Smithsonian Air and Space, Part I


Last week, the Fellows got a special tour of the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum.  It turned out to be a standard tour by one of the docents followed by an unusual behind-the-scenes adventure.  Since there were two distinct parts, I’ll divide my stories into two separate posts.


Sputnik (the ball, not the plane!)

The Fellows run strongly to space nerds, and since it was one of the topics that brought my Beloved Husband and I together, it has a special place in my heart.  Thus I was pleased to get some extra perspectives that I hadn’t noticed before.  The first new object I learned was a replica of Sputnik, which is a silver sphere with four silver legs, kind of like a mutant spider.  The first US satellite, Explorer I, hangs nearby and has a more conventional rocket shape.  I rather liked Sputnik since I thought it had a much more satisfying science fiction aura to it.

Explorer I satellite

Explorer I satellite

To one side of the space exhibit hall are a pair of missiles, one from the USSR and one from the US, each of which carried nuclear warheads and were part of the Cold War.  During nuclear disarmament, the stockpiles of the weapons were all destroyed under the watchful eyes of inspectors from the other country.  Missiles like the ones we saw are now only used for training purposes.  That training can have its own hazards since some instructors like to wire a small firecracker into the electronics.  One wrong move and the trainee finds out about it really fast!  Kind of like a game of Operation but on a much bigger scale!

Soviet and American Nuclear missiles

Soviet and American Nuclear missiles

Also added to my radar was the Viking Mars Lander.  This unit preceded the current Mars Rovers, but was an important first step in the exploration of the red planet.  The unit that is displayed in the Smithsonian is genuine, even if it didn’t go to Mars and back.  This lander stayed in the lab and was used to test out communications.  As a test, a command would be sent to the lander in the lab.  If the lab lander carried out the instruction correctly, then the team could be reasonably confident that the sister lander on Mars would behave the same way.  I also picked up the detail that both the Rovers and the Landers on Mars will periodically shut down because their solar panels get covered with dust.  Then suddenly a brisk wind will brush the dust off the panels, and the units will be re-energized.

Viking Lander- lab version

Viking Lander- lab version

I’ve found that the Air and Space Museum with its specialized mission has a considerable advantage in its pool of docents.  The contents on display attract veterans who are often both highly trained and highly educated.  I’ve had tours from engineers who worked on the space program, and this past week’s tour was from a WWII naval navigator whose sons also became pilots.  Thus the Air and Space tours are peppered with extra stories and tidbits that the guides throw in from their own experiences.

the plane that flew around the world without stopping

the plane that flew around the world without stopping

Each guide obviously has his own favorite parts of the museum, and thus last week, we got more depth on the flight exhibits.  That was probably a good thing since I tend to visit the space exhibits as old friends rather than exploring new territory with the airplanes.  I’m not sure I had recognized the plane that flew around the world unfueled for the first time, which was hanging overhead in one of the large galleries.  Our guide suggested that the pilots of the flight, a man and a woman, had been living together before the flight.  After they completed their world tour, they each walked away and never spoke again.

Spirit of St. Louis

Spirit of St. Louis

Our guide’s knowledge of the details of flight gave us some unusual insights.  For example, he pointed out that on Charles Lindberg’s “Spirit of St. Louis” plane that there is no front window.  Lindberg was concerned about the weight of the plane and having enough fuel to make the flight across the Atlantic.  He had no radio and no fuel gauges either, and his provisions were limited to two canteens of water and five sandwiches.  He navigated entirely by dead reckoning, which involved flying a certain distance or time along a certain compass setting and then making a course adjustment.  His navigation was so accurate that when he flew over Ireland, he was a mere 30 miles from his ideal position.  I’m not that accurate with dead reckoning when I can see where I’m going!

I was also amused that when our guide was talking about Apollo 13, that he provided this narrative.  “I think this story is made up, but considering that Jim Lovell, the commander on Apollo 13, was a naval pilot, I think it’s perfectly reasonable.  Tom Hanks played Jim Lovell in the movie, and Jim Lovell thought that was OK but that Tom Hanks wasn’t quite handsome enough for the role.”

One new object I learned to identify was SpaceShipOne, the first manned commercial vehicle to reach space, thus winning the Ansari X Prize.  Apparently at some point in the vehicle’s adventures, it acquired some dents, so the folks at the Air and Space museum were very confused when it showed up looking relatively un-battered.  They questioned the engineers, who explained that they had wanted to deliver their vehicle looking its best, so they had used dent-removal techniques like the ones used to repair cars to remove the damage.  The Air and Space folks explained that no, they wanted the dents, so the engineers proceeded to appropriately re-damage the craft.

The Air and Space museum is particularly fascinating because unlike most museums which are confined to using floor and wall space for displays, some of the most valuable display space is overhead.  One of the Fellows asked about how they got the planes into the building, and our guide explained that one whole end wall opens up.  Considering that the overhead space is already somewhat congested, they do try to minimize the need to move things around, though.

The Wright Flyer

The Wright Flyer

When asked what our guide’s favorite exhibit was, he immediately took us to the Wright Brother’s exhibit.  The original Wright Flyer that made the flight at Kitty Hawk is there, although they’ve had to replace the fabric twice.  Interestingly, a man who was connected to the Smithsonian also claimed to have made the first powered, controlled, manned flight in history.  None of his observers agreed that his craft had actually flown on its own, but the man was adamant.  The Wright brothers were perfectly happy to give their plane to the Smithsonian to preserve for history, but they required that the Smithsonian acknowledge that they had indeed been first in flight.  Thus their plane spent many years traveling around  to other museums including some time in a basement in London during the Blitz in WWII before the Smithsonian finally publicly accepted their accomplishment and got the plane.

More about behind-the-scenes in my next post.



1 Comment

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One response to “Smithsonian Air and Space, Part I

  1. Heather Pence

    This was a lovely reminder of our visit there last fall!

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