be piloted and controlled in space. The Gemini spacecraft was the first spacecraft to have controls similar to an aircraft. The astronauts were able to adapt more easily than the mostly autonomous controls of the Mercury capsule. Living and working in space, rendezvous and docking, and long duration spaceflights became possible due to Gemini.pennant

1967 meant more than a new year and first time opportunities for the participants and attendees at the Rose Bowl.  It meant the beginning of a new era in space travel.  An era when astronauts went somewhere other than Earth’s orbit, it meant succeeding in trumping the Soviet Union’s Space program once and for all, and finally it meant completing President Kennedy’s grand goal that he set during his tragically cut short presidency. The Moon was within reach.

Visit this page for a history of Purdue’s college football bowl appearances.

Co-authored by Mary A. Sego, Archives Processing Assistant, and Max Campbell, former Graduate Assistant, Purdue University Libraries Archives and Special Collections.

All the Best and 73s!: A Record of Amateur Radio Aboard STS-45 Preserved within the David C. Leestma Papers

STS-45 QSO Card

This is the QSL card that NASA sent out to HAM radio operators who made a contact with the Space Shuttle Atlantis.

Astronauts aboard the International Space Station (ISS) today perform a number of objectives ranging from scientific experiments, station maintenance, to studies on the physiology of the human body in micro-gravity environments.  With a rigorous schedule of experiments, little time each day is reserved for recreation. That said, recently the astronauts aboard the ISS viewed the newly released science fiction film, The Martian.  This widely publicized event may not seem as bewildering as one would think as lately, astronauts on the ISS have been able to stay in constant contact with the public on Earth via social media.  Astronaut Scott Kelly recently completed a year-long mission aboard the ISS as part of a study of the effects of long duration space flight on the human body.  He regularly used to post images and updates to his more than 869,000 (Twitter) followers. Perhaps the first to garner the social media public’s attention was Canadian Astronaut Chris Hadfield who made headlines in 2013 when he posted pictures to his Twitter page and uploaded videos to the Canadian Space Agency’s YouTube Channel, documenting the day-to-day routine of the astronauts (YouTube).  Public involvement and participation was enormous during this time, with Hadfield alone getting over millions of views on his posts, especially with his YouTube video covering David Bowie’s hit song, “Space Oddity,” while floating in the ISS.  This video alone had six million views within days of its upload and now has over thirty million views (YouTube).  The social media public is now actively involved with astronauts. Yet, the rather direct public interaction and exchanges with spacefarers 155 miles above the Earth is not really new.  In fact, direct public interaction with astronauts took place years prior to the existence of Twitter and YouTube.  People communicated with astronauts during space flights through the use of Amateur Radio.

HAM Radio QSO Card

This QSL card comes from Indiana and features the Space Shuttle. 4/1/1992

Amateur Radio, or HAM radio is a way for people with proper training to legally operate powerful radios to communicate with other operators.  The term HAM is not an acronym, but instead it is a derogatory term that commercial radio operators gave to amateurs in the early 20th century when they were frustrated with amateur radio operators clogging the airwaves.  A HAM radio is different than a typical AM/FM radio because HAM radios allow for two-way communication either through voice or Morse code.  Amateur Radio operators, colloquially referred to as HAMs, use their radios to speak to people all over the world through different radio frequencies.  The different frequencies allow for varying lengths of physical distance between radios.  A 2-meter frequency is best for talking around town while a 10-meter frequency is best for long distances.  This changes, however, if you increase the power of the radio.  A standard hand-held HAM radio operates around one to five watts power.  Increase the power to fifty watts, and the signal will travel much further.  The same radio frequencies used by HAM radio operators to talk to one another locally and around the globe were even used by NASA to stay in contact with astronauts in their spacecraft and on the surface of the Moon.

HAM Radio Operator and his cat.

