A visit to the Air and Space Museum

Posted by David Eicher
on Thursday, May 01, 2014

Entrance gallery to the Air and Space Museum, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C. / David J. Eicher
Washington, D.C., is loaded with museums. When I was there last week for the USA Science & Engineering Festival with my friends from Celestron — Kevin Kawai, Jason Mulek, and Brenda Abrica — we headed straight to the Smithsonian’s Air and Space Museum after the Friday session of the festival. We had the better part of two hours inside the museum before it closed, and we exited to a driving rainstorm before dinner. We had to make the most of our time, and we sped around the galleries, frantically taking pictures!

Anyone interested in astronomy, space exploration, or aircraft must see the Air and Space Museum. It’s in a class of few museums in the country, along with perhaps the adjunct facility now open at Dulles Airport in nearby Virginia and with the Wright-Patterson Air Force Base Museum in Dayton, Ohio.

The entrance gallery is a huge box-like shape designed to overwhelm with some big-time treasures. There we found John Glenn’s Friendship 7 Mercury capsule, the Apollo 11 command module Columbia, and lots of space memorabilia, including the suit worn by Alexei Leonov during the first space walk in 1965, along with the spacecraft hatch he had difficulty slipping back into. We also marveled at Charles Lindbergh’s Spirit of St. Louis, the plane used for the first transatlantic flight in 1927, and other technological marvels.

The space-related galleries were spectacular. We saw numerous Apollo- and Gemini- related items, including the world’s most expensive car, the Lunar Roving Vehicle, and the LM-2, the lunar landing module made for training use prior to the first Moon landing. Then came huge numbers of World War I and World War II aircraft, always amazing to see, and space treasures relating to planetary astronomy missions. We marveled at the “A” discovery plate of the planet Pluto used by Clyde Tombaugh to discover the planet in 1930. We were incredulous at William Herschel’s famous 20-foot telescope, on display in entirety. We enjoyed seeing the original observing cage used by Edwin Hubble on the 100-inch Hooker Telescope at Mount. Wilson Observatory, the cage used to discover the nature of galaxies and the distance scale of the cosmos.

And then there were more world-class treasures. Perhaps none was as arresting as the original Wright Flyer, the world’s first powered airplane used by Orville and Wilbur Wright for four short flights December 17, 1903, at Kill Devil Hills, North Carolina.

The flyer and associated memorabilia brought back a favorite family story: My family’s home for many years was Dayton, Ohio, and my father John (who is 93 — still around!) lived on Ruskin Road, two houses away from Ivonette Wright Miller, niece of the Wright brothers. Every once in a while, in the 1930s, a big black car would pull up, impressive with its large bumpers and fancy acetylene lights. Orville Wright would step out — Wilbur was by then long gone — and walk in to visit Ivonette. Quite a number of times my father talked with Orville Wright, and he is still around to talk about it.

Here, a link not only to the Space Age but to the origin of powered flight itself!

For all images from this trip, visit the Online Reader Gallery.

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