The San Diego Zoo, which was the subject of my previous post, is located in Balboa Park, which, in addition to having parkland as the name might suggest, and the zoo, which the name might not suggest, is home to a number of museums, galleries and performing arts venues. With a couple of hours to spare after visiting the zoo and before most of Balboa Park’s attractions closed, I chose to visit the San Diego Air & Space Museum located therein.
I chose this from among the wide selection of options in Balboa Park because I get excited about anything that has to do with space, unless it’s the sort of space that people accuse me of having between my ears. (I do get excited about neuroscience, just not the malicious, likely true statements that people utter concerning my particular brain.)
A Fascination with Space
What fuels my excitement about things space-related? I don’t know how many people who visit here (if anyone visits here) are old enough to have seen the film 2001: A Space Odyssey, but I saw it during its first run in 1968.
At the time, i.e., back in 1968, I was convinced that by 2001 there really would be, as was depicted in the film, commercial space flights on Pan Am Airways that would be as common and casual an experience as commercial airplane flights are today. I was hugely excited by that prospect.
Needless to say, it didn’t happen. Pan Am went bankrupt in 1991, which means that if you are the average age of Internet surfers or younger you probably aren’t even aware that Pan Am was a real, not fictional, airline. It was.
And, far from commercial space flight being common, the only people who aren’t astronauts by trade and training that have been on space-tourism trips are two or three billionaires. What’s more, they went only to the rather meagre—meagre compared to what was depicted in 2001: A Space Odyssey—International Space Station. They didn’t leave earth orbit. I can’t tell you how much this state of affairs saddens me.
There was also real-life to spur my enthusiasm about space. In 1969, when humans first walked on the moon, I was working at a summer camp. The camp rolled out a TV and, despite very grainy reception, we all gathered around the definitely not flat-screen TV and watched the moon landing in awe.
“That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” (If that sentence holds no meaning for you, Google it, which wasn’t possible at the time the words were first spoken.)
I thought for sure that signalled mankind’s relentless march into space. It didn’t happen. That disheartens me.
As a result of these fictional and real experiences, I find all things space-related to be excited. So, with an air & space museum close to the zoo I had just visited, I leaped at the chance to go. I was disappointed because the San Diego Air & Space museum is mostly about air, with only a scant tip of the hat to space.
The headline space-related exhibit was the Apollo 9 Command Module. There were also space suits, a smallish model of a rocket, and related information panels on display.
The Apollo 9 capsule was located beyond the ticket-selling booth, but before the ticket-taking station. So, if you want to be a cheap bastard (I didn’t) you can take a look at the space capsule without paying. (You have to walk past the ticket seller(s) to do so. I don’t know if an employee would jump out of their booth to chastise you if you did.)
This is the real Apollo 9 capsule, scored and seared as it was from re-entry, not a replica. The thing that struck me most was that there was no way you could have flown in this thing if you were claustrophobic or fat. It looked tiny. There didn’t seem to be much more room than was absolutely necessary to hold its three passengers.
Apollo 9 was not a lunar-landing mission. It predated those missions. Apollo 9’s primary purpose was to test the manned lunar module.
In fairness, after having talked about what I thought was a dearth of space exhibits, I should mention that I think I must have missed a section of the museum—or maybe a section was taken over by a temporary, extra-fee exhibit (see below) that I didn’t go into. The museum’s Web site lists some space exhibits that I didn’t see.
Planes. Lots of Planes.
As I said, most of the museum, or at least most of what I was able to find in it, was dedicated to aviation that stays relatively close to Earth, not space travel.
After I walked past the ticket-taking station (it must have been a slow day; I had a ticket, but there was no one taking tickets when I walked through), I walked through a curved hallway. The wall on one side of the hall was lined with pictures of people somehow related to aviation history. Shelves containing small aviation models were mounted on the opposing wall.
Beyond this hallway was the main exhibit area. It was chock full of old planes. Some were sitting on the floor. Others were hanging from the ceiling. It would scarcely have been possible to add any more planes unless the museum didn’t leave room for visitors or removed the few non-plane exhibits.
Most (maybe all, I’m not sure) of the planes were reproductions, not planes built in the era when those were the flying machines of the day. I think most of the planes on exhibit were capable of flight, rather than empty shells, but I’m not sure of that either.
A few of the planes had cheesy pilot mannequins sitting beside them (including a mannequin representing Charles Lindberg sitting beside a replica of his Spirit of St. Louis airplane; it was sitting in the same area as the Apollo 9 capsule). There was also a large Snoopy doll sitting beside some planes of the type flown by the Red Baron. I could have done without that.
One of the non-plane exhibits—which was mounted behind glass because, well, I don’t why—was a set of mannequins dressed up like stewardesses from back in the days when they were called stewardesses, not flight attendants, and when they were—rumor has it—thought of primarily as sex objects by pilots and some passengers. (If the question, “Coffee, tea or me?” is unfamiliar to you then you are probably too young to remember those days.) Moral justice, not to mention political correctness, requires that I state clearly that it is much for the best that those days are long gone.
When I visited, the San Diego Air & Space Museum also featured a temporary, extra-fee, Ripley’s Believe It or Not exhibit. I didn’t go in because, while I’m not a totally cheap bastard, I’m too cheap for that. Whenever someone prefaces any statement with “believe it or not,” I’m left doubting that I should believe it. I didn’t want to pay extra for that.
As you can probably tell from the above, mainly because I stated it reasonably clearly, I lament the fact that we (we being humankind, not just me and the few readers of this blog) have not done more manned and unmanned space exploration.
Your exercise, should you choose to accept it, is to leave me a comment with your thoughts about that. Is space exploration (manned or unmanned) a total waste of time and resources? Is it worthwhile, but only after we tackle every single one of humanities problems? Or should we (or our telescopes and unmanned spacecraft) boldly go where we haven’t gone before (with apologies to Star Trek for that paraphrasing of the TV shows’ and films’ opening line)?