DC's monument to the Space Age

JAMES ROBINSON
Last updated 05:00 03/08/2011
BLAST OFF: Space shuttle Discovery lifts off from the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida, in February.
REUTERS

BLAST OFF: Space shuttle Discovery lifts off from the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida, in February.

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On the day after the last space shuttle landed, the United States' government's investment in the National Aeronautics and Space Administration fizzed out, yet the mood inside the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum is anything but sombre.

Sadistic 40-degree heat is wreaking havoc on the city. As families and tour groups enter the museum lobby, their spirits are lifted by the first touch of the air-conditioning.

Outside the museum, looking down Museum Mile reveals a parched and empty landscape, the grass of the National Mall speckled brown. The Capitol Building and the Washington Monument loom over the scene through a muggy haze. A neglected merry-go-round turns hopefully, but there is not a child in sight.

Opened in 1976, the building's sharp modern edges set it apart from the more classical architecture seen at other museums on the mall. Inside, the lobby and entrance hall is packed. According to the Smithsonian annual reports, the museum attracted 8.3 million visitors in 2010. This is only fractionally shy of the Louvre, which welcomed 8.5 million people last year.

The entrance and space halls are the museum's two centrepieces.

A sign at the information desk advertises Mars Day, and temporary folding tables are dotted throughout the entrance hall. It is a fitting display for the day: when US President Barack Obama nixed the space shuttle, he outlined a goal of landing on Mars by 2030.

The temporary additions are minor, and play second fiddle to the machinery on display in the main halls. Apollo 11's command module, from which Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin took those first historic steps on the Moon, sits encased behind thick plastic. It seems a thoroughly cramped place for three people to have spent eight days in.

Pioneer 10, the first spacecraft to have travelled past all known planets, sits nearby.

Overhead hangs all manner of satellites, planes and space models, the most super-charged mobile you will ever lay eyes on.

Smaller children, mostly boys, respond to the exhibits with the same enthusiasm a toddler has towards a toy truck. The kids drag less-excited family members in their wake.

A group of Asian tourists crowds around for the chance to touch a piece of moon rock. They are thrilled by it. I crowd in the back, waiting my turn. The rock feels smooth, like marble.

The space hall, a short walk from the entrance, holds models of the space station and the Hubble telescope, among other memorabilia.

Displays cover, in brief, how the space race came to echo Cold War tensions. They detail the initial US missteps in getting a man into space and the new energy John F Kennedy provided to the American efforts.

"Well I'll be damned," an elderly man remarks disbelievingly in a southern drawl on discovering that the US was not the first country to put a man in orbit.

Outside the two main museum halls, the exhibits become less flashy and more educational.

You can learn about the early pioneers of rocket technology, the cultural fascination it spawned, and the screeds of data about the solar system it bought back.

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When the last shuttle landed at Florida's Kennedy Centre on July 22, it had completed a round trip of more than eight million kilometres in 13 days. Nasa marked the spot on the runway where the shuttle's wheels came to a halt, and started the process of turning it into a museum piece.

The shuttle itself will be mounted at the Kennedy Space Centre in Florida, but different parts of the shuttle will trickle into the museum in central DC, or its air and space companion 40 kilometres away in Virginia. With the space shuttle programme wound up, Nasa will start sub-contracting work to private companies for missions in the lower-Earth orbit, and purchase seats on Russian missions when needed.

There's something vast about this institution – the high ceilings, the level of gadgetry – but something flat at the same time. The spacecraft on display are all calling cards of human achievement, but are fish out of water. There's something anticlimactic about these machines when not in movement: complicated and grey and lacking grace.

It is no wonder then, that the centre's IMAX theatres are such a draw. Hubble 3-D and Journey to the Stars, narrated by Leonardo DiCaprio and Whoopi Goldberg respectively, inject a little cultural panache and Hollywood creativity into the space museum experience. The movies remind you of the wonder in which to view the less-animated exhibits.

Across the grassy mall, the Smithsonian National Art Museum and Natural History Museum are also busy. There's something more instinctual about the material on display. A Thomas Eakins painting, or a skeleton of a T-Rex or a woolly mammoth replica is inherently alive by comparison.

Because really, how can you replicate the broadening of cultural horizons and the elation bought about by man landing on the moon and conquering space? The closest document of this awe at the museum seems to be the Norman Rockwell painting Apollo 11. In a quiet corner of the museum, away from the madding crowd, is a gallery documenting 50 years of Nasa-related art.

Rockwell's painting depicts the astronauts alongside their family and the crew.

They are shown from the shoulders up, gazing gently upwards with a coy smile on their faces, bathed in soft light.

The second Air and Space Museum – the StevenFUdvar-Hazy Centre – is a comparatively peaceful venue. Sitting near Dulles Airport, it has the advantage of ample space. A large hangar is filled with aircraft in all their glory. It tips firmly towards the "air" side of the agreement, but the space shuttle Enterprise is also prominently displayed. Walking through its facilities lets you contemplate the magnitude of this technology: whether it be the bombast of the Enterprise's three-ton engine, or the slender menace of the Lockheed Blackbird, which could fly the breadth of America in 64 minutes.

There is a lingering and undefined concern about the end of the space experiment among those present this afternoon.

"I feel like they're clipping our wings," says Terri, a mother who lives nearby and came to the museum with her husband who is "into this sort of stuff".

Bob, a soft spoken and mustachioed aviation mechanic, comes to life when pressed on the topic. "It is a damn shame," Bob says. "I wish they'd focus more on space than war."

Obama's decree to push out to Mars has been criticised for paralysing Nasa through its lack of specific benchmarks. There's little doubt that space missions will resume, even if the "when" is a way off.

Each of the museums impart that space exploration was about conquering the unknown, and going somewhere beyond imagination just to show that we could. In that light, among the mourning about the loss of American advantage in space, it is Atlantis astronaut Rex Walheim who sums it up best: At a party to celebrate the landing of the last mission, Walheim told the crowd not to concentrate on the end, "but smile because it happened".

- © Fairfax NZ News

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