Here is an example of a QSL card. Pictured is a HAM radio operator and his radio shack, along with his feline friend. 4/1/1992

After a two-way communication is made, called a QSO, both HAM radio operators will send each other a QSL card. The term QSL and QSO are not an acronyms, as they are taken from early maritime Morse code communications that used a system of “Q” codes to convey long messages.  These “Q” codes were three characters long starting with the letter Q.  “Q” codes are no longer used, but the QSL and QSO codes have found a place within amateur radio as a way to describe a two-way communication.  A QSL card, similar to a postcard, is a fun way to physically represent the contacts that a HAM has communicated with.  Amateur radio operators’ call signs are also not acronyms.  These are assigned to the operator after they pass a licensing test given by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).  Printed on the card is usually the operator’s call sign, the Coordinated Universal Time (UTC) of the communication, information about the radio used, their geographical location, and sometimes a picture of the operator sitting in front of their ‘radio shack,’ (their HAM radio setup).  The reverse side of the card is where one would find the technical details of the contact, such as the operator’s name, their address, a short message, type of radio, antenna, or other radio specifications.  HAMs even use unique language when talking to one another.  For example, saying, “73” is a friendly way to say goodbye and if a HAM says they are “workin’ DX” that means they are using their radios for worldwide contact.  These two colloquialisms emerged from Morse code, and similar to the “Q” codes, have stuck with HAM radio.  (Click here for a link to a glossary of HAM radio terms.)        

Husband and Wife HAM radio operators

This QSL card shows two call signs that of a husband and wife team from Alaska. 3/30/1992

Husband and Wife HAM radio operators

This is the reverse of the QSL card from Alaska. 3/30/1992

During NASA’s Space Shuttle program, astronauts used the Shuttle Amateur Radio Experiment (SAREX) to communicate with amateur radio operators on Earth.  These contacts were short conversations usually just long enough to hear each other’s call sign.  In most cases, the operator on the ground would only hear the Shuttle and not be able to communicate with it. The length of these conversations depended on many different things, such as radio properties, geographical location, and the Shuttle’s location in relation to the radio operator on Earth.  The purpose of SAREX was to engage the public in space flight.  NASA created the program so that students, children, and the general public could have the chance to talk with the astronauts without an intermediary.  For more information on SAREX, click here.

STS-45 Crew

Crew of STS-45. (L-R Back Row: Byron K. Lichtenberg, Michael Foale, David C. Leestma, Kathryn D. Sullivan, Dirk Frimout. Front Row: Brian Duffy, Charles F. Bolden, Jr.) 6/11/1992 (Courtesy of NASA)

HAM radios flew on twenty-five Space Shuttle missions total, from 1983 until 1999.  In 1992, four of the seven astronauts on STS-45 Atlantis were licensed HAMs. Kathy Sullivan (N5YVV), Brian Duffy (N5WQW), Dirk Frimout (ON1AFD), and David Leestma (N5WQC) operated the Space Shuttle radio and made roughly 1,804 contacts with people from thirty-one different countries, including three contacts from Antarctica.  David Leestma recalls, “I just had a QSO with a K1OIQ on Palmer’s Station Andrew’s Island, Antarctica…That was really a thrill to be able to get Antarctic[a] on the radio,” (David C. Leestma papers, Box 27, Folder 4).  Leestma used the term QSO, which is another “Q” code for a two-way communication.  The majority of these contacts, 1,067, were made with HAMs in the United States.  The country to make the second-most contacts was Belgium with 314 QSL cards, as STS-45 Atlantis was the first time a Belgian citizen, astronaut Dirk Frimout, was launched into space.

QSL Card from Palmer Station, Antarctica

This is the only QSL card to come from Antarctica. 3/30/1992

HAM Radio QSO Card from Belgium

This is one of the 314 QSL cards that came from Belgium during STS-45. 3/29/1992

HAM radio QSO card

This card comes from California and features an operator and his shack. 3/29/1992

Below you will find two graphs, one detailing all of the QSL cards received by state and one detailing all of the QSL cards received by country, as well as an interactive world map with pin points located where a QSL card was sent to by the crew of STS-45 Atlantis.

Click on the map below to see if anyone from your hometown made contact with the Space Shuttle!

United States QSL Cards Graph

This graph shows the number of QSL cards received from each state.

International QSL Cards

This graph shows the number of QSL cards received by country.

QSO Card Map

Click on this image to view an interactive map of the QSL cards!

