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Archive for the ‘Stories of the Johnsville Centrifuge’ Category

Godspeed, John Glenn

50th Anniversary of NASA Milestone
Recalls Local Involvement in the Space Program and
Provides an Opportunity to Inspire Future Leaders

“Zero Gs and feeling fine!”  With those five words Mercury astronaut John Herschel Glenn, Jr. signaled that his spacecraft, Friendship 7, had entered its first of three orbits at approximately 2:52 p.m. on February 20, 1962. Four hours and fifty-five minutes later, his capsule would splash down and Glenn would become an iconic national hero – the first American to obit the earth. He would go on to serve 25 years in the U.S. Senate, and enter space history again in 1998 when, at the age of 77, he became the oldest person to fly in space on Space Shuttle Discovery (STS-95). Along with Scott Carpenter, John Glenn is the last surviving Project Mercury astronaut. He continues to be an outspoken advocate of America’s continued exploration of space. There is no doubt that Glenn’s flight fifty years ago paved the way for the moonwalk that Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin would make almost seven and a half years later.

Those who lived through those days remember that the astronauts were, to put it in today’s parlance, “A-list” celebrities. They received extensive media coverage and often were honored with tickertape parades on Broadway upon their return from space. While there were many spin-offs from the space program that have made modern life better, perhaps the most important is that the feats of the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo astronauts inspired a generation of children to pursue technology-based careers in science and engineering. After the Apollo moonwalks and with the advent of the shuttle program in the 1980’s spaceflight became “routine” and public interest in the space program generally waned.

While Bucks County is rich in early American history, local citizens are just starting to learn that before taking to the heavens Glenn and the rest of the NASA astronauts from those early programs came to Bucks County to prepare for the rigors of space flight on the Johnsville Centrifuge, the largest and most powerful human centrifuge ever built. As a matter of fact, the centrifuge gondola (capsule) used to train Glenn and other early astronauts is on public display at the Penn State Anechoic Chamber at 300 W. Bristol Road in Warminster, having returned from a Smithsonian storage facility where it was hidden from public view for over 45 years.  Plans are in the works to begin preservation work on this important artifact.

The Johnsville Centrifuge was just one of dozens of labs at the former Naval Air Development Center (NADC) in Warminster, PA where much of the technology we enjoy today was developed and tested. The Johnsville Centrifuge and Science Museum is a small group of dedicated volunteers working to preserve the legacy of Bucks County’s connection to the space program and to tell the story of the high tech work done at NADC, including refinements to GPS and the development of light sensitive lenses that are part of our everyday life. We believe that our area’s involvement in the space program can serve as an inspirational springboard to encourage our youth to explore the careers in technology that are so vital to our country’s future.

We encourage readers of this to use the 50th anniversary of the Friendship 7 mission as a conversation starter with their children or grandchildren. Ask them if they know who John Glenn is and what they know about the space program. Share with them what you remember about growing up in the space age. If you are old enough, tell them where you where when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on the moon. You might be surprised; you may find out they have an interest in space and might even want to become an astronaut.

With today’s “heroes” often coming from the fields of sports and entertainment, there are very few, if any, high profile role models in today’s culture to encourage children to explore science and technology careers. Additionally, local, state and federal education budgets continue to be cut in the face of mounting deficits. The museum, along with its sponsors and partners, sees it as their mission to inspire the youth of today. This past month the museum hosted the students of the Commonwealth Connections Academy and their mobile classroom and participated in the Quarry Hill Elementary School Science Fair. It continues to develop its educational outreach programs. 

We salute Col. Glenn on the 50th Anniversary of his milestone mission and thank him, and all active military and veterans, for his dedicated service to our country.

Michael Maguire
Johnsville Centrifuge and Science Museum

c1959, John Glenn takes a break between training runs in the original “Mercury 7 Gondola” of the Johnsville Centrifuge


“Iron Maiden” Used to Set Standing World Record Comes Home

An important research tool once used to test theories about submerging the human body in water to lessen the effects of G forces encountered during space flight is returning to Bucks County after a 15 year absence.

Flashback… On December 7, 1958 Bucks County native and research scientist R. Flanagan Gray climbed inside a full body enclosure that looked like something out of a Jules Verne novel. Resembling a cast aluminum deep sea diving suit, Gray’s “Iron Maiden” was unique in many ways. One was that it was designed to keep water in. Another was that it was designed to be attached to largest and most powerful human centrifuge the world has ever seen.

After donning a special mask and goggles designed for high-g’s Gray submerged himself in the water that filled the tank and inserted a breathing tube in his mouth. He took a deep breath and held it. With a nod of his head, he signaled that he was ready for his research associates to take the world renowned Johnsville Centrifuge to it’s maximum. The ride eventually took Gray to 31.25 Gs sustained for approximately 5 seconds. By the time the run was over, Gray was exhuasted, quite worse for wear and a world record holder. Since then, noone has attempted to match his extraordinary feat.

Located, at the Johnsville Naval Air Development Center (NADC) in Warminster, PA, the centrifuge, known in the day as Aviation Medical Acceleration Laboratory (AMAL) was one of 31 laboratories on the base. When NADC was shuttered in 1996, the Iron Maiden was moved to the Naval Air base at Patuxent River, MD and placed on display at the Patuxent River Naval Air Museum. The important artifact is now on loan to the Johnsville Centrifuge and Science Museum for the next two years. Following the arrival of the Mercury 7 Gondola this past May, the Iron Maiden is the second major artifact of historical importance to be brought home to Bucks County by the museum.

