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Where next, Valerie Neal?

The story of Valerie Neal ’71: a TCU liberal arts graduate who came to be in charge of one of the Smithsonian’s top space artifacts.

Where next, Valerie Neal?

The story of Valerie Neal ’71: a TCU liberal arts graduate who came to be in charge of one of the Smithsonian’s top space artifacts.

Vanity license plates are essentially free in Virginia. That is, they cost little more to register than standard tags issued by the government.

So when Valerie Neal ’71 moved to suburban Washington, D.C., in 1989 to become the curator of the Smithsonian Institution’s “Where Next, Columbus?” exhibit at the National Air and Space Museum, she knew just what she would get.

WHRNEXT.

Instantly, her car became a moving billboard for the exhibit, which celebrated humanity’s spirit of discovery from the Nina, Pinta and Santa Maria to the space shuttle and beyond. The license plate also served as a daily reminder to Neal and others of the exhibit’s looming deadline. Despite funding troubles and fears of delay, Neal’s team desperately wanted to push ahead, make up ground and open “Where Next, Columbus?” before the end of 1992, thus commemorating the quincentennial of the Spanish explorer’s voyage across the Atlantic.

“It became a talisman,” Neal recalled. “Sort of a good luck charm.”

It must have worked. The exhibit opened just before Christmas and was hailed a success, even generating a book of essays about the future of space exploration, edited by Neal.

After the exhibit closed, the plate became a treasured memento, and some of Neal’s colleagues thought she might take it off her car for safe keeping. After all, “Where Next” was over.

But that thought never occurred to her. WHRNEXT had become a way of life.

About the time she moved to Washington and started the exhibit, her 45-year-old husband of 10 years had died from a long fight against lymphoma cancer, and the city and the job were both a fresh start.

“It was just me and my son, Bryan [Hassin], and we spent as much time together as we could. And so that phrase became a personal motto for adventure, travel and even our daily lives. We’d hop in the car, head to the grocery store, the barber shop, the gas station, then say, ‘Where next?’ I’d take Bryan to football practice or Scouts. ‘Where next?’ We traveled together on business trips and vacations, and when we came back, we’d say, ‘Where next?’ It helped to work through the grief, but I think it was also the expression of our adventurous spirit.”

* * *

More than a decade later, Neal’s car is now a shiny, white Honda, but it still has that license plate. Neal herself still has the same optimistic, take-life-head-on bravado. She uses both to zip through Washington’s side streets and crowded freeways between the National Air and Space Museum’s facility on the National Mall in downtown and its new complex at Dulles Airport.

These days, Neal is in the space history division and must be in both places frequently. From her office on the third floor of the Mall complex she plans exhibits, keeps tabs on the latest developments at NASA and occasionally acquires a long-sought treasure for the museum.

But this spring, her most pressing work is 25 miles west at the museum’s $300 million Stephen F. Udvar-Hazy Center, which opened in December 2003 and houses the Smithsonian’s largest aviation and aerospace artifacts, including the nation’s first space shuttle, Enterprise. It is Neal’s baby.

The museum was thrilled to get the enormous treasure in 1985 when NASA retired it from service. But because of its size, Enterprise has remained in a hangar at Dulles until six months ago.

Truth is, the “nation’s attic” has been cramped for decades. Some jokingly call the Mall facility the “Air and No Space Museum” because it can display only about 10 percent of the institution’s holdings.

The Udvar-Hazy (OOD-var HAH-zee) Center changes all that. Named for a Hungarian-born airline tycoon who gave the Smithsonian $65 million to start construction, the new facility allows the museum to take 80 percent of its collection out of storage and showcase it in grand fashion.

The building itself is an attraction. Just hundreds of feet from the nearest runway at Dulles, the Hazy Center looks like an airport terminal with its impressive steel architecture and dark glass windows. A 164-foot observation tower offers views of all the runways. There’s also an IMAX theater. Even the entrance and signage have been designed to look like an arrival and departure area, with the main section resembling an airplane fuselage.

It’s almost too much to take in at once. Three football fields long and 10 stories high, the main hangar will eventually hold more than 200 aircraft and hundreds of small aviation artifacts. The ceiling arches alone hold 1,000 tons, enabling aircraft to be displayed overhead.