All of the QSL cards pictured here come from the David C. Leestma Papers.  This collection contains the personal papers of Astronaut David C. Leestma from his time as a pilot in the Navy, a Space Shuttle astronaut, and his work in NASA’s administration offices during the Mir and ISS programs.  Also, included in this collection are Leestma’s personal journals from 1981 to 2014.  While Leestma’s papers offers some great insight into the daily workings of an astronaut and a NASA administrator, his collection of QSL cards are eye-catching.  The cards offer a unique, visual look into the HAM radio tradition.  They also show a segment of national and international enthusiasm that existed for the space program during the 1990s.  HAM radio allowed for astronauts to be accessible to the entire world.  From Alaska to Antarctica, and thirty other countries in between, HAM radio allowed for public participation in the space program long before astronaut Chris Hadfield released his music video from space on YouTube in 2013.



Editor’s Note: Co-author Max Campbell is a second-year graduate student in the Purdue University Department of History. Co-author Hannah Vaughn is a senior at Purdue, majoring in History.

Space Exploration For All: The Eugene A. Cernan Papers

The Barron Hilton Flight and Space Exploration Archives within Purdue Archives and Special Collections contains collections from many distinguished astronauts. Neil Armstrong, David Leestma, Jerry Ross, and Janice Voss have all left their mark on Purdue and humankind. Yet the Eugene A. Cernan papers cast a long shadow of their own. Comprised of 74 boxes organized into 11 series, the collection houses materials which span Cernan’s entire life, from his birth certificate to a letter written to his fellow Boilermakers just last year. It’s enough to keep anyone busy. I would know—I helped to organize it for almost a year.

What exactly is in all those boxes? Some items are simply cool to behold, like the mapbook of the lunar surface[1] and one of Cernan’s spacesuit gloves, worn during Apollo 17 and still covered in grey-like moon dust.  If you’re looking for the kinds of technical minutia that will help you build your own lunar module, you might be disappointed. Sure, there are reports for several Apollo missions, as well as a transcript of Cernan’s log from Gemini 9.  The real value of Cernan’s collection is how it brings NASA’s iconic programs back to Earth. It brings space exploration closer to us, without all that expensive rocket fuel, by provoking questions about who an astronaut like Eugene Cernan really was.

Gene Cernan, front row and center, was a member of Purdue Fijis while a student at Purdue

Gene Cernan, front row and center, was a member of Purdue Fijis while a student at Purdue

Astronauts were not born in their spacesuits, so how did they grow to fit one so nicely? Cernan played sports throughout his youth and engaged actively in the communities at Proviso East High School in Maywood, Illinois and at Purdue University. Between athletics, the Naval ROTC, joining the Purdue chapter of Phi Gamma Delta, and editing two yearbooks, Cernan must have hardly had a moment to himself throughout his education. He even majored in Electrical Engineering, whose students today only have time to sleep while their code compiles. Cernan later got a Masters in Aerospace Engineering from the US Naval Postgraduate School while also serving in the Navy. Cernan’s ascent, it seems, started long before he climbed aboard a rocket, or even joined NASA. It took drive and effort and recognition, but also choice. I’m no scientist, but launching into space appears to involve momentum.

Cernan was a pilot in the United State Navy before joining NASA

Cernan was a pilot in the United State Navy before joining NASA

Eugene Cernan is human, but when did he become superhuman? Newspaper records abound in the collection and honed in on every last detail of Cernan, his family, his colleagues in spacesuits, and the missions he participated in. As much as it mattered to the nation what exactly his missions would accomplish, it mattered how Cernan trained and what he ate for breakfast. It mattered how his wife, Barbara Cernan, felt about her husband’s chances. It mattered whether his daughter, Tracy Cernan, was worried or excited about her father’s mission. It definitely mattered when Cernan broadcast expletives to the entire nation because ‘Snoopy,’ the lunar module, rolled unexpectedly above the moon during Apollo 10. And it mattered not only that Cernan and his colleagues landed safely after each mission, but also how they subsequently engaged with the nation through interviews and tours. The Space Race was won beyond Earth’s atmosphere by a relative few, but it’s impossible to imagine everyday Americans as mere spectators. NASA’s space exploration programs were cultural as well as scientific or political endeavors, and culture only takes on meaning when it is shared among people.

