Viewport: Cool Moves
- By J. R. Dailey
- Air & Space magazine, September 2008
"Viewport," by National Air and Space Museum director J.R. Dailey, opens each issue of Air & Space magazine. The column highlights the Museum's ongoing efforts to preserve the history of aviation and spaceflight. This article appeared in the August/September 2008 issue of Air & Space.
August is the perfect time to visit the National Air and Space Museum. Yes, Washington, D.C., is known to get pretty hot and humid, but the Museum on the National Mall and the nearby Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Virginia are two of the coolest places in the metropolitan area. I mean that figuratively as well as literally. What makes our buildings so cool of course are the rare, historic, and record-setting aircraft and spacecraft that fill them. Displaying these artifacts, however, is a job that has sometimes made us sweat.
In the five years since the Udvar-Hazy Center opened, for example, the number of artifacts showcased there has doubled. Eventually, 220 aircraft and 150 spacecraft will occupy the nearly six acres of concrete floor or hang at varying heights from the 10-story-high ceiling. With so many artifacts to display, we must consider how placement can show off the unique features of each one without blocking the display of others. Before determining placement, we first verify the dimension, center of gravity, weight, and appropriate hanging points for each major artifact. We then create a computer drawing for each one and combine it with computer models of the hangars. Finally, we create a computer rendering to show the displays from the visitor’s perspective and to give us one last opportunity for fine-tuning an installation.
Even with careful planning, we’ve had surprises. The Redstone missile on display in the James S. McDonnell Space Hangar, for instance, turned out to be seven feet taller than we originally thought. For decades it was stored in a sealed container at the Museum’s restoration facility. Records indicated that the rocket—originally designed to carry a nuclear warhead, then modified to launch a Mercury capsule—was a 62-foot-tall prototype. However, when the rocket was being restored for display in 2004, we discovered that it was actually a 69-foot production model with panels removed to let visitors see inside. Museum staff were able to position the Redstone—its tip within inches of the ceiling—where it could best be viewed.
As we continue to move airplanes and spacecraft into the Udvar-Hazy Center, our work becomes more challenging. Floor space is dwindling and available hanging points are more difficult to reach. And we have set a high standard to give each artifact its most dynamic, compelling display.
Upon entering the Center, visitors encounter a World War II Curtiss P-40 Warhawk in an attack dive, while nearby a Vought F4U Corsair simulates a carrier landing. Aerobatic aircraft appear frozen in flight, and overhead three sailplanes, hung close together, seem to be tracking air currents that flow through the building. All of these installations constitute a finely choreographed ballet of heavy equipment and priceless artifacts. We invite you to enjoy the result.