And that is just what the museum has done. An early goal was to allow visitors to experience the scale inherent in artifacts of this size. Imagine a massive unobstructed space with aircraft displayed on three levels, some suspended from the rafters on steel wires, giving the appearance of a sky full of planes flying in all directions. (Many are even situated in positions that the craft actually employed during bombing runs and attack sorties.)

For a closer look, visitors can ascend metal skywalks to come nose-to-nose with the flying machines. Larger aircraft rest on the floor where people can move among them.

All told, the facility is almost 40 million cubic feet.

“Can you see why it’s such an adventure coming to work every day?” Neal said with a grin and shrug one spring morning. Her eyes twinkle at the thought. “I can’t imagine working anywhere else.”

During a busy week in the middle of March, she is solving a couple of mysteries with Enterprise. When a nearly 30-year-old spacecraft needs to be cleaned and touched up, what kind of paint is right for the job? The answer is not just a matter of what looks nice. It has to be the exact type of paint used from 1974-76 when the shuttle was constructed. Preservation and historical accuracy hang in the balance.

To help, Neal has welcomed six NASA contractors from Boeing for the week. They’ll help her find the answer, but they also have business of their own. Occasionally, NASA wants to know what kind of condition Enterprise is in, and this week the agency has dispatched the Boeing team to collect data, specifically on nonmetallic substances.

Over time, rubber becomes brittle. Plastics show wear. Paint chips. Knowing how long these materials will last gives NASA an idea of their durability on shuttles still in service. Meanwhile, the museum benefits by getting an expert opinion on how to refurbish its treasure.

“This is the best materials test bed NASA has, and it’s frozen in time in this hangar,” said Jerry Blackburn of the Boeing team and a former NASA engineer who worked on Enterprise in the 1970s. “A lot of materials on the shuttle were invented for it. Thus no one really knows how long they will remain functional, and here we are almost 30 years later and many of the materials are still in good condition.”

Based on Neal’s research and the team’s findings, the conclusion is that Enterprise is in better shape than expected and that a polyurethane paint should be used to coat the payload bay doors. A solution of liquid soap and water will clean the rest.

“It’s in NASA’s interest to have the vehicle in pristine condition and in the museum’s interest to have NASA’s expertise,” Neal said. “NASA still sees this shuttle as an asset, and they think enough of us to leave it in our care.”

Neal still marvels at how a vehicle that hasn’t had a major operational test since 1979 still has technical value. But it does. Enterprise has become a bank of spare parts for the other shuttles. In 2003, NASA removed sections of the leading edge of both wings and the landing gear doors for use in the Columbia accident investigation. They’ll be returned later this year.

Also amazing about Enterprise is that it is the only shuttle to have never entered outer space.

“Its first function was approach and landing tests,” Neal said. “Although it’s called an orbiter, it never flew in space. And you’d never hear NASA call it this, but it is really a giant glider because it has no propulsion system. It was used as a test vehicle to demonstrate that a winged spacecraft would handle and land like an aircraft.”

NASA used a modified 747 to take Enterprise up piggy-back style and release it. As it descended, astronaut pilots performed systems checks and monitored performance characteristics. Later, it underwent launch vibration tests and was retired from primary service after only two years.

“But it was the flagship for the rest of the shuttle fleet,” Neal said. “Columbia in 1981, Challenger in 1983, Discovery in 1984, Atlantis in 1985 and Endeavor in 1992. All owe their existence to Enterprise.”

Interestingly, Enterprise was originally to be called Constitution, but two weeks before its debut, “Star Trek” fans launched a massive letter writing campaign to change the name to Enterprise. It stuck.

After its main test phase ended in 1979, Enterprise has been a showpiece, making appearances at the 1983 Paris Air Show and the 1984 World’s Fair in New Orleans.

Enterprise had been out of sight in storage on Dulles Airport property since 1985 until Hazy opened. Over the years, dust, flaking paint and other signs of aging appeared, but refurbishing was impossible in a crowded storage hangar. Now that it has a new home, it’s Neal’s job to get the shuttle cleaned and repainted for permanent display.