What (conceptual) space in terrestrial American society do astronauts play? Astronauts were and are icons, and the Cernan collection shows it. Telegram after telegram, letter after letter from celebrities, politicians, and business leaders. No fewer than seven sitting presidents corresponded with Cernan to varying degrees. Photos join the correspondence and show Cernan meeting some of those presidents, playing in charity golf tournaments with Bob Hope and Jimmy Demaret, showing NASA facilities to Barbara Eden, taking part in international tours, carrying the Olympic torch, and waving with Neil Armstrong at Ross-Ade’s fifty yard line at a Purdue football game. Astronauts have long been seen as a representation of the best of humanity.  They helped the nation better understand its own potential. The Eugene Cernan papers shows this process was personal, not ethereal.

Earth rise. NASA image, from the Eugene Cernan papers

Earth rise. NASA image, from the Eugene Cernan papers

How do astronauts make meaning of their experiences? A central piece of the Cernan papers records the research and writing process of Cernan’s autobiography, The Last Man on the Moon. Cernan didn’t write the book based on memory alone, but rather reconstructed and reflected upon his experiences using hundreds of personal records which Purdue now houses. For feedback, he called upon the vast array of friends and acquaintances gathered over a lifetime of accomplishment. Their support was later joined by scores of fan letters. In crafting his reflections, Cernan grounded his individual experiences firmly in the broader machinations of society, situating himself as a person who became an astronaut who became a celebrity.

Smarter researchers than me will find the answers to these questions flowing incorporeally through the many pages and artifacts of Cernan’s collection. Which brings us to the heart of the matter: not what the collection offers, but why it exists at all.

During a visit to Purdue’s main campus last year, Cernan observed what’s become of his papers when the Cernan and Armstrong collections were opened for research.[2] I imagine (and I stress the word ‘imagine’ here) that when just about everyone else in the room is clamoring to speak to you, it’s difficult form a cogent thought let alone have a moment of genuine reflection. But the revered Purdue alumnus did reflect, and he had a lot to say. One thing in particular stuck with me: the Cernan papers are here within Purdue Archives and Special Collections to be viewed. This collection could have ended up in the Smithsonian. But it didn’t. Instead Cernan’s papers made their final touch down about a thousand feet from Harry’s Chocolate Shop.

Chicago Tribune editorial 'Astronauts are only human'. From the Eugene A. Cernan papers

Chicago Tribune editorial ‘Astronauts are only human’. From the Eugene A. Cernan papers

Captain Cernan donated to people: to thinkers, to doers, to Boilermakers. Everything from the dusty glove to his boyhood scrapbook is here to help us better understand Cernan’s life and by extension humanity’s first (and last—er, most recent) steps on the moon. If this collection makes anything clear, it’s that those steps were a shared experience on individual and deeply touching levels.

You’ll see it in the fan mail from a young woman pursuing a career in space exploration.

In Cernan’s letter to his mother, written before he knew whether he’d make it back to Earth.

In the newspaper photo showing a young Tracy Cernan pretending to radio her spacewalking father.

In Cernan’s scribbled personal notes, organizing his thoughts before drafting The Last Man on the Moon.

“In the Apollo 17 crew’s dinner menu right after splashdown. “Mare Imbrium Papaya,” for the record, sounds delicious.”

And in the photographed eyes of a young man applying for the NROTC in 1952, not yet aware of the adventures ahead of him.

The Eugene A. Cernan papers promise no more or less than any archival collection: to provide a slice of insight into the shared experiences that shape human lives. But it’s the promise that’s special—the promise of personal enlightenment through the embrace of our collective past. Eugene Cernan has opened the record of his past with this notion in mind, and it’s closer than you might think.

Editor’s Note: Essayist Brian Alberts is a graduate student within the Purdue University Department of History. He served as a graduate research assistant within Archives and Special Collections and was part of the team that processed the Eugene A. Cernan papers.

Space Age Philosophy: Wonder in the Archives

When we think of philosophy, if we think about it at all, it is very unlikely that we associate philosophy with archival research. Maybe we think of the problems of freedom, or personal identity, abstract metaphysical issues, or ethics. But philosophy and the archives seem an odd couple.

