Space Is The Place
I’m not kidding, when I was four my Dad took me to see The Empire Strikes Back and on that very night my brain was opened up. Any other interests in there were scooped out and replaced with just one thing: space. But that could be a number of things: planets, stars, space ships, Space Lego, aliens, satellites, living in space, things that have come from space, films about space, music about space, and of course books and comic books.
My eyes were this wide.
So when I opened my birthday card and found that out that my wife was taking me to the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum, I was so excited I dropped my new copy of Space Chronicles, Facing The Ultimate Frontier by Neil DeGrasse Tyson (a brilliant and enthusiastic argument for space exploration).
Real Apollo capsule about to crush this really unfortunate man.
Where to start? Well first of all you can see and touch moon rock. I think the only other place you can touch moon rock is at the Kennedy Space Centre in Florida. I really wanted to touch rock, which the more I write that expression, is starting to resemble a coarse euphemism. Moon rock; like rock. And quite surprisingly small – about matchbox size and highly polished – presumably from all the fingers that have
Real Saturn rocket booster with arty green lens flare.
Aside from the sheer variety of the exhibits, what impresses is their authenticity. You don’t get a model of the Kitty Hawk, it’s the real thing: the first powered aircraft. Although I’m fairly certain that it’s not Orville’s body stuffed and mounted in place. There are genuine moon landers, re-entry vehicles, spacesuits covered in grey moon dust. Those Soyuz and Apollo capsules hung docked together in the atrium, are spaceships in every sense of the word. It’s also surprising just how much of the design seems so basic: a spacesuit is clasped shut with zips, the Bell X1, the first plane to break the sound barrier is hammered together with rivets.
An actual spacesuit that’s really been to the moon.
My wife’s favourite bit was the Apollo lander. In the exhibit, video footage of a landing is played through the lander’s windows along with the radio chatter from a mission. It’s as close as you and I will ever get to landing on another planet, and of course there’s something so thrilling about a twanging accent reading off numbers from a cockpit dial. Well maybe that’s just me, but anyway, this wasn’t her favourite bit. Her favourite bit was turning to face the crowd of twenty or so men of various ages – all with wet eyes – watch the display with rapt concentration. When we finally ‘landed’ on the moon, some clapped and one or two whistled and cheered. And then we all watched it again.
Real spaceships, docked just as they were when they did it for real in ’73.
Real old aeroplanes hang as if they were really flying
If real aircraft were ever this close it would be actually quite dangerous
Really impressed man looks up in wonder.
As the space race is very much a product of the Cold War, it’s hard to escape the military aspects of some of the exhibits. There are displays of nuclear missiles and old war craft, but perhaps the most chilling of all is the fleet of drones hung down one end of the space. They range from the well known Predator and Raptor, to the frankly science fiction looking Dark Star surveillance UAV. It’s an incongruous addition to the museum. Most of the exhibits celebrate the human achievement and endurance it takes to fly and reach into space, and there they were: a collection of cold, remote control aircraft. These exhibits are the product of methodical testing and measured construction. Unlike the sheer volume of unknowns and firsts it took to place Curiosity on the surface of Mars, there is no drama to be found with these robots. No risk or daring helped get them airborne. These machines are without honour; they would never draw a giant penis on the surface of Mars.
It makes you wonder what future exhibits are going to be like as humans become less an actual part of space exploration and more a voice on the ground behind a screen. Robots, such as Curiosity Rover are inevitably impressive and exciting. But they’re also very much on another planet. Unless they’re brought back, you get the feeling future exhibits at the Smithsonian are going to feature a lot more simulations and models.
Anyway, if you get the chance, go. But don’t eat there: McDonald’s? C’mon really? No space food?