"Galileo" Additional Information

The text and pictures on this page are from "SP-4302 Adventures in Research: A History of Ames Research Center 1940-1965"; chapter 3, section 10.


Not all project-management work at Ames came within the jurisdiction of Bob Crane and his Development Directorate. In 1963 a small group of Ames men had participated in an airborne (DC-8) research expedition to observe a solar eclipse along its path of totality, which lay in Canada. The group included Sheldon Smith, of the Physics Branch, and Ray Torrey, of the Guidance and Control Systems Branch. As participants in the expedition, this pair, with the aid of others at the Center, developed and built a rather unique gyro-stabilized camera for photographing the eclipse from the expedition's airplane. A description of the camera is given in the July 1964 issue of the ISA Transactions in a paper entitled "A Stabilized Automated Camera for Airborne Eclipse Photography," by S. M. Smith, M. Bader, R. A. Torrey, and M. E. Henderson.

The photographs of the eclipse obtained with the camera were quite good and the experience of the expedition gave Smith, Bader, and others the idea that Ames should have an airborne research laboratory of its own. Such a laboratory, it was felt, would provide ready observational accessibility [492] to astronomical and other events occurring, sometimes on short notice in remote parts of the world. The idea of the airborne research laboratory was approved by Ames and Headquarters management and was shortly implemented by the procurement of a Convair 990, four engine, jet transport airplane.

In May 1965, during the International Year of the Quiet Sun, a group of 38 scientists took off in Ames' new airborne laboratory to join other groups traveling by land, sea, and air to witness another solar eclipse-this one reaching totality in the South Pacific. The operation was coordinated and managed by Mike Bader. The airplane on this occasion carried the Ames eclipse camera as well as 13 other experiments provided by 4 foreign observatories or universities and 9 American organizations. The eclipse observations made on this occasion were very successful. As they were made from a high-speed airplane flying at high altitude, their value was the greater because (1) the period of totality was prolonged by following the path of total eclipse, (2) a greater range of wavelengths was observed owing to the altitude of the airplane, and (3) the background light around the eclipsed sun, normally produced by light diffusion in the atmosphere, was much reduced because of the altitude of the airplane. The reduced background light made it possible to observe the solar corona out to a distance of 12 solar radii, whereas from the ground the corona appeared to extend to only about 3 solar radii.

The operational report TM X-1234; NASA 1965 Airborne Solar Eclipse Expedition, is available here in medium (17 mb) and low (7 mb) resolution PDF format. This report contains a detailed description of the expedition and includes many photos and illustrations.

As the eclipse mission came to an end, the participants, by common agreement, selected the name "Galileo" for the airplane which had served them so well. The name was chosen in honor of the well-liked Dr. Guglielmo Righini who, on the mission, represented the Arcetri Observatory of Florence, Italy. NASA Headquarters quickly approved the name, and Brad Evans wrote a letter to the mayor of Florence.

Not long after the eclipse expedition, another occasion arose to use the Galileo. This occasion was the discovery, in October 1965, of the Ikeya-Seki comet. Hurriedly an expedition was arranged to observe the comet during perihelion, which was best observable in an area 150 miles northeast of Hawaii. Fred Drinkwater was pilot and Mike Bader was again project manager. Of the seven experiments carried on this expedition, four came from various NASA Centers and three from other American sources. The experiments involved a variety of spectrographic measurements as well as white-light photography. While some of the spectrographic observations suffered from a lack of light intensity, the white-light photographs were very good and were the only photographs obtained of the comet at perihelion.

The eclipse and the comet expeditions convinced Ames management of the value of an airborne research laboratory and, as 1965 ended, plans were being made to intensify the exploitation of the Galileo.

Sheldon M. Smith and eclipse camera on NASA 1965 Solar Eclipse Expedition.

Photograph of solar corona taken during NASA 1965 Solar Eclipse Expedition.

Dr. Michel Bader in Eclipse Expedition airplane.

Galileo astronautical research airplane, a modified Convair 990.