As a graduate student in philosophy and literature, I suffered from the same prejudice when I arrived in the Barron Hilton Archives for Flight and Space Exploration. Although the Flight Archives are unique for their emphasis on science and engineering, and of course for the incredible historical significance of items housed in collections such as the Neil A. Armstrong Papers and the Eugene A. Cernan Papers, I didn’t see the philosophic potential of the archives at first.

Michel Foucault, photo courtesy of Wikipedia

Michel Foucault, photo courtesy of Wikipedia

For much of Anglo-American philosophy, the archives are a foreign place. The most well-known use of the archives in philosophy is probably by Michel Foucault (1926-1984), a French thinker famous for his genealogical arguments based on extensive archival research. His writings on madness and the modern prison system are hallmarks of structuralist and postmodern philosophy.

Foucault himself is often studied as a “Continental” philosopher, a representative of postmodernism in the 20th century, but his particular method of archival research is rarely discussed, and never taught as a methodology available to students of philosophy. Given philosophy’s centuries old love-affair with science, we should all be pleased to learn that the archives are a place rich with materials teeming with philosophic potential.

In this post, I want to focus on one collection in particular that displays the potential for philosophical investigation. The Archives for Flight and Space Exploration houses tremendous philosophical resources when we begin to appreciate archival spaces as a place where philosophy can thrive.


Dramatic photo of Bruce McCandless’ untethered spacewalk courtesy of NASA

Philosopher Shaun Gallagher has recently accomplished a remarkable research program looking at the relationship of astronaut experiences of awe during spaceflight to similar accounts of spiritual or religious experiences. Collections like the Neil A. Armstrong Papers, the Eugene A. Cernan Papers, and the Jerry L. Ross Papers – all house in the Flight Archives – could be used to further research in the direction first indicated by Gallagher and his team. Early accounts and rare personal reports of historic events in the history of space flight open new interpretative doors to philosophers wishing to understand human cognition when it is pushed to its limits – both in the sense of the need to perform demanding technical labors, and in the struggle to makes sense of radically new and unprecedented experiences of space.

armstrong x15 cockpit_0001

Armstrong in the X-15, circa 1960. NASA photo. Part of the Neil A. Armstrong Papers at Purdue Archives and Special Collections

Philosophers of mind and science will find much of value. In one of over 450 individual speeches contained in the Neil A. Armstrong Papers, Armstrong elaborates on the role of the X-15 as a “theoretical aircraft.” That is, the X-15 had, from Armstrong’s perspective, no practical purpose. It was designed and flown with only the idea that it could and would push the boundaries of what was humanly and technologically possible in the realm of high-speed, high-altitude flight. It was a plane built for theory, not practice. Of course, many groundbreaking advances in flight science and technology resulted from the X-15 project, though when the aircraft was conceived these advances were in no way predicted or even predicable! They were the result of chances and great risks taken by the men and women of NASA and the experimental test pilots who flew these challenging new jets.

Every stage of the X-15’s development is covered in the archives. From early documentation of its design, to the simulator training that prepared pilots for the X-15’s demanding environment at extreme altitudes, to the reports that document the pilot’s experience of sub-orbital flight in a flying machine that had no precedent in human history.

Armstrong strapped into a flight simulator during the X-15 program, circa 1960

Armstrong strapped into a flight simulator during the X-15 program, circa 1960

The photo to the left, part of the Neil A. Armstrong Papers at Purdue’s Archives and Special Collections, gives a sense of the experimental nature of the X-15 flights. Here we see Armstrong in a simulator, hoping to be as prepared as possible to face relatively unknown flight conditions, and to test the predictive capabilities of science and engineering. Philosophers have pondered over the predictive powers of science since at least the 1600s, and here in the Flight Archives, we see how strong those powers are. Using available mathematical models, together with mountains of data gathered via weather balloons and other high-altitude aircraft, experimental pilots like Armstrong dared to fly under dangerous conditions with only the confidence that the numbers were correct – to a point – and that these pre-flight results were sound enough to risk life and limb to confirm in experience. Subsequent first hand analysis of in-flight experiences reveal the intricate feed-back loops of hypothesis formation, experimental confirmation or refutation, and hypothetical conjecture that lead to ground-breaking advancements in space age technologies that we now take for granted as commonplace.

