It’s fitting that as soon as people cross into the National Air and Space Museum they look up—at planes and rockets hanging above their heads, drawing visitors’ attention to the skies and to flight. And that is exactly where the young people I spoke with are still focused, despite the end of the Space Shuttle era with the landing of Atlantis, whose final flight touched down in the pre-dawn hours, Thursday, July 21, 2011.
The Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum’s two display facilities boast the largest collection of aeronautical vehicles and spacecraft in the world. From balloons to the Space Shuttle Discovery, the history of man’s reach for the heavens comes alive here.
July 21st was a fascinating day to tour the museum’s National Mall building. Some visitors came specifically because they knew that date would forever become a part of the museum’s history as it marked the end of the Shuttle program. Others simply were there because this museum, perhaps more than any other, awes them time and again.
Victor Arrieta and his wife first visited during their honeymoon trip, and today, on their 17th anniversary, they wanted to return with their daughters. “It’s quite an amazing journey that comes to an end today. I’m not even aware of [America’s] plan for the next one.” What he did know was that the Soviets’ Soyuz program was ready to fill the void. He discussed a conversation he had with his daughter as they admired the Apollo capsules. “I told [her] that it’s quite an amazing thing to look inside that piece of technology that sent man to the moon. It’s like watching Columbus’s ship.”
This archive of America’s triumphs in air and space will soon add another treasure to its inventory when the Space Shuttle “Discovery” comes to rest permanently at the museum’s Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Virginia. Its current tenant, the Enterprise, will be moved to New York.
Sam Sepulveda, a volunteer at the information desk expressed his feelings about the end of the shuttle era. “Like everyone at NASA expressed this morning, it’s the end of an era for the space program, and the beginning of another one. The space shuttle has been a very successful program . . . that contributed a lot to the history of NASA and the space program for this country.”
And when will the Discovery arrive? Said Sepulveda, “It’s presently being prepared by NASA for transfer to the Smithsonian, and that will happen probably in the early part of next year.”
When Ohioans, and first-time museum visitors, Mike Stretch and his ten-year-old son Christopher, were asked about the end of the shuttle program, Christopher’s reaction was, “It kinda stinks to hear that.” Mike Stretch admits he followed the space program as a kid. “I saw the first landing on the moon with everyone else. What was exciting for me was pushing beyond our known boundaries. Once we did that it just opened new frontiers. It’s kind of like exploring the west. We thought that was the frontier at one point in time, and now look at it. Every time we take a step forward into something we don’t understand, it just opens up another door. That’s what so exciting about this place, because it’s all about steps people made to make us better, push us farther, faster.”
The Mahan family from California is a science and technology-oriented family, enjoying their first trip to the museum. Rachel loved seeing the spacecraft, while her sister Morgan was fascinated by the innovators and the milestones they reached. “I like learning about people who went in there and were the first ones, and were the best and the fastest.” Garrett enjoyed the progression of the technology. “I like seeing all the rockets, how different they are, what time period they were launched in, and how they were made.”
The Mahan children’s father, Mike, has no concerns about the end of the shuttle program. “My guys here are starting to imagine stuff that I could never even dream of. They’re picturing teleportation ideas where we were picturing just going into space. So [the shuttle program] may be a milestone at one point, but it causes their imaginations to move on to another point and to start working towards that next level.”
The Gardner family, from Ohio were glad they just happened to come to the museum on this historic day. Sally Gardner looked at her teen-aged sons and said, “We had Apollo missions, and we saw it all progress, and you guys have been around since it’s been happening and we’ve been going to the moon, so I hope they have an appreciation for how far we’ve come.” Her son Evan said, “I think we could potentially start moving on to exploring farther planets.”
As the Space Shuttle program passes into history, it leaves behind a new, inspired generation of minds and hearts who are ready to extend their reach “into infinity and beyond.”