Thursday, March 28, 2013

Different Skies

I'm a DC townie.

That means I'm a pastiche of memories of our national capital, woven back across a generation.

This Spring Break week, we took the boys again to the most popular museum in DC.  They'd been there before, of course.   Many, many times.  The National Air and Space Museum is a veritable magnet for my lads.

But it was also a magnet for me, back when my parents took me to it the year it first opened.   I remember that visit, rather well, actually.

And the thing about memories is that they give you context for the present.  What has changed?  What is different?

Much has changed, and I found my man-self standing in the same place my boy-self once stood, thinking about those differences.

Those difference begin when you enter the museum.  I can remember that first entrance, passing quickly through the doors into that vast entry hall filled with rockets and spacecraft, that striking feeling of wonder and amazement at what we human beings could do.

Imagine being in the cockpit, and soaring!  Look at these!  We can fly!  We can fly!

Entering is different now.  You do not just walk in and encounter the wonder.   As my family took shelter, I stood in the rain to hold our place in the  long security line, as every bag was checked and you walked through metal detectors.

In 1976, the Air and Space Museum was about history, but it was also about the now.  Spacelab was spooling up.  The Apollo-Soyuz mission had just happened.  The Shuttle was in the works.  Human space exploration was fresh and alive with promise.

Now?  Now the museum is the story of our nation's past.  In some ways, that was heartening.  The row of ICBMs in one hall never represented a present I wanted to inhabit, as they stared up like daggers at the heavens.  Those daggers filled many a childhood night with atomic dreams.   But in other ways, the loss of that striving past feels like the loss it is.

Even the vast and imposing life-sized replica of the Hubble Space Telescope, still in orbit, carries with it a stark reminder.  Along with those gorgeous, inspiring images from deep space, a small sign noted that its operational lifespan extends through the far-distant year of 2013.

Because times have changed, the exhibits have changed to reflect the times.   The original model of the Starship Enterprise is out of the "exhibit space" and now in the museum store, for example.

But there are new exhibits.  One entire room is dedicated to "flight simulators," which were the big draw for my boys.  There were long, long lines for that room, for which you ponied up eight bucks a head to play an immersive 3D air combat shooter.  Outside the space, parents sat with their heads down, and texted or noodled about on their smartphones.  "It's just like that one we played at the beach arcade," I heard one kid exclaim as he came out of the simulator.

By the simulator space, a large section was cordoned off.

Above it hung a grim, unfinished display of reconnaissance and combat drones.    There were no signs, no explanatory text.  And no cockpits.