To boldly go where no museum has gone before

Dr. Roger Launius, curator of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum, speaks about his fascination with space history.

By
January 31, 2010 03:12
The original 1903 Wright Flyer is the centerpiece

wright flyer 311. (photo credit: Eric Long/NASM)

 
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One hundred and seven years after the Wright Brothers’ first successful powered flight, and more than four decades after Neil Armstrong first stepped on the moon, more people annually visit the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum in Washington than there are citizens in Israel. As many as 50,000 may turn up for a holiday weekend. Kites, hot-air balloons, airships, primitive planes, fighter jets, war memorabilia, satellites, moon rocks, space stations and much more continue to spark interest among people around the world (including Israelis).

The senior curator of the museum, which opened in July 1976 on Washington DC’s National Mall leading to the US Capitol and is the world’s most-visited museum, came to Israel last week for the first time to lecture at the Fifth Ilan Ramon International Space Conference – held at Herzliya’s Fischer Institute for Strategic Research with help from the Ministry of Science and Technology. Dr. Roger Launius, a veteran historian and author who was for 12 years chief historian of the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), gave The Jerusalem Post a long phone interview before departing from Washington.

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LAUNIUS, who graduated from Graceland College in Iowa and received his doctorate in American studies at Louisiana State University, has written more than 20 books on aerospace history and others on military history, and he even received a prestigious prize for his biography of Joseph Smith III, the founder of Mormonism. He has been senior curator since 2002.

He notes that the Washington, DC museum has the world’s largest collection of historic aircraft and spacecraft among some 50,000 artifacts, from freeze-dried space food to Saturn V rockets. It is also home to the Center for Earth and Planetary Studies, which performs original research and outreach on topics covering planetary science, terrestrial geophysics and the remote sensing of environmental change.

The original museum, he said, could not hold all the large objects, so six years ago it launched its Steven Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Virginia – near Dulles International Airport, which is like an open hangar and displays such things as the Enola Gay – the plane that dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima – and the space shuttle Enterprise. There is also a DC7 aircraft that visitors can walk through. Both campuses have lively school programs that accommodate children and teenagers, supplemented by classroom activities.

Launius said the first items obtained for the collection date back to 1876, seven decades before US president Harry S Truman signed a law establishing the Smithsonian’s National Air Museum to memorialize the development of aviation; collect, preserve and display aeronautical equipment; and provide educational material for the study of aviation. The initial objects were a collection of kites obtained from the Chinese Imperial Commission. Twenty years beyond, president Lyndon B. Johnson signed a law changing the museum’s name to the National Air and Space Museum (www.nasm.si.edu) and allowed the construction of a new museum building. The current museum director is John Dailey, a retired US Marine Corps general and pilot.

The oldest item is the first hot-air balloon, built and flown in 1783 by the Montgolfier brothers in France, while the newest is the Stardust capsule launched in 2000 that returned to Earth with comet samples in 2006. The smallest ones are microchips used in spacecraft, while the biggest are Saturn 5 rockets, of which the museum has three.

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“We don’t buy any of our collections,” said the senior curator. “We can’t afford to,” he added, as most of the museum’s $14 million annual operating budget goes to salaries. “The artifacts are all donated, either by NASA and other public bodies or by private collectors, or are loaned to us.”

THE MUSEUM has a sizable number of objects from Russia donated by US presidential candidate and billionaire Ross Perot. Some retired astronauts have also given personal objects they took into space.

The museum’s paid staff consists of 260 people, supplemented by about twice as many volunteers. Basic expenses are covered by the federal government and expansion and public programs by private funds, he said.

Not knowing Hebrew, Launius doesn’t know who among the foreign visitors are Israelis; non-Americans constitute about a quarter of those who visit the museum. There are also haredim in their black garb, but the curator said he can’t tell whether they are Israeli or just Jewish. Sometimes, visitors will tell him they are from Israel.

Although this country is a member of the handful that have built satellites, the museum hasn’t received any space-related object from Israel – but Launius would love to have some. The only Israel-related photo in the massive building is that of Israel Air Force Col. Ilan Ramon, a member of the ill-fated Columbia space shuttle team that died tragically seven years ago. Since Israel develops satellites the size of refrigerators instead of whole rooms, the Washington museum could display one that was not used or a model, said the historian, “as satellites are launched and don’t come back.”

The museum sometimes highlights traveling shows from other countries, but this is not frequent, said Launius. “Most were created in US. Some objects are put in storage if they are in hopeless disrepair, or set aside for preservation. The institution also has an Oral History Project that documents through interviews the recollections of leading scientists, engineers, managers and political figures involved in the US space program, including astronomy and the Hubble space telescope. The archives division catalogs documents, films and photographs relating to the history and technology of aviation and space exploration.

LAUNIUS RECALLED that the earliest lunar samples were suspected of having microbes. “They were bought back from the first manned flight in 1969, tested in isolation and found to have Streptococcus bacteria. But scientists realized that these microbes had actually been on the spacecraft when it was launched. “Somebody apparently sneezed, and the microbes went into hibernation on the lunar surface. When brought back, the bacteria revived.”

Microbes in space, he added, are fascinating. “Some forms of life can survive there, but no germs are alive on the moon. Initially, there was concern that astronauts might bring back ‘moon bugs’ and cause a deadly epidemic. Astronauts on Apollo 11 and 12 were therefore kept in quarantines for some time after they landed. But it was quickly realized there is no such thing.”

US president John F. Kennedy is prominently noted in the museum, as during his short tenure – after the Russians launched the Sputnik – he declared that the US would have a man on the moon before the end of the 1960s – and it did. The Kennedy Space Center, from which space vehicles are launched (as well as from Johnson Space Center in Texas), is still known by that name, but Florida’s Cape Kennedy eventually reverted to Cape Canaveral, due to grassroots objections to the disappearance of the Native American name. Although his presidency was prematurely terminated due to the Watergate scandal, Richard Nixon is also prominently mentioned, due to his approval of NASA space shuttles.

There are many more aerospace objects in the museum, not only because they were made more recently but also because they create a “certain excitement.”

Asked about CBS news anchor Walter Cronkite, who died last year and was regarded as one of the leading promoters of space among the American people, Launius said he is represented in a video announcing the first moon landing. When asked why the veteran journalist did not get a more prominent place, he said the subject should be considered.

Accompanied by his partner Monique, Launius was invited to the Ilan Ramon Conference by Deganit Pikowsky, one of the organizers of the event who spent time at the Air and Space Museum while a graduate student on a fellowship there. Her thesis ws on why nations join the “space club” by developing satellites and cooperating on space missions. 


He knows about Ramon’s role in NASA, but wants to learn more. He looked forward to meeting his widow Rona, and was saddened to hear about the death in a flight operation of their eldest son Assaf, a newly graduated Israel Air Force pilot last year. “There is periodic criticism of NASA, especially its failed flights such as the Challenger and Columbia. We would like to do more about this subject,” he said. 

If he had an unlimited budget and space, Launius would love to have a “flagship rocket” from every country – including Israel – that had one. “But I wonder how we could display them all. There is not much room. We would have to build a new wing on the National Mall. But the Virginia site could be expanded. And we would also like to add material speculating about the future of space flight.”

Scheduled to be in Israel until February 2, Launius said he was very much looking forward to his first visit. “It’s a great opportunity for me. I want to build ties between our museum and Israel, which has impressively contributed to aeronautics and space research.”

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