Wednesday, December 09, 2009

DC Day 4: National Air And Space Museum

I heard on the intercom today that the National Air And Space Museum is the single most popular museum in the world. And that's a great thing, because it warms my heart (or at least its cockles) to think that a lot of people have an interest in this stuff.

Our first experience was less than fully positive, though. The security checkpoint people objected to my swiss army knife, though not even the National Archives people objected to it. Which is fine, but inexplicably they have no coat room, no lockers, not even a box and some tags. They only could suggest bringing the knife back to my hotel room. That meant a very long and time-consuming slog across the Mall to the Museum of Natural History where I left it in a locker, then another slog back, and we lost almost an hour.

After that, though... wow. They don't pull any punches. In the room you first walk into, there's the Spirit of St. Louis, and the space capsules from the moon landing and the first orbit, and SpaceShipOne, and the plane in which Chuck Yeager broke the sound barrier, and... on and on and on. And that's just the first room. Everywhere you go there's an original this and the first manufactured of that and the actual the-other-thing used in some historically important moment. There are examples of every kind of airplane from the original flyer the Wright Brothers used at Kitty Hawk up to the most cutting-edge fly-by-wire slipstream designs and even a collection of unmanned drone aircraft. And spaceships from Goddard's first experimental assemblies through the Saturn V and Skylab to the Hubble and ISS.

There are exhibits about the entire history of aircraft from the ornithopters and gliders to computer-aided design. We spent a little extra time investigating the Ford Trimotor since Siobhan's character in one of Joe's roleplaying games owns one, and it's a lot larger than I imagined. They even had a platform you could stand on that shook you like you'd be shaken riding in one, and I really feel sorry for my character doing 18-hour flights like that. Plus the noise would damage your hearing in no time, it's literally 10 decibels louder than being up front at a rock concert.

With one day to spend (and the limits of endurance of my feet and knee) we got through all the exhibits but none of the extras (Imax films, simulator rides, and the planetarium), so we'll come back on Friday to finish those off. That'll probably be a half-day and we'll spend the other half on the Mall, seeing the stuff at the west end (Lincoln Memorial, National Christmas Tree, White House, and Washington Monument), or at least some of it.

I think most people should probably dedicate at least two days, though. I skimmed through a lot of sections just because some of it was educational materials that are fascinating but things I already know pretty well. While I was enraptured to see the device on which the cosmic background radiation was first detected, the printout on which the discovery was recorded, and the pigeon trap with which they tried to eliminate the noise that was actually the biggest discovery in observational astronomy of the century, I didn't need to read all the text explaining about the event because I already studied that in college, and saw it in various TV shows, and read about it in various books. I only stopped to read maybe a quarter of the educational stuff and saw about a quarter of the films, because the rest was stuff I knew pretty well beforehand. (The section about aircraft carriers and their planes was one where I read at least half of it, since I didn't know that stuff very well.)

Of course there are a lot more aircraft and spaceship to see tomorrow at the Udvar-Hazy Center, "America's Hangar," which I think is just a collection of craft, not exhibits. (But so many of them it'll probably still take a whole day.) One thing they don't have in either of these is a full-sized, full Saturn V, like I saw at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. (Though they did have a single thruster, and mirrors to make it look like all five.)

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