Ten Great Science Museums: National Air and Space Museum

By Buzz Aldrin|Monday, November 01, 1993
When my travels take me to Washington, D.C., I sometimes find myself walking the galleries and exhibits of the National Air and Space Museum of the Smithsonian Institution. This national treasure celebrates the adventure of exploring the unknown, from Leonardo da Vinci’s sketches of mechanical wings, through the balloon flights of Joseph-Michel and Jacques-Etienne Montgolfier and the efforts of the Wright brothers, on up through the barnstorming days of early aviation and our more recent excursions into space. There’s a lot of my own past in this museum, as well as a glimpse of what the future could be.

My childhood was filled with the pioneers of aviation: back in the 1920s my father was an active Army Air Corps pilot, and pilots, balloonists, plane designers, and airline executives were frequent visitors to our home in New Jersey. Thanks to my father’s career, I experienced the exhilaration of flight for the first time at the age of two, in a red-and- white-painted Lockheed Vega, complete with an eagle sketched on its wings, fuselage, and tail.

In a way, our house was itself a museum of air progress. There was a picture of the Wright brothers signed by Orville, who had outlived his brother by some 35 years. We even had a piece of cloth from their Wright Flyer I, which made the world’s first powered, sustained, and controlled flight along the sandy shores of Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, in 1903. Other aviation memorabilia included a signed photo of Amelia Earhart, pictured christening a two-engine amphibian aircraft used by Standard Oil of New Jersey. Since my father was then Standard’s director of aviation fuels, it was in this very airplane that I had my second flight, at age six.

Many years later, in January 1964, I joined NASA as part of the third generation of astronauts. I got my first taste of space flight in November 1966 aboard Gemini 12--the last mission of that program and one that allowed me to spacewalk in Earth orbit. Less than three years later I walked on the moon’s crater-pocked surface with my partner Neil Armstrong while Mike Collins flew overhead in our Apollo 11 command module. That original module is now part of the Air and Space Museum’s collection of milestone aircraft.

The sheer breadth of that collection is staggering. In the vast central gallery, a most extraordinary fleet draws a visitor’s gaze immediately upward. Hanging from the gallery ceiling is a panorama of aviation conquest: the original Wright Flyer, Lindbergh’s Spirit of St. Louis, the Bell X-1 that first shattered the speed of sound, NASA’s experimental rocket-powered aircraft the X-15, a replica of Sputnik, and a flight backup of the Pioneer 10 planetary probe.

Below these historic vehicles are assembled the craft that introduced American astronauts to the vertical frontier of space: the single-seat Mercury capsule; the two-person Gemini spacecraft; and the Apollo command module, in which a crew of three could escape the grip of Earth’s gravity and head for the moon. I see them as old friends, from a time when the United States viewed space exploration as a sign of technological leadership and can-do competence, as well as a harbinger of hope about the future.

There is a strong kinship between the barnstorming of early air travel and the opening of the space frontier. A hotshot at a 1920s air show could become the latest rage by mastering a new aircraft maneuver, like an outside loop. The overwhelming urge of those pioneers was to be first, to be best, to be the most daring. It was the spirit of risk and adventure, not merely of technological skill, that drove a generation to flight. And in the 1950s and 1960s that same spirit powered the cold war’s space race.

Today, looking up at the museum’s replica of Sputnik, it’s hard to imagine that it was the impetus for the entire U.S. space program. The Soviet Union launched the tiny satellite on October 4, 1957, and set in motion an enormous American quest to land on the moon before our competitors. Sputnik, less than 23 inches in diameter, was a barnstorming of technology, a display of prowess that let the world vicariously share the experience of space flight. The competition that developed between the United States and the Soviet Union was a kind of space barnstorming--but the stakes were now much higher. The U.S. victory on July 20, 1969, when we became the first to put human footprints on the moon, was a triumph of adventure as well as technology.

Of course, I have my own reasons for visiting the original Apollo 11 spacecraft, which took Mike, Neil, and me safely into lunar orbit and returned us to Earth. But while I stand near the capsule I also get to overhear the comments of museumgoers explaining or reflecting on this piece of our aviation history--comments that can be both mystifying and gratifying to hear. This is where they drank Tang, said a mother to a child. That jangled my nerves a bit, but the comment was quickly balanced by another observation. I’ve never been so close to something that’s been so far away, said an older man.

Yet although the Air and Space Museum celebrates our achievements, there is one exhibit that briefly tempers my enthusiasm for the future of space flight.

On most days, visitors line up in front of the model of the U.S. Skylab space station, an engineering backup to the complex that was put into Earth orbit in 1973. Skylab rocketed into space atop the powerful Saturn V launcher, the same booster used in the astronaut lunar landing effort but which no longer exists. Over the following year, three separate astronaut crews occupied the space station for extended periods of living in microgravity. The complex fell to Earth in July 1979, ten years nearly to the day after I walked on the moon.

I marvel at Skylab’s roominess, which permitted a number of creature comforts unknown to earlier astronauts, such as private bedrooms and a shower. Skylab represents to me what we should have improved on and how we should have grown. It stands in sharp contrast to the current struggles to develop a U.S. space station--a political and technical hot potato, small in habitable volume but large in cost, low in power, and near the edge of extinction before its first segments can be orbited.

My optimism is quickly restored, though, when I see Voyager--no, not the interplanetary spacecraft but the around-the-world aircraft built by aeronautical wizard Burt Rutan.

In 1986 Voyager was piloted around the world on a nonstop flight without refueling. That achievement represents the emergence of a new generation of creativity and imagination. It may also signal the next breath of fresh air in the efforts to find a commercially viable way to put people and cargo into orbit.

Rutan is now designing a super-superversion of Voyager. Using up to six jet engines, the aircraft would be able to lift some 650,000 pounds- -more than any other plane. After reaching a high altitude, such a large aircraft could serve as a flying launchpad for a new suite of rockets, thereby making possible--at last--low-cost, reliable, and routine access to space.

There is a great new movement afoot today, a belief that runways, wheels, and wings are indeed the keys to our future in space. It seems only fitting that the heritage of hardware, human creativity, talent, and stick- to-itiveness so in evidence in the premier days of aviation will eventually wing its way into space.

Barnstorming pilots in the 1920s performed daring exhibitions of flight and aerial stunts and gave tourists their first thrilling rides in airplanes. Who can tell what the future will bring? Someday tourists in space may actually be commonplace, and space travelers may be tempted into doing a little wing walking of their own. That would truly bring the spirit of barnstorming to its final frontier.

In the meantime, that spirit can be found in the Air and Space Museum. It offers the best of the many worlds of flight, with a perspective on the evolution of air travel on Earth and a view toward the frontiers of tomorrow: the moon, Mars, and beyond.
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