Thus, not only are philosophers offered a previously unknown level of behind-the-scenes access to the historic US space program, they are also now able to observe the process by which scientists and engineers worked together across many disciplines in order to accomplish some of humanity’s greatest feats of technical know-how: like landing the first people on the moon and returning them safely to Earth.

Armstrong prepares experimental equipment on the lunar surface during his historic moonwalk in 1969, photo courtesy of the Flight Archives

Armstrong prepares experimental equipment on the lunar surface during his historic moonwalk in 1969. NASA photo. Neil A. Armstrong Papers at Purdue Archives and Special Collections


The confrontation between human beings, their environment, and the technologies that enable us to explore this environment and adapt to its most extreme conditions raise deep philosophical questions about the exploratory nature of humanity and our quest for knowledge. This quest has led us far from home, and continues to prod us toward unknown worlds.

These invaluable resources provide a glimpse at science in action at a time when new discoveries in physics and engineering were routinely put to the test in do-or-die circumstances. The huge volume of professional communications and scientific reports contained in the Neil A. Armstrong Papers would themselves keep philosophers occupied for years to come.

Since my time in the archives, and particularly my work processing the Neil A. Armstrong Papers, I have grown accustomed to the idea of the archives as a place for philosophy. Only a brief review of some of the collections housed at Purdue’s Virginia Kelly Karnes Archives and Special Collections would be enough to convince many skeptics that, indeed, philosophers could benefit from exposure to just a fraction of these materials.

I know I will be incorporating archival resources into my own philosophical projects in the future – hopefully expanding work I’ve already conducted on the philosophy of mind. I invite my fellow philosophers to join me as we all search out new and exciting opportunities for the simple awe and wonder with which all true philosophy begins.

More information on the work of Shaun Gallagher can be found here:

More information on the Neil A. Armstrong papers can be found here:

Editor’s note: Essayist Donovan Irven is a doctoral candidate in the interdisciplinary program for Philosophy and Literature at Purdue University.  He is also the graduate assistant for the Barron Hilton Flight And Space Exploration Archives within Purdue University Archives and Special Collections.

A Tragic Telegram and a Goofy Movie

Last year, near the anniversary of Amelia Earhart’s disappearance, I started digging. It was a momentous occasion–Earhart is one of the more famous historical figures who spent time at Purdue and whose life is documented in our collections. I was searching our databases, looking for some materials from around the time of Earhart’s round-the-world flight. Often if I find something interesting, I will share it with our followers on Twitter. As I scanned the list of search results, I came across this:


I wasn’t prepared for it. The telegram, sent from George Putnam, Earhart’s husband, responding to his son, David Binney Putnam, was sent shortly after contact was lost with Earhart’s plane. It reads: “THANKS DEAR BOY IT HELPS THERES PLENTY OF HOPE YET LOVE DAD.”

When I read it, I felt a sense of dread sinking into me. Knowing that Amelia was not coming back–ever–made George’s hopes all the more tragic. But reading this note, with its short, desperate prose, and knowing that it was just a family thing in that moment, between father and son and an absent stepmother, gave the document a sacred quality. I shouldn’t be reading this. I wasn’t meant to read this. But why feel this way? It’s history. It’s public.

History is often interesting to read about from a distance. We can reflect on how day-to-day life has changed since a famous person’s time, such as Earhart’s heyday of the 1920s-30s. We can joke around about silly fashion and customs from the past. The past is removed from us; we don’t have access to it, so it feels foreign and alien and often quite backwards. We cannot understand why, for example, Purdue students used to race around Memorial Mall on tricycles while people threw buckets of water at them. It makes no sense.

But some things make too much sense. And its in those moments of discovery, when history recorded in writing or film becomes less distant. It comes closer to our own experience as people and becomes less alien. It’s someone we know. It’s how we feel now. For all its strangeness, the tricycle water-bucket race does appeal to a certain sense of goofy fun. The people in the film look like they’re having a good time–and why not? They’re racing around a circle or throwing buckets of water on people. It’s not just hilarious because it’s strange; it’s hilarious because it looks like it might be fun to do.

