Planes, planes, and rockets, too!

Happy New Year, everyone! Yesterday, before settling into a night of bad junk food and worse movies, I took a trip with my family down to the newest part of the National Air and Space Museum, the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center. Opened in 2003, it's basically a giant hanger to display all the planes and space artifacts that don't fit into the main museum on the Mall. If you've never been to the main museum, it's a must-see next time you're in the Washington DC area. It houses an incredible collection of artifacts ranging from the early days of flight to recent developments in private spaceflight.

I naturally assumed that anything left to display at the Udvar-Hazy Center would be second rate. Boy, I was wrong! From the stunningly-beautiful SR-71 Blackbird to the enormous Concorde to a 70-pound (!), pedal-powered ultralight, I was simply amazed at the breadth of the collection.Topping it all off was Space Shuttle Discovery, two Mercury, two Gemini, and one Apollo capsule. Every time we turned, there was some new wonder to distract us.

The place was crawling with children. I've probably never seen a museum with a larger proportion of kids. And why not? Scores of planes, satellites, and rockets would capture almost any child's imagination. They were firing questions back and forth: 'what's a glider?', 'who designed the space shuttle?', 'can we go inside?'. It's this last one that most struck my family. It was true, there were over a hundred planes, but not one that you could enter or really see inside. And that's a shame because, while the planes really did look cool on the outside, seeing inside to the cockpits, engines, and cramped (or not!) crew areas would have been cooler.

Looking at the Enola Gay, I found myself wondering what it would be like to fly inside of one: how loud it must have been, how dark, how concussed the men must have been by the engines and anti-aircraft fire. That's an experience I can probably never have, but if I could walk inside one, maybe I could get just the faintest idea. The same goes for Discovery. Touring that spaceship could be a defining moment for a young person interested in math or science or engineering or, well, almost anything. But, instead, we can just look up at it from behind a railing.

The Smithsonian takes the position that the air- and spacecraft housed at the museum are single artifacts that must be protected as such. That makes sense to me, but the Enola Gay cannot be the only surviving B-29. They ought to find another in a scrapyard somewhere and bring that one in for tours. Of course there isn't another space shuttle lying around, but a replica could be built Another F-4 Phantom could be found and it's skin stripped off without damaging the one already in the collection.

These are cool machines - very cool, in fact, Let's find a way to show them off as they truly are: marvels of engineering both past and present.

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