NASA’s Rich History: A visit to the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum

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Next week, I will be at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, on Tuesday February 9th, for the State Of NASA event, held simultaneously across all NASA centers. I will be live tweeting the event, and posting an article later that evening. Use the Links on the side-bar to follow Stellar Aperture on your favorite social media platform, and follow the #StateofNASA hashtag for more information. This event will focus on the future of our remarkable space program.

But for this week’s post, I would like to focus on where we have been. Or more specifically, on the rich inspirational history of spaceflight that has advanced our culture in so many ways.

Last November, I attended the American Astronomical Society Division For Planetary Sciences annual meeting in DC. While I was there, I was able to carve out a little time to visit the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum to see first hand some of the most amazing artifacts that our civilization has ever produced. My sense of awe was completely overloaded. A feeling of hope and optimism towards humanity’s future was impossible to ignore as I walked among these inspiring expressions of our collective intelligence. I was able to make time to visit both the museum in DC, as well as the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Virginia where the Space Shuttle Discovery is housed. It is truly awesome feeling to walk beneath the wings of a Space Shuttle.

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Mercury-Atlas 10 / Freedom 7 – II

Let’s start at the beginning of human spaceflight in the US, with the Mercury program. These small capsules had only room for a single spacefaring occupant, and tightly at that. The Mercury capsule design, first flown by Alan Shepard (the first US astronaut in space) on the historic Freedom 7 mission on May 5th 1961, was very similar to the capsule shown on the left. This particular capsule, which was intended to be the Mercury-Atlas 10 mission, nicknamed the Freedom 7 – II, sadly never actually flew. For museum goers this is actually quite fortunate however, because it affords an opportunity to see a near pristine Mercury capsule in its complete orbital configuration. You can literally peek into the window on the side, which was an absolute thrill for me, to see what Alan Shepard would have seen back when it all started. Truly remarkable.

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Gemini

Next up are the Gemini. A two astronaut space capsule, which allowed for greater capability, including the first US space walk performed by Ed White aboard the Gemini 4 mission. It is important to note, that the first space walk was actually performed by Soviet cosmonaut Alexei Leonov, about 4 months prior. That said, this was a stepping stone which allowed US astronauts to learn to operate outside their spacecraft, which would later lead to the eventual moon landing.

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Apollo 11 Command Module

The biggest thrill for me, by far, was seeing the actual Apollo 11 Command Module! I literally almost walked right past it, and then turned around to look at something, and it was right in front of me. The feeling I experienced is difficult to describe. I found simultaneously with a huge smile along with tears welling up in my eyes. I almost couldn’t breath. It was as if I had been looking for it my whole life, and there it was right in front of me. Neil Armstrong, Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin and Michael Collins rode in that very spacecraft on the way to the moon that summer in 1969. The Command Module was one of three components of the Apollo 11 mission, and was the only one returned to Earth. It was quite literally breathtaking to see. I stood there for quite a while just enjoying every rivet, every panel, and indeed every scorch mark on it’s surface.

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Buzz Aldrin Apollo 11
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David Scott Apollo 15

Also breathtaking were some of the actual space suits worn by the Apollo astronauts, with lunar dust still visible on surface of the space suits! This was a real treat to see, and was absolutely wonderful to examine with my own eyes. The image on the left is one from Apollo 15, worn by David Scott. The image on the right, was worn by none other than Buzz Aldrin himself on Apollo 11. Outstanding.

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Lunar Lander Replica

The full scale replica of the Apollo Lunar Lander was awe inspiring. I had no idea how large it really was until I stood next to its feet. It was a giant insect like monster that frankly I’m amazed anyone could pilot down to the surface of the moon. It is a testament to the engineering ingenuity and the unparalleled piloting skills that NASA somehow coordinates in concert.

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Space Shuttle Discovery

And of course, the Space Shuttle Discovery! The size of this spacecraft makes one feel quite minuscule standing underneath it. I spent nearly an hour walking around the Shuttle, taking pictures of nearly every square centimeter of its surface. That morning, I arrived at the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center just as they opened, and I practically ran in when they opened up the little gate at the top of the staircase that led down to the hangar floor. I went straight for the shuttle, and started taking pictures.

There were of course many other artifacts, from a full scale replicas of Skylab, the Viking Mars landers, and a variety of equipment, space suits, helmets, and gloves. I could go on for hours. This Included a display of one of the most inspiring missions of our space program, the Apollo–Soyuz spacecrafts docked together. This mission is particularly inspiring to me because it represents scientific and cultural cooperation at a time when our two nations were locked in bitter cold-war. At a time when suspicions were high, and the dangers of war presented an ever present tension, we somehow found a way, through space travel, to come together in a grand gesture of peace. And indeed, this tradition holds true even today on the International Space Station, where many nations come together in scientific collaboration, regardless of our differences. This to me is a symbol of hope, and a foundation for our future. Space offers us a way to heal our divisive wounds that we have inflicted upon one another throughout the ages. We can come together as a species, one whole planet Earth, and venture out into the cosmos. Space seems to bring this out in us and we should embrace it. It is truly our only chance to evolve past our technological adolescence to become a long lived peaceful civilization. We can get there if we will it to be so.

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Apollo–Soyuz

Stay tuned space fans.  Tuesday promises to be a very exciting day, be sure to follow on Twitter, Facebook and Google+ for all the details as they happen.

-Josh

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