George’s letter to David about Amelia made sense. The hope still hanging over both of them, the hope that she might show up, somewhere, adrift in the sea, or stranded on an island–a little worse for wear, but still smiling–that hope made more sense than anything. If you’ve ever lost someone, you know about hope. And you might have also felt that same sense of sinking dread I did when you read the telegram, knowing she didn’t come back. That the hope was disappointed. And in that moment, Amelia Earhart wasn’t just a famous missing person. Not just a feminist role model. She was more than her ideals or legend. She was someone like you or me.


And we lost her.

This year marks the 78th anniversary of Earhart’s final flight.  For me, that short telegram reveals so much of the power of history and the importance of preservation. History research does more than just generate academic knowledge and understanding–all of which is important, good, and necessary for our society. It is notes like George’s that tell us what history can be: a moment of human connection transcending time.

The telegram can be viewed online with other materials from the time of the initial search for Earhart’s plane.  These materials are within the full George Putnam Palmer Collection of Amelia Earhart papers, as well as the Amelia Earhart at Purdue Collection, and can be viewed in Archives and Special Collections digital repository e-Archives.

Course Reflection: The Technology and Culture of Flight

The following is a guest blog post by Katie Martin, who recently graduated from Purdue University with a Bachelor of Arts degrees in History and American Studies.

As a senior History student, I had taken plenty of history classes. However, I have never experienced a class quite like HIST 395: Air and Space: The Technology and Culture of Flight. This junior research seminar was taught by Professor Michael Smith in collaboration with Tracy Grimm, the Barron Hilton Archivist for Flight and Space Exploration at Purdue Libraries Archives and Special Collections. To facilitate discussion and use of archival materials, the class met in Swaim Instruction Center, right across the hall from the Archives and Special Collections.

Amelia Earhart and George Palmer Putnam

Amelia Earhart and George Palmer Putnam

On the first day of class, we knew we were in for a different kind of history course. Professor Smith explained that by the end of the semester each student would complete a publishable 25-page paper using primary sources held in the Purdue collection. With Tracy’s great assistance, each student identified a topic and used class time to peruse Purdue’s physical and digital collections. I chose to focus my research on Amelia Earhart, specifically, how she and her publicist husband, George Palmer Putnam, worked together to craft her enduring public image.

I looked through several Amelia Earhart scrapbooks containing newspaper clippings relating to her lecture tours, her flights across the Atlantic, and her failed world flight attempt. I also read various correspondences between Earhart and people like Eleanor Roosevelt, Anne Morrow Lindbergh, and Edward C. Elliott, President of Purdue University during Earhart’s time on campus. I received permission to view the original materials.  Holding the physical materials in my hands provided a deep understanding of my topic and strong connection to the past. I also utilized the digitized Amelia Earhart Collection in Purdue e-Archives, which consists of more than 3,500 scans of photographs, maps, documents, and artifacts.

Daily Mirror newspaper clipping, June 19, 1928

Daily Mirror newspaper clipping, June 19, 1928

The research sessions were broken up by reading assignments and even field trips. During one memorable class period, we rode the Boilermaker Special to the Purdue Airport for a tour led by Dr. Thomas Carney, Professor of Aviation Technology. We also viewed and discussed the exhibit on display in the Archives at the time, Steps to the Moon: Selections from the Neil A. Armstrong Papers and the Eugene A. Cernan Papers. Most exciting of all, our class was invited to the opening of the Armstrong and Cernan papers on November 21. We heard Eugene Cernan and Carol Armstrong speak and even got the chance to shake their hands and discuss our experiences working with the collections.

The class picked up in intensity as we neared the end of the semester. In the final weeks, we were expected to submit a 5-page abstract to our classmates. One person per class presented their work for 30 minutes followed by a session of critique and discussion. Although this portion of the class was stressful, my fun and supportive classmates made the experience worthwhile. I completed my paper and am now in the process of publishing my work in a journal of popular culture. This class improved my research, writing, and presentation skills tremendously, provided opportunities to actively learn, and exposed me to persons and scholarship on an international scale.  I won’t soon forget working with the Amelia Earhart Collection and my experiences in this class!

This class is being taught again in the Fall of 2015 as HIST 495: Flight and Space Exploration: Archival Research Seminar.  Persons interested in the course are encouraged to speak with their advisor, Professor Michael Smith, or Tracy Grimm for more information.