The Iron Maiden will be on public display at the Bucks County Visitors Center at 3207 Street Road, Bensalem from August 31 through September 23.

“We are excited to bring this important piece of history back to Bucks County,” said Michael Maguire, President of the Johnsville Centrifuge and Science Museum. “The centrifuge was one of the many labs at NADC where pioneering technology that touches our everyday life was developed. Once you see the Iron Maiden and imagine being sealed inside of it, you can’t help but be amazed by the dedication of all the scientists and engineers at NADC. We are thrilled that the Patuxent River Naval Air Museum is loaning this artifact to us. ”

Veteran Navy Corpsman Shares Stories Of His Part in Training of Mercury Astronauts

Retired Navy Corpsman Art Guntner made a trip to the Johnsville Centrifuge and Science Museum in Warminster, PA from his home in Inwood, West Virginia not knowing what he would find in the building where he worked as an Aerospace Medicine Technician (AMT) in the early 1960s. What he found was that the largest and most powerful human centrifuge ever built was still standing. Although it hasn’t run for more than a decade and the copper sheeting that once lined the 125 foot diameter chamber has long been removed, seeing the giant machine where he helped to train the Mercury astronauts brought back a flood of memories.

Art Guntner was born and raised in the mining town of Morgantown, West Virginia and is the son of Kathleen and Frank G. Guntner. The Guntner family is steeped in military service, his step-father was in the Army at the end of WWI, his father was a Marine in the Pacific in WWII, and his uncle Charles M. Blaney from Westover, West Virginia, fought on Iwo Jima and was present for the flag raising on Suribachi. A younger uncle, Robert Blaney, retired as an Air Force Master Sargeant.

Guntner joined the Navy in 1958 and graduated from Aerospace Medicine School in 1960. Immediately after graduation he was sent to the Naval Air Development Center (NADC), Johnsville, PA; located just north of Philadelphia. NADC was home to the Aviation Medical Acceleration Laboratory (AMAL) where the largest human centrifuge in the world was located. The centrifuge was built in the late 1940’s to test the limits of human endurance under the high G forces that were produced by the new jet fighters being used by the military. However, by late 1959 and into the early 1960’s the focus of training and research at AMAL turned to preparing the men who would be the first American space explorers.

Given the full schedules of the Mercury astronauts, it was impractical for them to be present for early runs or “flights” on the centrifuge that were made to determine baseline performance. It fell to younger staff members like Guntner to serve as the test subjects for the initial simulations. Over the course of his time at Johnsville, Guntner estimates that he endured over 350 flights in the centrifuge, more than any other test subject. Some flights pushed him to as high as 15 Gs. By way of comparison, a driver in the Indianapolis 500 sustains 4 to 5 G’s in the turns, and astronauts rarely experience more than 6 Gs at liftoff and reentry.

Art Guntner exits the gondola of the Johnsville Centrifuge in 1960 after one of more than 350 simulations.

When the Mercury astronauts arrived for their training, it was Guntner who briefed them on the results of the early simulations, telling them what they could expect from the experiences they were about to undergo. As an AMT, part of his job was to place the bio-medical sensor on the astronauts and monitor functions like heart rate and breathing as they took their rides on “the wheel”.

Guntner was soon working on a first name basis with the Mercury Seven and recounted stories of working with John Glenn and Alan Shepard. He recalled one time when another flight surgeon insisted in placing the bio-med sensors on John Glenn. After half an hour of placing the sensors and another half an hour of getting suited up, when initial diagnostics were run, several of the sensors were not producing any readings. At that point an exasperated Glenn looked at Guntner and waved him into the preparation room saying simply, “Come on, Art, show him how it’s done!”

Art Guntner assists John Glenn after a flight in the Johnsville Centrifuge

He recalled another time when he was called in on short notice on a weekend to work with the astronauts. His wife had other commitments that day and it was too late for him to find a sitter for his two year old daughter, so he brought her to work with him. It was a long busy day operating with a skeleton staff, so it fell to Alan Sheppard and John Glenn to take turns on babysitting duty. Art says that it is something that his daughter still talks about to this day.

During his visit, Guntner shared his many photos that were taken of him with the astronauts. At the time, Guntner knew that he was involved in a very special program but remained focused on the work he was doing as “just a job that need to be done, and needed to be done to the best of my abilities.” Guntner also recalled some interactions he had with Ham, the chimp whose rocket ride preceded those of any humans.

In addition to his work with the astronauts, Guntner’s work at Johnsville included testing the design of G-suits and the configuration of the space capsules interior control panel under acceleration, and many other classified tests. After his time at the Centrifuge, Guntner qualified as aircrew in the H-34 Seahorse, WC-121 Constellation, the WP-3A Hurricane Hunters, then the H1-N, the H-2 and H-3 helicopters. Guntner was a CICO, (combat information control officer) for four years, flying hurricanes and winter storms over the north Atlantic. Eventually his career took him to NAS Jacksonville, FL and other bases before retirement in 1979. Looking back on a full Navy career, Guntner is proud of the opportunity that he had to serve his country, but it is his time working with the first Americans to fly into space that he will always be the most proud of.

2010: Art Guntner returns to Johnsville to share his stories about his experiences working with the Mercury Astronauts.

Did you or someone you know work at Johnsville?  If you’ve got stories, we’d love to hear them.  Contact us at