The first five astronaut groups have much to say about this place - and typically it is not the most plesant recollection. Right down the street from this unique site is the Aerospace Medicine Center, the clinic and labs where the Gemini and Apollo astronaut candidates received their pre-screening "medical harassment." Again, we find a corner of space history that isn't easy to find, and doesn't seem to get a lot of modern attention.
Hanger 9 is the last World War I (1914-1918) hanger still standing on a U.S. military installation. It sits on the former Brooks Air Force Base, which the Defense Department officially closed around 2001, though you'll still find a lot going on there. Under a unique agreement, the place is now a joint City of San Antonio and U.S. Air Force venture called Brooks "City Base." Retired military and civilian volunteers maintain the hanger as a truly remarkable relic, which houses a number of surprising finds.
Ed White, a San Antonio born member of the 1962 Second Astronaut Group, was of course the first American to walk in space. Assigned as Senior Pilot of the first manned Apollo mission, he died in the tragic launch pad fire, 27 January 1967, along with Apollo 1 Commander Virgil "Gus" Grissom (Lt Col, USAF), and Pilot Roger Chaffee (LCDR, USN). His birth city honors his memory in a number of ways. The large open hanger has a small, quiet corner room housing the White collection. Portraits and mission patches are typical (images: left), but one small relic is very notable. Placed near a Gemini spacecraft model is a small wooden presentation plaque, with a set of Air Force pilot wings. Ed's father and namesake, also a USAF officer, pinned these wings on his son at his flight training graduation. Ed then flew the pilot insignia aboard Gemini IV in 1965, and presented them back to his father as a rare gift from space. Finally, touchingly, his father gave the wings to the museum upon his son's death.
Lots of folks still remember Ed, both as a pioneer spaceman and a Texas native. In the modern era, San Antonio's current "astronaut favorite son" John Blaha (Col, USAF, Ret.), flew a memorial U.S. & Texas flag set (image: right) aboard mission STS-43, and presented it to the museum in 1991.
Each corner of this old airplane shed has a slightly different take on aerospace history, recalling every era from Brooks' flight training days in the 1930s, to the Space Shuttle era. A Curtis "Jenny" biplane, which served as a popular military training aircraft, sits in the hanger's northern end, and a large scale Shuttle model sits on the opposite end. The hanger was set up for a ceremony on this hot August afternoon, but I was the only visitor at the time.
Another nice surprise in this small museum is the pressure suit collection. The dispaly hosts an actual Apollo backup flight article (images: left), the A7L moonsuit that served as Alan Bean's spare for Apollo 12. It shows a bit of age, like many of its counterparts in museums and vaults around the world, but offers an excellent view of what the best-dressed moonwalkers were wearing in 1969. To the moonsuit's left is the "pilot protection assembly" worn by high altitude SR-71 crews and early Shuttle crews. Nearby is a Mercury era suit (image: right). As a "human factors" center for aerospace research, Brooks carried out many early human-to-spacesuit design and fit tests.
Somewhat less glamorous space environment task included human factors like space food evaluations, and emergency kits for astronauts pressed into orbital dentist roles.
Serious Monkey Business?
Before NASA felt we could risk flying human beings in space, we tested the new environment with primates. In 1959 and 1960, Rhesus Monkeys named "Sam" and "Miss Sam" (after the School of Aerospace Medicine) flew two suborbital Mercury spacecraft atop Little Joe boosters. These biological packages or biopacks (images: left) also carried plant and insect life, to determine how other living systems repsonded to spaceflight. Later Mercury Redstone flights carried the even more famous chimpanzees, Ham and Enos, in 1961. Looking at this chimp capsule (image: right), I'm thankful later primates - human crews - got better seating arrangements. Compare to a similar space monkey exhibit at the Air Force Space and Missile Museum at Cape Canaveral.
Sitting by itself on a little cul de sac is a large iron vessel that seems to confound many visitors. This is the historic Mineola Pressure Chamber, which dates from 1919. The device was used in some of the very first low pressure/high altitude aviation physiology tests, including use by pioneering aviator Wiley Post, who flew the first ever pressure suit! It sat unused and neglected for years, alledgedly having been a grain store for livestock in the 1940s.
U.S. President John F. Kennedy was the political father of the early manned space program, and of course made the famous "Man on the Moon in this Decade" address which led directly to Project Apollo's major goal. The day before he was tragically assasinated in Dallas, he dedicated the new Aerospace Medicine Center. Owing to newpaper publishing deadlines, the San Antonio headlines of 22 November 1963 heralded his very popular visit the day before, rather than his untimely death.