This week, the National Air and Space Museum unveiled the first phase of its new permanent exhibit about human spaceflight, "Moving Beyond Earth."
The gallery focuses on the shuttle and space-station era and includes items that were just recently doing their jobs in space, like the Hubble's Corrective Optics Space Telescope Axial Replacement, or COSTAR. That piece, which was a corrective optics package that worked in conjunction with the Hubble telescope's mirror, came back to Earth this past May during the last servicing mission.
The artifacts in this space have a very different feel than the traditional, historical objects in other galleries. In fact, NASA astronaut John Grunsfeld, who was on hand for the opening celebrations, noted the absurdity of even calling them artifacts. Just a few years ago, Grunsfeld was using the HST Power Control Unit Trainer, another new artifact now on display, to practice for his missions—he went on three.
"We were very short on artifacts because all the artifacts from the shuttle era were still in use," said Valerie Neal, curator of the new hall. Neal refers to the current gallery as a "footprint for the fully built-out space" that will be completed in the next two years.
The star at the museum these day is another Hubble instrument, the piano-sized Wide Field and Planetary Camera 2, or WFPC2, which also on view in an adjacent hall.The WFPC2 was installed on the Hubble in 1993 to correct the telescopes blurred images. Averting near disaster for the program.
When Hubble first went up, it was called an American disgrace, says Edward Weiler, who was the chief scientist on the Hubble Telescope for nearly 20 years. The WFPC2, he says, "turned Hubble into a great American comeback story." The instruments might be the objects on display in the museum, but Grunsfeld says there's more to the story than just the artifacts. "It wasn't the instruments that saved Hubble," he says. "People saved Hubble.
History buffs will no doubt head for the star artifacts, but younger visitors are likely to head for the screens. The hall is chock-full of games and play stations. Visitors can sit at a control panel and make decisions on NASA missions as if they were seated in a real life Mission Control. Another interactive demonstrates decision making for all sorts of things like planning new components to the space station, budgeting health fitness, food stores and living condition staples. And still another invites visitors to discover a compatible career for them in space, no matter their interest, by answering questions such as their favorite subject in school and what their preferred super hero power would be. (Two of my top jobs were librarian and educator.)
The museum's director Jack Dailey says this gallery has more interactives than any other place in the museum. "We have long had a desire to add more interactives to stimulate and inspire the younger generation," he said. "The first thing a young person looks for is the screen. They find it and immediately go to it and start touching it."