The Apollo program was a major factor in the transformation of a long term friendship into a romance and my eventual marriage to my Beloved Husband. My now-BH introduced me to the space program, and we started to buy and exchange books. I learned that visiting him in person was the best way to get my books back, those visits led to a relationship, and we just celebrated seven years of marriage. Thus it was particularly appropriate that on the day before our anniversary this year, the two of us made a pilgrimage out to Chantilly, VA to the Stephen F Udvar-Hazy Center, also known as the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum where the Big Stuff is stored.
I have never been in an airplane hangar before, but I would guess that the two enormous hangers of the museum are large even by normal standards. All of the exhibits are inside, and there is a dazzling array of planes hung at various levels. I remember that at the Air and Space Museum on the Mall that there are doors on only one end of the building, but the Udvar-Hazy center is so gargantuan that there are doors at both ends. Like the Mall installation, there are planes hanging overhead as well as sitting on the floor, and I remember that the general strategy is to try to move things around as infrequently as possible because it is such a challenge. I admired the map-maker who had to make a two-dimensional rendering of the three dimensional display; the problem was solved by representing the planes on the floor in white outlines and then planes above at increasingly darker shades of gray the higher they were hung. On the outsides of the open space, there are walkways at various levels so that visitors can see the suspended airplanes, hang gliders, and hot air balloon gondolas up close. The sheer size of it all means that it never felt crowded, even on a summer Sunday afternoon.
For me, the biggest draw was seeing one of the three retired space shuttles. Shuttle Discovery is special even among the remaining three orbiters because it was the shuttle that flew immediately after the Challenger and Columbia accidents. Discovery is credited with getting the program back on track each time. I was particularly struck that the shuttles were designed to be re-usable, so different parts aged differently and were replaced at different times. The tiles on the exterior that look so white in pictures are actually different shades of white and gray as new tiles were changed out over time. Seeing the shuttle in person also makes it much more apparent that the bulk of the space on the shuttle is storage and the crew cabin is almost all in the nose. Maximizing the cargo hold makes sense since this is the shuttle that took the Hubble Space Telescope into space and also helped with the assembly of the International Space Station, but it took seeing the dimensions in person to understand that the living space on a shuttle is a very small proportion of the volume.
An entire hanger was devoted to space paraphernalia including missiles and rockets. By one door was a Redstone rocket, which would have been impressive if we hadn’t seen a Saturn V rocket at the Kennedy Space Center. We overheard two people suggesting that the Redstone rockets might have been used to put satellites into space, and my BH generously and kindly informed them that the Redstones were particularly used to launch the Mercury capsules at the start of the US space program. My BH and I grinned at each other realizing just how much we had learned from exchanging all those books on the space program.
The huge Saturn V rocket is the one that has enough power to throw an Apollo capsule far enough to escape Earth’s gravity and go to the moon, and the one at the Kennedy Space Center is so large that it lies on its side rather than standing up. When the Apollo program was halted early, there were a number of Saturn V rockets in various stages of construction, so those parts ended up being repurposed for other uses. I have become highly attuned to those components and I have developed the ability to recognize cylinders with the characteristic radius. A number of the components of the rocket were incorporated into the Skylab program, one of which was on display behind the Shuttle. Even as we were wandering around the space hanger at the Udvar-Hazy center, I recognized a huge ring that was being used as a decoration but that was obviously a Saturn V component. When my BH and I were discussing it later, he had made the same connection.
In contrast with the Air and Space Museum on the Mall, the Udvar-Hazy center seems almost casual about the amazing objects in their collection. Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo capsules are all displayed together in a clump, along with a mobile isolation trailer that the astronauts were requires to stay in after their return from the Moon lest they contaminate the Earth with germs from outer space. My BH was entranced by the kite-like structure that was briefly contemplated as a means of bringing the Gemini capsules back to the ground safely. The idea was not pursued extensively, but it did eventually give rise to the sport of hang-gliding. Adjacent to the large kite, I learned that an Apollo capsule floating in the water has two stable configurations, nose up and nose down. After landing, the Apollo 11 capsule stabilized nose down in the ocean, so the astronauts inflated several balloons to flip the capsule back over and reduce the chance that a seal would fail and seawater would sink the capsule and the astronauts inside.
This visit reinforced that my BH had attended many air shows on the south coast of England as a lad. Thus he recognized the sleek evil-looking spy plane as a Blackbird (which I tended to call a blackwing or Blackhawk, in part because I didn’t know the name and in part to see if I can exasperate my BH). It looked quite capable of flying very high and very fast, and it made the neighboring aircraft look rather cumbersome.
In addition to the entire space exhibit, my BH and I shared other similar frames of reference. Thus there was one silver plane that we spotted together that drew both of us up short. Neither one of us needed any background to identify that the Enola Gay was the plane that dropped the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima, but we both had very similar physical reactions to encountering the plane unexpectedly. On a happier note, both of us also recognized an Air France Concorde, the supersonic jet that no longer flies across the Atlantic. Getting a photograph of the whole plane was a bit of a challenge.
Until I saw the large Restoration Hanger, it hadn’t really penetrated that all the planes we saw were in excellent condition. There are two very large bays as part of the museum where planes can be dismantled and conserved before going on display. One of the current projects was a Sikorsky JRS-1 Flying Boat which searched for the Japanese fleet after the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor.
The project designers took advantage of the installation’s immediate proximity to Dulles Airport, and there is an observation tower that allows visitors to watch the action at both of the major runways. There was also an excellent exhibit about air traffic control including the working screen of a controller monitoring approaching planes. With the plot from the screen, it was easy to watch the planes descending in a queue along a pre-set pathway as they approached the runway. My BH and I agreed that in the future when we see or ride on planes, we will both always have the mental picture of the air traffic control plot superimposed on what our eyes see.
My BH and I agreed that it was worth the 45 minute drive out to the museum, and we highly recommend it, especially to those who have an interest in space or airplanes.