Enterprise now rests in the yet-to-be-opened James S. McDonnell Space Hangar, which is attached to the main aviation hangar. It is off-limits to the public while Neal and the museum’s preservation team do their work, but visitors can still view the shuttle from behind a rope barrier, coming within 20 feet of the nose.

Soon, 135 other major space treasures, such as rockets and missiles standing on end, will join Enterprise in a completed space hangar, scheduled to open by late fall. It will feature four primary exhibit areas: civil applications (meteorology, computers, communication satellites), space science (astronomy, solar and planetary science), military applications (rockets) and human space flight (from Mercury, Gemini and Apollo forward). Enterprise will be showcased in the center.

Neal and her colleagues have already mapped out all of the large artifacts and most of the hundreds of smaller ones, including flight suits, tools, even urine and fecal collection devices. She has written text and selected photographs and graphics for the display panels, which designers are preparing over the summer. The exhibit will go into final production and installation by late fall.

“We’re in for a busy summer,” she said.

TCU and beyond

Liberal arts majors aren’t supposed to be in charge of space shuttles. They’re lovers of history and art and literature, not hard science. If that’s true, then Valerie Neal is different. She loves them all.

Consider her Who’s Who yearbook quote from 1971, her senior year: “I think the most important attitude a college student develops is one of inquiry and critical judgment.”

So maybe it makes perfect sense that she is a caretaker of some of the country’s most precious artifacts. Behind all the degrees and publishing she has achieved, Neal still thinks of herself as an English and history major who loves exploring ideas and people and things.

Because she is so conversant in space terminology and concepts, most scientists she corresponds with assume her background is in astrophysics or aerospace engineering.

“What I truly enjoy is discovery,” she said. “That’s what a liberal arts education at TCU taught me more than anything — learning how to learn.”

Neal came to Fort Worth from Hot Springs, Ark., where her family lived in roughly the same neighborhood as an older boy named Bill Clinton. An outstanding academic record afforded her several college choices, but it was an interest in travel that prompted her to leave the state. She also sought a smaller school that offered a variety of educational choices.

She received two substantial scholarships, one to TCU and one to Vanderbilt. Ultimately, TCU offered more and its Disciples of Christ heritage — the church of her family’s faith — made the difference.

Most of her liberal arts training and inspiration came in the Honors Program. She counts Fred Erisman, Lorraine Sherley, Judith Suther, Betsy Colquitt, Maurice Boyd, Ron Flowers, Gus Ferre and Martha Ackerman in her “personal pantheon of TCU professors.”

“Every course I had inspired me. Honors Seminars such as The Nature of Society and The Nature of Values were a real foretaste of graduate school. Miss Sherley’s Interrelation of the Arts course was such a revelation. What we were really doing was learning how to think, learning how to learn. We were opening and exercising our minds on ideas.

“When I came to TCU, I had a good base, but I gained so much depth and breadth in literature and fine arts and history and philosophy. I was really encouraged to explore beyond what was in the books to synthesize and make sense of it, to make connections and think creatively.”

She recalls an essay exam given by philosophy professor Gus Ferre in which the only question was something like: “Imagine Plato, Jefferson and Henry Adams having dinner together and discussing education. Write how their conversation might go.”

“It was very challenging, and it allowed us to show what we knew and understood in a cogent way. That kind of thinking goes into exhibit work,” she said. “As curator, one of my strengths is writing. I love language, and I see writing as an exercise in the architecture and poetry and music of words. I learned that at TCU. My classes in art appreciation and music appreciation enriched my study of literature and history. This interdisciplinary insight helps me work with designers because I have an eye for composition, whether it is visual or verbal.”

Like she is now, Neal was an exceptional all-round talent at TCU. After her first two semesters, she received the Borden Freshman Award for academic excellence. She joined Pi Beta Phi sorority her sophomore year and was an active member through graduation. She also served as Mortar Board president and earned distinctions in Who’s Who and Phi Beta Kappa.

Her senior year, she was presented the Phi Beta Kappa Award for excellence in the liberal arts by Chancellor Moudy, who Neal’s classmates say was very fond of her.

“She is an amazing intellect,” said Lee Crane Wood ’70, a fellow Honors graduate and Neal’s best friend. “She was very studious but a lot of fun. She had a real sparkle. She just loved the cultural parts of the university. And now I like to say she’s this small-town girl from Arkansas with a big Ph.D.”

