Tag Archives: flight

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: http://chdr.cah.ucf.edu/spaceandspirituality/

More information on the Neil A. Armstrong papers can be found here: https://apps.lib.purdue.edu/archon/index.php?p=collections/controlcard&id=149

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.

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.