Joy (cithra) wrote,

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trip report: Space! (enough said)

If this sounds vaguely apologetic, it's because the National Air and Space Museum is somewhere I have wanted to visit since I was a wee lass. My first conscious memory, in fact, is of watching the Apollo 11 moon landing on our giant console television - I used to be a member of the Smithsonian Institution to get the magazine with its occasional pieces on space exploration, etc. So as magnificent as the museum is and was, I think it suffered a trifle from thirty-odd years of expectation on my part. I've seen, for example, a number of exhibits on the space race - they're all going to be similar, simply as a matter of course. It was keen to see the actual original space suits and capsules, but the replicas I've seen in the past have been pretty damn good as well.

I did get a thrill out of touching the moon rock they have on display. A little sliver of basalt, highly polished by - well, all that touching. I have to wonder what it looked like originally; was it always so smooth and flat, or has it been worn away?

A number of things I hadn't seen before - the Space Race exhibit gets into the specifics of the US/USSR competition during the Cold War, including some very interesting stuff on the early spy satellites. Also side-by-side comparison displays of US and Soviet space equipment, and a life-size model of the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project. I've come to the realization that even more than being an ex-fat chick with Frankenstein's abdomen, I'm enough of a claustrophobe to make a bad candidate for astronaut. Tiny tiny tiny! are the Apollo craft, and the Soyuz module was even smaller for its two crew. "Here I am, floating in a tin can" indeed...

There were also replicas of the Hubble telescope (big! and considering they stuffed it into the shuttle cargo bay, it's no wonder there were no 1-to-1 scale models of the shuttle present) and the living quarters of Skylab, and a very simple but none-the-less moving memorial to the Challenger dead.

When you walk into the museum you enter a main gallery with a number of craft from the history of flight mounted in the rafters or displayed on the floor in the Milestones of Flight exhibit. Looking up, one of the things that first struck me is that Sputnik 1 and the US equivalent Explorer 1 were damn tiny. Sputnik looks about the size of a basketball, if you don't count the antenna; it's actually just shy of two feet in diameter so maybe a beachball is a better analogy. A very, very heavy beachball, at 184 lbs., but still. Shades of Dark Star... Looking up at them, the two first successful satellites launched into space, I found myself thinking "That counts?" - that little thing, a christmas-tree ornament with cat-whiskers, the first spacecraft? Small beginnings, indeed.

Another interesting thing I noticed was how much early aircraft (like the 1903 Wright Flyer) resembled attempts to give humans wings. Later, of course, people figure out that if you put big enough engines on a brick, it'll fly - so you get the B-52 and the Spruce Goose, and so on. But the early designers were clearly heirs to Icarus and padre.

I could probably spend as much time writing about the exhibits as we spent looking at them, to be honest. It was definitely worth visiting, even if it didn't bowl me over as much as my inner five-year-old would have liked - but that would probably involve actually going to the moon at this point, I'm so damn jaded. Too learned for my own sense of wonder! Que lastima!

We took in both the planetarium show and the Imax Space Station movie when we needed to sit for a while. The new planetarium there is all-digital; to which part of me says, what's the point? Ok, I know what the point is, but I have a longstanding fondness for old-style planetariums with the big star-ball in the middle; part of what was so cool to me was how this mechanical device could replicate the sky and it's movements. Sigh, I'm old, yes yes - kids these days uphill both ways anyhow where was I? Oh, right. The Imax movie is well worth tracking down and watching, in spite of its trendy 3D-ness. There are even a few places where the 3D effects definitely add to the picture. Plus the glasses are polarized these days instead of red/blue or red/green; much less likely to give me a migraine headache.

I was actually really thrilled by the film - I wanted to dance around celebrating how we're building an International Space Station!! and it really seems to be working, different countries and manufactories pulling together and putting out modules that function with each other - something we can't even always manage here on the ground, no less. Multinational and multigendered crews, it brings out all my skiffy-geekness with a vengeance.

A couple of final, more anthropological notes. The Air & Space museum was home to two interesting ancillary phenomena - the most intense security screening of any of the Smithsonian museums we visted, and the World's Largest McDonalds - or so our trolly tour-guide told us the following day as we trundled past the building. Security-wise, they had both an x-ray machine for people's bags and a magnometer to walk through - many of the buildings simply had a visual search, in contrast. The only place that matched work completely (in asking for an ID in addition to the screenings) was the Ronald Regan International Trade Center - not a museum, which probably explains it; we visited the Food Court there one afternoon since it was adjacent to our hotel and boasted banners encouraging passers-by to Come Explore!

The worlds largest McDonalds, speaking of food, was somewhat cleverly disguised. Labeled only as The Wright Place (ha-ha) it offered food selections from Boston Market, McDonalds, and Donatos pizza on the main floor, with Lavazza coffee and panini/pastries in the upper seating level. The receipt, however, belied this supposed multi-culturalism - my Lavazza latte and cinnamon scone were furnished to me with a receipt covered in bright yellow Ms, thanking me for dining at McDonalds. Ah, the rise of the giant corporate conglomerate - if it isn't KFC/Taco Bell/Pizza Hut/Pesico it's McDonalds/Boston Market/Donatos/CocaCola. But that's a rant for another day - it really was a huge eatery, and they were very efficient at streaming people through the main portion downstairs (less so up in the 'coffee shop' area I patronized) - just like the drive-through, you ordered at one kiosk, paid at another, and picked up your food at a third. Whoosh!

You can see that I lean rather heavily on the space side of things - we did look at the air half of the museum, but I've noodled on here for long enough. I should also note that even spending an entire day there, we didn't see all of the exhibits available, by far. I thoroughly enjoyed what we did, though.

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