After leaving TCU, Neal spent most of the 1970s earning advanced degrees in American studies at the University of Southern California and the University of Minnesota. She could never decide which she liked more, English or history, so she pursued both, preparing for a professor’s life.

But she didn’t prepare for a depressed job market. “Literally, there might have been 1,000 applicants for a single tenure-track position at most universities.”

While in a part-time position at the University of Alabama in Huntsville, she saw a classified ad in the local paper; it seemed to be looking for a writer who really understood science, or a scientist who really wanted to be a writer. Thinking she fit in there somewhere, Neal called the director and shared a little of her background. He invited her to an interview the next morning and to bring her dissertation, titled “Transcendental Optics: The Science, Vision and Imagination in the Works of Emerson and Thoreau.”

“He must have liked what he saw because he hired me on the spot,” she said.

Neal spent more than 10 years at Essex Corp., a NASA contractor at the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville. She wrote about “solar terrestrial physics” (the Earth-sun connection), which she jokingly calls “solar terrible physics.”

But like many topics before, it became a passion. That led to writing about Spacelab experiments performed on the shuttle and other research missions such as the Hubble Space Telescope and various astrophysical observatories in space, as well as disciplines as different as biomedicine and materials science. In the very technical culture of Essex, she distinguished herself as “the English major” and “the wordsmith.” It was very much a term of endearment and recognition of the skills she offered.

When writing work was slow, she filled in as a space crew test conductor, going so far as to climb into the dive tank with the astronauts. Engineers who liked her called her “Dr. Sunshine,” also a compliment.

During those years, she worked with the science teams during four shuttle missions, spending weeks at a time at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston. In 1989, a colleague from NASA mentioned her work to Smithsonian directors, and the “Where Next, Columbus?” project was a perfect match.

Back in D.C.

Valerie Neal has three canes. One is for everyday use and has a wood handle; the second is her “dress-up cane” and has pink and purple flowers; and the third is her “black-tie cane,” which is solid black with a white mother of pearl handle. She saves it for trips to the ballet and theatre.

As she did at TCU, Neal continues to find pleasure in the arts. But in the summer and fall of 2001, that was temporarily taken away from her. A calcified disc was pressing against her spinal column, debilitating her. Suddenly, she couldn’t stand or walk. Couldn’t work. Couldn’t drive.

Neal underwent emergency surgery and spent three months in the hospital and a convalescent home where she went through rehab “boot camp” therapy to learn to walk again.

“It was four to six hours a day of taking steps,” she said. “My mind knew what to do, but my legs and feet wouldn’t cooperate.”

During Neal’s rehabilitation, her best friend and Pi Phi sister Lee Wood visited daily with encouragement and gifts. Her husband, Sam Wood ’71, donated his compact disc player and some soothing music to ease the long hours of confinement. When Neal moved to Washington in 1989, she intentionally bought a house in their neighborhood, and Neal’s son instantly had two families.

“When I was in the hospital, they really lifted my spirits,” Neal recalled. “Every Friday, Lee and I would have a happy hour together. She would bring champagne glasses and sparkling cider and white linen napkins, and we would sip and talk.

“She took me to physical therapy and encouraged me during rehab classes. She never said this to me, but I think she and others, including my son, probably thought for a while that I would never walk again. But I knew I would.”

Slightly slower than before, Neal ambles around fine with her cane, even at the spacious Hazy Center. If only she could do something about its concrete floor.

As for the three canes, she said, “If I have to use one, I might as well make a fashion statement of it.”

After Neal recovered, Wood bought tickets for both of them to attend the ballet and theater together, resuming their favorite cultural activities.

If there is someone who can appreciate small tokens, it’s Neal.

One of her favorite items in the downtown museum is a small box of colored pencils in an exhibit chronicling the race to space between the Americans and Soviets.

The pencils belong to Russian cosmonaut Aleksi Leonov, who performed the first space walk. Astronauts say that it is impossible to describe, or even photograph, the number of hues in the atmosphere from space. Cameras simply cannot distinguish the many layers. Leonov brought the pencils with him to sketch what he couldn’t find the words for. As a clever engineer, he took string and fashioned a knot to each of the pencils and tethered each to the box. Then he devised a bracelet to keep the box around his wrist.

