Wednesday, July 25, 2012
Last weekend we were back in the DC metro area for a family visit and a side trip out to Dulles, VA, to the Smithsonian's Air & Space Museum's Udvar-Hazy Center. This hangar-like building houses many of the large planes, helicopters, and spacecraft that the Smithsonian can't fit in the main museum on the National Mall. In particular I was excited to see the Space Shuttle Discovery, as I've been an astronomy and space exploration geek since I was a kid.
What struck me about the Shuttle is that it's big, but not that big. It looks enormous on TV and in photos. It's about the size of a medium-size passenger jet, like a commuter plane. It dominates the room in which it's housed, but it's small enough that I wondered at how NASA had crammed all of the electronics and mission equipment into the spacecraft. Even without seeing the interior, I could tell that astronauts really didn't have much room to maneuver inside it.
The other remarkable thing about the orbiter was its exterior. While the underside was covered with ceramic heat shield tiles, the upper parts of the shuttle looked like a patchwork of white quilts. For some reason I'd assumed that the ship was metallic. I hadn't realized that its upper surfaces are covered with heat-resistant fabric instead of metal. Of course, a spaceship doesn't have to be completely metallic. As long as it's airtight, you can cover the outside with fabric. Space is a vacuum.
As I walked through the museum and looked at the history of human flight, I marveled at the engineering feats it took to get us from the Wright brothers' plane to spaceflight in less than 60 years. There's a display of different aircraft engines from before WWI through the end of WWII. I hadn't considered what early mechanics and engineers had accomplished with what were little more than automobile engines adapted for airplanes.
In addition to the many photos I took of Discovery, I took far too many photos of some of my favorite planes, like the SR-71, the F-105 Thunderchief, the Concorde, and the "Enola Gay." They didn't have a Messerschmitt Me-262, one of my favorite early jet fighters, but they did have the Me-163 Komet, as well as the F-86 and MiG-15, two planes I remember well from days spent playing "Chuck Yeager's Air Combat Simulator." And I couldn't help thinking about the pointlessness of the inclusion of the X-35 Joint Strike Fighter, a plane that has yet to enter service. It's been in development for 20 years and if drone technology continues to evolve, it might never be finished. It's already a museum piece.