The Fun Part of Aerospace

Air & Space Smithsonian - - In The Museum -

WE FLEW IN A FLOCK— or, rather, our avatars did—fol­low­ing the lead bird as it plum­meted to­ward Earth. At the last pos­si­ble sec­ond, we flapped our wings— we moved our arms—and our bird selves soared into the sky. Our bod­ies had been trans­formed into vir­tual birds and, through mo­tion­sens­ing tech­nol­ogy, we ma­nip­u­lated our avatars as we learned about the forces of flight: lift, weight, thrust, and drag.

The “Spread Your Wings” sim­u­la­tion is just one of 20 ac­tiv­i­ties in the new ex­hibit Above and Be­yond, which opened Au­gust 1 at the Na­tional Air and Space Mu­seum. De­vel­oped in con­junc­tion with Ever­green Ex­hi­bi­tions and Boe­ing, the ex­hibit cel­e­brates in­no­va­tion in aerospace. Through aug­ment­e­dreal­ity tech­nol­ogy, visi­tors can fly to Mars, de­sign a jet (and race it against other pilots), and elim­i­nate space junk or­bit­ing Earth. While the ex­hibit is de­signed par­tic­u­larly for visi­tors ages seven to 14, ev­ery­one can find some­thing chal­leng­ing in this tech­heavy gallery.

“Above and Be­yond is the most elec­tron­ics-heavy ex­hi­bi­tion ever housed at the Na­tional Air and Space Mu­seum,” said Roger Lau­nius, the Mu­seum’s as­so­ciate di­rec­tor, at the gallery open­ing. “And as such, it will help shape the fu­ture of this par­tic­u­lar mu­seum. We are en­gaged in se­ri­ous ef­forts to un­der­stand how best to com­mu­ni­cate with a range of peo­ple of di­verse ages, back­grounds, and in­ter­ests. In ad­di­tion to be­ing a su­perb ex­hi­bi­tion in its own right, we hope to use the knowl­edge gained from how visi­tors in­ter­act with these dis­plays to de­velop fu­ture ex­hibi­try that will trans­form NASM into a 21st cen­tury mu­seum.”

Lau­nius ex­plained that in the next few years, the Mu­seum plans to up­date all of its gal­leries, some of which haven’t been re­designed since the Mu­seum’s open­ing in 1976.

What else is there to see? Visi­tors can step in­side a capsule—sur­rounded by video screens—and ex­pe­ri­ence a sim­u­lated as­cent in a space el­e­va­tor loosely based on the con­cept that cargo and peo­ple will one day be trans­ported into space on a rib­bon­like ca­ble. Dur­ing the as­cent, visi­tors learn about the air­craft, space­craft, and nat­u­ral phe­nom­ena they would en­counter along the way.

In “Robofly­ers,” visi­tors equip an un­manned aerial ve­hi­cle for an imag­i­nary mis­sion while learn­ing about UAVS fly­ing real mis­sions to­day. On dis­play is the tiny Robobee, with a wing­span of just 1.2 inch. The mi­cro-drone, de­vel­oped by Har­vard Univer­sity’s School of En­gi­neer­ing and Ap­plied Science, is ca­pa­ble of teth­ered flight, but its de­sign­ers hope that a swarm of ro­botic in­sects will one day au­tonomously pol­li­nate a field of crops—or even con­duct mil­i­tary sur­veil­lance.

At the other end of the spec­trum, the Scanea­gle, de­vel­oped by In­situ, sports a 10-foot wing­span and can fly for 24 hours with­out land­ing or ser­vic­ing. Built for the fish­ing in­dus­try but now used mainly by the mil­i­tary, it car­ries a high-res­o­lu­tion cam­era that pro­vides users with re­con­nais­sance and sur­veil­lance in­for­ma­tion.

Dreams Aloft, a se­ries of video

in­ter­views with young aerospace engi­neers, could al­most be con­sid­ered a re­cruit­ment film for the aerospace in­dus­try. When the engi­neers de­scribe what they do—“i’m Ana, and I get to break things”—and how they ended up in aerospace, any­body watch­ing gets the mes­sage: This stuff is fun, and the peo­ple who do it are happy. One re­calls: “I had an as­tro­naut hel­met that I made out of a card­board box that I wore to an age where you cer­tainly shouldn’t have been wear­ing a card­board box on your head.” (The card­board hel­met paid off; the wearer is now a mem­ber of the re­search and de­vel­op­ment team at Boe­ing.)

At the ex­hibit open­ing, shut­tle as­tro­naut Chris Fer­gu­son, now di­rec­tor of Crew and Mis­sion Oper­a­tions for Boe­ing’s Com­mer­cial Crew Pro­gram, ex­plained who Boe­ing would like to at­tract with this type of ex­hibit: “There are three kinds of young visi­tors to the Mu­seum, in my view. Some go in and push the but­tons and then go on to the next thing. Another group stands there in amaze­ment and won­ders, ‘When that kid pushed the but­ton, why did that hap­pen?’ And they’re the ones we know we have. They’re the ones who are go­ing to help us get to Mars. It’s the third group, the ones who think ‘Do I re­ally want to un­der­stand why this hap­pens, or do I just want to take it for granted?’—that’s the group we hope to grab with in­ter­ac­tive ex­hibits like this.”

Above and Be­yond will run un­til Jan­uary 3, 2016, then travel to the Saint Louis Science Cen­ter in Mis­souri; the Na­tional Mar­itime Mu­seum in Lon­don; and the Mu­seum of Flight in Seat­tle, Washington. You want your own Iron Man fly­ing suit? Tell ev­ery seven- to 14-year-old you know to see it.

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