Rockets and Cherry Blossoms

As a disclaimer: These photos were taken during a visit in February/March 2016, so this post may not be representative of this site today.

As I visited in early spring, I didn’t have much luck with the famed cherry blossoms that line the National Mall. The trees were a gift from Tokyo to Washington D.C., given to the city by Mayor Yukio Ozaki in 1912 to enhance the friendship between the United States and Japan. Today, Washington D.C. celebrates an annual National Cherry Blossom Festival in order to commemorate this day, an event which even includes a parade! Alas, this celebration usually takes place in late March, and I was there weeks earlier. There’s always a reason to have a repeat trip, isn’t there?

National Air and Space Museum

Originally called the National Air Museum, the museum was created as part of the Smithsonian Institution in 1946 by an act of Congress, and signed into law by President Harry S. Truman. Some of its pieces date back to the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia, including a group of kites brought by the Chinese Imperial Commission which were subsequently donated to the Smithsonian after its Secretary, Spencer Fullerton Baird, convinced exhibiters that shipping them home would be too costly.

Apollo Lunar Module

Many of its objects were obtained from the US Army and Navy, including domestic and captured aircraft from World War I. Its collection was originally scattered across different buildings, including the Arts and Industries Building (the second oldest of the Smithsonian museums), and some were stored in the “Tin Shed,” as the Aircraft Building, a temporary metal shed in the Smithsonian Castle’s south yard, was known. Some of these items included a large Martin Bomber, a LePere fighter-bomber, and an Aeromarine 39B floatplane. Larger missiles and rockets were displayed outdoors in what was known as Rocket Row, and much of its collection was held in storage due to lack of display space.

Apollo 11 Command Module Columbia

With World War II and the Korean War, more artefacts were donated, and so the Smithsonian began to look for space in which to store and restore aircraft. This resulted in the Garber Facility, the site for which was ceded to the Smithsonian by the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission in 1952 after curator Paul E. Garber spotted its wooded area from the air.

The museum’s current location once held the city’s armory, which served as a hospital during the Civil War. Architect Gyo Obata designed the museum as four marble-encased cubes (holding smaller exhibitions) connected by spacious steel-and-glass atria (holding the larger ones, such as the missiles, airplanes, and spacecraft). It is of a similar size as the National Gallery of Art, which is across the National Mall from the Smithsonian, and both museums use the same pink Tennessee marble.

The museum was renamed the National Air and Space museum due to the space race of the 1950s and 60s. In 1976, a new exhibition hall opened during the celebration of the United States Bicentennial, which was directed by Michael Collins, who had been part of the Apollo 11 mission.

In the 1890s, bicycles were quite popular in the United States, and at the height of this boom, more than 300 companies were making more than a million bicycles a year. Before the Wright brothers (Wilbur and Orville) invented the first flying machine, they were one of these companies. In 1892, they opened a shop called Wright Cycle Co., where they repaired and manufactured bicycles.

1903 Wright Flyer

It took them four years to research and develop the first flying machine, a process that began in 1899. The first powered airplane flew at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, on December 17, 1903. The flight lasted 12 seconds and covered a length of 36 meters (120 feet), piloted by Orwell. Wilbur later that day piloted a flight that lasted 59 seconds and covered 255.6 meters (852 feet).

The museum’s collection includes COSTAR, the corrective optics instrument installed in the Hubble Space Telescope during its first servicing mission, as well as the backup mirror for the Hubble, which was never installed due to the mission being deemed a high risk after Columbia. NASA also donated the International Cometary Explorer, though it is currently still in space.

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