A bittersweet visit to the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum.

As I stood in front of the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, I couldn’t help but feel a flutter of excitement in my chest. The iconic building, with its gleaming glass exterior and towering presence, has always been a symbol of human achievement and progress. As a child, I’d always been fascinated by space exploration and aviation, so it was a dream come true to finally set foot in this hallowed institution.

Stepping inside, I was immediately struck by the sheer scale of the exhibits. Suspended from the ceiling was the Spirit of St. Louis, the plane that carried Charles Lindbergh on his historic transatlantic flight. It was an awe-inspiring sight that reminded me of the boundless potential of human ingenuity. The museum was bustling with visitors, young and old, all eager to learn about our shared history in the skies and beyond.

Apollo 11 Command Module “Columbia” (A19700102000). Photograph made after artifact cleaning, June 20, 2016. Photograph by Eric Long. [3T8A3782] (CREDIT: NASM)

One exhibit that caught my eye was the Apollo 11 Command Module, Columbia. As I approached it, I imagined what it must have been like for Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins to climb into this cramped capsule and embark on a journey to the moon. The module, which looked almost surreal in its display case, was a testament to the courage and determination of the astronauts who changed the course of history.

The Apollo 11 mission, a monumental achievement in human history, marked the first time humans set foot on the moon. Launched on July 16, 1969, the mission was commanded by Neil Armstrong, with Michael Collins as the command module pilot and Buzz Aldrin as the lunar module pilot. After a four-day journey, Armstrong and Aldrin descended to the lunar surface on July 20, uttering the famous words, “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” The astronauts conducted experiments, collected moon rocks, and planted the American flag before safely returning to Earth on July 24, 1969.

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1903 Wright Flyer. (CREDIT: NASM)

Another captivating exhibit was the Wright brothers’ 1903 Wright Flyer, the first successful heavier-than-air powered aircraft. It was hard to believe that this delicate wooden structure, with its muslin-covered wings and simple engine, laid the foundation for modern aviation. As I gazed at it, I thought about how Orville and Wilbur Wright’s persistence and innovation paved the way for countless breakthroughs in air and space travel.

View of Space Shuttle Discovery (OV-103) (A20120325000) on display in the James S. McDonnell Space Hangar at the National Air and Space Museum’s Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center, May 3, 2012. The Shuttle Remote Manipulator Arm (SRMS, Canadarm) is displayed in the foreground, under the Shuttle’s left wing and the MMU (Manned Maneuvering Unit) can be seen floating above the flight deck windows. (CREDIT: NASM)

I couldn’t help but feel disappointed that the space shuttle Discovery was on display at a different location, specifically the Hudvar-Hazy Center in Virginia. Having grown up watching shuttle launches on television, it’s always been a dream of mine to see it up close. If I close my eyes, I can see the shuttle’s details, from its weathered heat shield tiles to its towering tail fin, testament to the complexity and ingenuity of the vehicle.

The NASA Space Shuttle program, which operated from 1981 to 2011, was groundbreaking in numerous ways. The shuttle was the world’s first reusable spacecraft, designed to transport astronauts and payloads to and from low Earth orbit. This innovative design significantly reduced the cost of space travel compared to traditional expendable rockets.

The space shuttle’s ability to carry large payloads played a crucial role in the construction and maintenance of the International Space Station (ISS). The shuttle transported various ISS components and enabled complex extravehicular activities (spacewalks) necessary for assembly and repairs. Additionally, the shuttle facilitated the launch and repair of the Hubble Space Telescope, providing us with unparalleled insights into the cosmos.

Another groundbreaking aspect of the shuttle program was its role in fostering international collaboration. The program involved partnerships with numerous countries, paving the way for future cooperative space ventures. This spirit of collaboration continues today, as nations work together on projects like the ISS and the Artemis program.

The shuttle program’s longevity allowed for advances in astronaut training and a broadening of the astronaut corps. NASA expanded the selection criteria to include scientists, engineers, and even educators, increasing diversity and providing invaluable opportunities for research in space.

Full-length view, looking due west, of Skylab Orbital Workshop (OWS) and a portion of its solar array on display in the National Air and Space Museum’s “Space Race” exhibit (Gallery 114), July 8, 2005.v (CREDIT: NASM)

As I made my way through the museum, I came across a lesser-known but equally fascinating exhibit: the Skylab Orbital Workshop. This was America’s first space station, which housed astronauts for extended periods in the early 1970s. I marveled at the idea of people living and working in space, conducting scientific research and making groundbreaking discoveries. It was a reminder that our reach extends far beyond our planet’s atmosphere.

The Skylab Orbital Workshop, launched in 1973, was America’s first space station and served as a platform for pioneering research in space. During its operational period, Skylab housed three crews of astronauts who conducted a wide range of scientific experiments. Research areas included solar astronomy, with an emphasis on understanding the sun’s energy output and its impact on Earth’s climate.

Additionally, Skylab provided a unique environment to study the effects of long-duration spaceflight on the human body. Astronauts participated in medical experiments to analyze bone and muscle loss, fluid shifts, and vestibular adaptation to microgravity. This valuable research laid the foundation for future space stations and long-term space missions.

Before leaving the museum, I couldn’t resist visiting the Albert Einstein Planetarium. As I reclined in my seat and gazed up at the domed screen, I was transported to the farthest reaches of the cosmos. The immersive experience allowed me to explore distant galaxies and ponder the mysteries of the universe. It was a fitting way to end my day at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, a place that celebrates humanity’s endless quest for knowledge and progress.

As I stepped out of the museum, the sun was beginning to set, casting a warm glow on the building’s glass facade. I couldn’t help but feel grateful for the opportunity to visit this incredible institution, where I was able to connect with the daring pioneers who have shaped our understanding of the skies and beyond. The Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum is not just a collection of artifacts and exhibits; it is a testament to the indomitable human spirit and our innate desire to explore the unknown.

WORDS: brice.


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1 comment

  1. I recall visiting the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum many years ago. Your comment on growing up watching the the space shuttles struck a chord with me, however, I grew up watching the Apollo program.

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