Visitors may pass over them in the museum’s vastness, but the pencils speak volumes to Neal. “It is so fundamentally human,” she said. “It’s not science or technology, Russians or Americans. It’s a human being with an artistic soul thinking ahead to the opportunity that lay before him. The planning and approach he took shows that he was an engineer, and it was an efficient solution — engineering at its simplest.

“Here was this man who was about to do one of the bravest things a human has ever done — go outside a space craft — and he is thinking about a box of colored pencils. This small artifact stands in contrast to the big rockets and complex technology. It humanizes space exploration.”

And that’s what Neal sees in her role as caretaker of the nation’s most treasured artifacts. “It is such a privilege to hold the position I have in a place that is beloved not only by Americans but by people around the world. About 10 million people a year visit the National Air and Space Museum, and every time, and I do mean every time, I tell people where I work, they say, ‘Oh that’s my favorite museum’ or ‘I remember going there as a child and just loved it.’ It’s truly a great privilege and huge responsibility to shape exhibits, care for the artifacts and keep the museum a wonderful place to visit.”

It’s easy to see why the museum is thrilled when news cameras come to interview her, said Walt Ferrell, public affairs specialist for the museum. “People see her eyes sparkle and her smile as she talks. She translates technical information in simple language, speaking in pictures and with such passion. With Valerie, it’s never just relaying facts. It’s conveying the romance of space exploration.”

Ferrell recalls the day of the Columbia tragedy. Scores of visitors brought mementos to leave at the museum’s “Space Race” exhibit, which concerned museum officials about clutter.

“Valerie embraced that outpouring because she saw it as part of the history of space exploration and not something to be swept away when the newspaper faded,” he said.

Where now?

“In the decades since the launch of Sputnik, the people of the world have thrilled to the long-dreamed-of moon walks of the Apollo astronauts, marveled at spectacular photographs of the outer planets brought to us by Voyager, and watched in horror as the Challenger exploded before our eyes. No longer the realm of science fiction, space has been hailed in popular culture as the “final frontier,” the focal point of future exploration. Yet today there is no strong consensus about our future in space. Where should we go next? Mars? Deep space? Should we continue to send humans into space? Is it worth the cost to explore space at all?”
– Introduction, Where Next, Columbus?, written by Valerie Neal, 1994

Where next, Valerie Neal?

Even she cannot say. And trying to predict is difficult. Unbridled enthusiasm works that way. In the mid-1980s, she applied for NASA’s Journalist in Space program and received a postcard the day the Challenger exploded that her application was under review. The program was canceled.

Just last year, she wanted to apply again, this time for the Educator in Space program. With a slight physical disability, she didn’t expect to make the first cut, but she wanted NASA to consider the museum as much an educational institution as any school.

Most days, working at a place like the Smithsonian is too great an honor and too great a challenge to leave.

“I can’t imagine walking away from this job because it is so stimulating, so satisfying, much the way I imagine teaching would be,” she said. “I have one of the best jobs in the world for its variety, for its impact, for the caliber of my colleagues, for the chance to meet the public. I can’t imagine another position that offers all those rewards.”

Neal said her coming to the museum was serendipity, that she is an ordinary person who has had extraordinary opportunities. “I never planned any of this. I planned to go into an academic career, but wherever I went there were opportunities. Good luck is opportunity meeting preparation, and my preparation happened at TCU.”

A relocation back to Texas near her son in Houston and near friends in Fort Worth appeals to her, as does a teaching position. “I’d love to teach at my alma mater, even part time as an adjunct professor — if they’d have me.”

She laughs and her eyes twinkle.

But immediately on the horizon is the museum’s next major exhibit — “The Space Shuttle Era.” With advances to the international space station and findings from the Mars rovers, it is time for the museum to play catch-up.

“We haven’t done enough to tell the story about space history from the 1980s forward,” she said. “The current generations have grown up entirely in the Shuttle Era. We have to keep pace with them.”

She has at least four or five years to pull it off.

Plenty of time to think “Where Next, Valerie?”