A Sneak Preview of America’s Air and Space Cathedral

By Keith Cowing
December 8, 2003
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A Sneak Preview of America’s Air and Space Cathedral

Last week members of the press were given a preview of the new Annex to the Smithsonian’s Air and Space Museum: the Udvar-Hazy Center located adjacent to Dulles International Airport.

Many have referred to the current National Air and Space Museum on the Mall in Washington D.C. as a shrine to achievements in air and space. If the original museum is a shrine (it is), then its new annex is a cathedral.

Nothing is small about this place – the building, the exhibits, the scope of achievements displayed. With this vast increase in display space virtually all of the Smithsonian’s aviation and space collection can now be displayed- up until now only 10% could be put on public view. There are a few things still lacking – National Air and Space Museum Director Gen. Jack Dailey made repeated mention of the fact that the museum does not have a B-24 in its collection – yet.

Unlike the downtown museum, everything is all together – and juxtaposed in provocative ways – small prop planes sit beneath a Concorde, Mercury and Gemini capsules next to a Space Shuttle, wood and canvas next to titanium alloy. To be certain, this can be said of the museum downtown – but here great attention has been given to making things accessible – unlike the downtown museum where much of the interesting stuff is 50 feet over your head.

Here, according to Gen. Dailey, great care was taken in the design of the Udvar-Hazy Center, utilizing ramps, lighting, etc. such that you can get at eye level with nearly every item on exhibit.

The museum is named after its prime benefactor, Steven Udvar-Hazy. The total cost for the facility will be $311 million – all of it raised from private funds. While a substantial amount has been raised, $90 million still remains to be raised to completely pay for its construction.

In addition to the private construction funds, Congress paid for the planning activities and Virginia provided the new road infrastructure. In addition, local school districts are contributing to various educational activities that will be a core feature of this museum’s outreach mission.

Dailey spoke fondly of the museum’s construction contractor who has not only passed on 100% of all cost savings accrued during construction, but has also rushed some tings to completion even though the contract does not call for it- the most visible example being the James McDonnell hangar which houses Space Shuttle Enterprise.

There was one item in particular that I wished to see – Enterprise. Over the past 25 or so years I have seen all other shuttles – either as they were being assembled (I stood inside portions of Atlantis, Discovery, and what would eventually become Endeavor when I worked at Rockwell International) or when they were launched or landed. Yet I had never managed to actually see Enterprise – even though she has sat in a hangar 11 miles from my home the entire time I have lived in Virginia.

Enterprise was used for a series of “Approach and Landing Tests” which were conducted at Edwards Air Force Base. These flights consisted of lofting the Enterprise on top of a modified 747 and then letting the Enterprise fly free to glide in for a landing as an unpowered glider. Enterprise flew only 5 missions on her own in 1976. While some consideration was given to modifying Enterprise to fly into space, cost and weight issues led to a decision not to make the modifications.

After serving as a public relations centerpiece at a variety of international venues in the early 1980s, including the Paris Air Show, Enterprise was delivered to the Smithsonian Institution on 18 November 1985. After being housed outdoors for a time, a special hangar was assembled around Enterprise. While Enterprise was protected from the elements, the hangar was cramped and not equipped for any maintenance or restoration.

Enterprise brought back out of retirement briefly two years later to test some emergency landing restraint system hardware in 1987 developed in the aftermath of the Challenger accident. Enterprise once again rose a call for service in 2003 after the Columbia accident when portions of the leading edges from both wings were removed for tests and inspection.

When the Smithsonian takes possession of an aerospace artifact, it is restored to a condition suitable for display. Sometimes things need to be totally disassembled and then rebuilt. While many artifacts are restored to flight-capable condition, they will never be flown again, per Smithsonian policy. Several of the items on display – the SR-71A, Concorde, and XV-15 arrived at the Museum under their own power – with only their fuel, hydraulics and other potential hazards removed.

Often times an artifact arrives at the museum having served other uses after it fulfilled it original intent. Sometimes restoration can bring a plane back to the condition it was in when it was delivered from the factory. In other cases a decision is made to pick a moment in time as a guide for restoration.

In the case of Enterprise, it was modified somewhat after its initial test flights were over. A paint job for the Paris Air show brought its original paint scheme a bit closer to what Columbia and the other operations shuttle had. It cockpit and other parts were also removed.

I asked Dr. Valerie Neal, Enterprise’s curator, what time frame in Enterprise’s life she was aiming for. She said that they had decided that they would seek to maintain the vehicle in ‘as delivered’ condition – i.e. as it looks right now.

As part of this process, several of the leading edge units removed for use in the Columbia accident investigation will need to be reinstalled. In addition, while Enterprise was shielded from the weather, some corrosion needs to be dealt with.

The process of getting Enterprise ready for formal display will take several months. Because of the cleaning process, the McDonnell Hangar where she sits will be sealed off from public view until March 2004 when she will go on display.

I asked the same question of Gen Dailey. He said that his team had been trying to get a hold of some of the original avionics removed during the upgrade of the orbiter fleet to the new, so called ‘glass cockpit” avionics. If this is indeed the care that Dailey suggested that there might be a display along side of Enterprise.

Unlike Enterprise’s Soviet kin – the “Buran series” of shuttles, she will not have holes cut in her or be converted into a restaurant. Rather, she will be exhibited for the trailblazer she represents.

But Enterprise is but one of the marvelous artifacts in this museum. When totally filled in more than 300 aircraft and spacecraft will be on display.

There are a lot of fun things for folks to do as well. In addition to the large educational facilities, there is an immense IMAX theatre, a gift shop, and plenty of room to just sit and gaze at all of these wonderful machines.

There is also three degree motion based simulator which takes you to the International Space Station. Alas, someone at the museum needs to talk with the NASA technical advisor and check the script for this ride: CSA stands for Canadian Space “Agency” – not “Authority”. There will not be an X-38 CRV (as is shown), nor is the TransHab going to be the final thing added to the ISS.

That one minor nit aside, let me repeat – this new expansion of the already magnificent National Air and Space Museum is simply astonishing. I am certain that in the years to come this place will become as popular – if not more so – than its sister facility in downtown Washington, D.C.

The museum opens to the public on 15 December 2003.

Click on photo to enlarge. All photos copyright SpaceRef Interactive Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Portion of Enterprise’s left wing leading edge removed for Columbia accident investigation.

Air France Concorde

Space Shuttle OV-101 “Enterprise” sitting amidst the James McDonnell Hangar

Mercury 15B (never flown). Had Alan Shepherd flown an orbital mission, it would have been in this spacecraft which he dubbed “Freedom 7-2”

The B-29 “Enola Gay” Superfortress which dropped a nuclear bomb on Hiroshima, Japan

Arado Ar 234 B “Blitz” – the world’s first operational jet bomber and recon aircraft

A view across the musuem. Enola Gay is in the center of the picture

Boeing 307 Stratoliner “Clipper Flying Cloud”

Enterprise waiting to greet future generations

SR-71A Blackbird

Another view across the museum

Boeing 367-90 “DASH 80” the first Boeing 707

SpaceRef co-founder, Explorers Club Fellow, ex-NASA, Away Teams, Journalist, Space & Astrobiology, Lapsed climber.