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Smithsonian National Air & Space Museum

Wednesday, October 06, 2010
As I'm in the Washington, DC area, my family decided that it would be a great time to make a trip the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center near Washington Dulles International Airport. (Apparently nothing here has a quick, short name.) Anyway, given that an interest in both space and flight runs strong in my family, we went there for a day of looking at the history of air and space flight and the vehicles associated with it.

The Smithsonian has a fantastic collection there. Not only is the SR-71 Blackbird displayed front and center, with the space shuttle Enterprise looming in the background, but they have the Enola Gay, a Concorde SST, and several other complete historically significant aircraft, dating from 1909 to a modern prototype X-35 Joint Strike Fighter, but almost all of the aircraft on display have been active. Several of the Korean war and Vietnam war era aircraft were displayed with a count of the MiGs that particular aircraft had shot down. Of course, there were also several MiG aircraft on display, all with an unexplained "date of acquisition" .

Seeing the evolution of aircraft was amazing and thought-provoking. At some point, about a hundred years ago, people were going up in wooden planes that had wire-rim wheels, a top speed of 80 mph, and the most primitive of controls and instrumentation. Yet, as we continued through the museum, there was a passenger airliner capable of crossing the Atlantic in 4 hours, a wide variety of gyrocopters and helicopters, a NASA-developed solar-powered aircraft capable of staying aloft indefinitely, and combat-ready airplane that could launch from aircraft carriers. All that, of course, was before the space wing where they had a variety of historically significant rockets, prototype Mars rovers on display, and rocket engines so large and powerful they could lift a ship into space. To think that it took us only about 60 or so years from the first flight of 20 feet to start hurling objects into orbit is amazing.

So where has that drive gone? In many ways, it has been fear and war that has driven so much of humanity's progress in this field. Flight was still in its infancy in World War I, yet by World War II jet engines and rockets were developed. The United States hurried into space, afraid that the Russians would get there first and dominate it. But we don't have that fear any more, and the painfully slow continual progress of space exploration shows it. How can we get that drive back, without the accompanying fear?


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