Needham History: To the Ends of the Earth-and Beyond!

Our explorers’ flags are more than just pieces of cloth – they represented courage and adventure, and a journey to the farthest reaches of their day. Needhamites at the ends of the earth – and beyond!

Walter Queen in later years, with his dog Carlo. Carlo had been one of the expedition sled dogs.

To the Ends of the Earth – and Beyond!

Antarctica is, literally, at the end of the Earth. Before the beginning of manned space flight, that was about as Far Away as you could go. And a so of course a Needhamite went there, and carried a small Needham flag with him.

Walter Kerr Queen was the chief engineer on Adm. Richard Byrd’s second expedition to the Antarctic in 1932-33. Queen was a Lieutenant Commander in the US Naval Reserve. He had served in World War 1 aboard the USS Mercer, and upon his return started a very successful company, QP Signal Co. on Hillside Avenue, that made machine tools, steam fittings, and other industrial equipment. His work attracted Byrd’s notice, and he was asked by Byrd to join the expedition.

Queen sailed aboard the support ship, the SS Jacob Ruppert. Byrd’s first ship, the USS Bear, was a wooden-hulled vessel, and the Ruppert had a hull of steel. In theory, the wooden Bear was less likely to sink in the event of a mishap than the steel-hulled Ruppert, so maintaining the wooden vessel provided an extra measure of safety. Byrd’s second expedition established a number of “firsts” in polar exploration, including the first use of a wheeled vehicle for polar exploration, the first seismic surveys to determine the extent of land mass beneath the ice, and the first radio broadcasts. America, in the grip of the Depression, was riveted to the reports broadcast from Little America.

Queen offered to take something to Antarctica for Needham’s state senator, Leslie Cutler. Senator Cutler asked Queen to carry a Needham flag, but it was then discovered that Needham did not have a flag. So Sen. Cutler commissioned small gold-fringed banners with the Town Seal, effectively creating our town flag; she chose blue on white, because they were the high school’s colors.

In 1937, Queen decided that he wanted to travel “as far north as had had traveled south,” and joined a Hudson’s Bay Company journey to the Artic aboard their supply ship, the R.M.S. Nascopie. He carried the flag there as well, and displayed it in front of the British Empire’s most northern post office, on Ellesmere Island (Nunavut Territory, Canada). It was later give to the Needham History Center by Queen’s family.

Walter Queen was also a Selectman and Water Commissioner in Needham, a Captain of the Ancient and Honourable Artillery Company of Massachusetts, and a Mason in the Norfolk Lodge (Needham). He was and remains the only member of a Masonic lodge to have held Masonic ceremonies at both the North and South Poles. (And as an aside – important to Me, anyway – Walter Queen owned my house from 1919 when he returned from the War to 1933 when he returned from Antarctica. A very old pair of skis was found in the house when we bought it; I like to think that they were Queen’s).

…To Infinity – and Beyond!

We have a second well-traveled Needham flag, this one carried aboard the International Space Station for six months by astronaut Commander Sunita Williams. Before her first flight in 2006, the Needham History Center received a call from Angela DiNapoli, Williams’ 6th grade teacher. She reported that Williams was hoping to take a Needham town flag into space. Archivist Polly Attridge and her late husband Paul helped her to obtain one. Back on earth after more than six months in space, Cdr. Williams signed and presented the flag to the History Center.

The nifty NASA authentication certificate that accompanies the flag gives some details of its extraordinary journey:

“This Needham Town Flag was flown for the Needham Historical Society aboard the United States Space Shuttle DISCOVERY [on] December 9, 2006… [and] remained onboard the ISS until it was brought back to earth on the United States Space Shuttle ATLANTIS on June 22, 2007.”

    • Altitude – 223 statute miles
    • Speed – 17,681 mph (Mach 25)
    • Distance Traveled: 78,000,000 miles (78 million!!)
    • Flight Duration: 194 days, 19 hours, 2 minutes

Sunita Williams was born in 1965 in Ohio, but that’s OK because she moved to Needham as a child and considers it her hometown. She was already interested in math and science when she attended the Hillside School, and excelled in those studies at Needham High School, where she graduated in the Class of 1983. She also studied Russian, which turned out to be very useful in the long run.

The Needham Space Flag, signed and dated by Sunita Williams.

After graduating from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1987, Williams trained as a Naval Aviator deployed with Helicopter Combat Support Squadrons in various locations, including deployments for Operation Desert Shield and Operation Provide Comfort, and later to Florida as part of the Hurricane Andrew relief effort. She was selected for the United States Naval Test Pilot School in 1993, and for NASA’s astronaut training program in 1998. She joined the crew of the International Space Station for her first space assignment in December 2006, returning to earth in June 2007 – at the time, her 192 days in space were a record for spaceflight for a woman. During that voyage, she was able to communicate from space with students in the Needham schools. She had a second tour on the International Space Station from July to November 2012, serving as the station’s commander. To date, she has logged more than 325 days in space.

In September 2015, Sunita Williams became one of the first members of the Commercial Crew Development program, a NASA-administered partnership with SpaceX and Boeing to develop private commercial transportation vehicles for the International Space Station. In August 2018, she was assigned to the first mission flight of Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner. After several delays, the Starliner took off on June 5th, making her the first female astronaut to test a new craft on its maiden voyage. The stay at the ISS, which is expected to last about 10 days, will be her third.

Needham students got another treat from Sunita Williams this week. On Monday (June 10), NASA arranged for a video link between the ISS and the Sunita Williams School. For 20 minutes, she spoke to the children from space (while wearing her Williams Wildcats sweatshirt!) and they asked her questions. Her continuing efforts to inspire kids is one of the main reasons that the town decided to name the new Sunita Williams School in her honor.

We are pleased and proud to have both of these flags on exhibit right now. They are more than just pieces of cloth – they represent courage and adventure, and a journey to the farthest reaches of their day. Needhamites at the ends of the earth – and beyond!

Sunita Williams communicates with Needham schoolchildren during her first space flight. Cartoon by Robert Y. Larsen, January 11, 2007.

Gloria Polizzotti Greis is the Executive Director of the Needham History Center & Museum. For more information, please see their website at
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