A new hangar for the nation’s attic
Limited space for space
While the Udvar-Hazy Center is an incredible facility for aviation, space aficionados might be a little disappointed initially. While the main hangar will be open to the public when the museum opens on the 15th, the space hangar will not. That facility, eventually home to the Enterprise and over 100 other space artifacts, but will not officially be open to the public until next year. Indeed, Enterprise itself, which had been in storage at a Dulles hangar for years, was not moved into the new museum until late November. “It’s a ‘just in time’ delivery,” Dailey said, noting that the museum’s contractors were not even required to have the space hangar done for opening day.
For the next several months after opening day, the hangar will remain closed while crews work to both restore the exterior of Enterprise and prepare the rest of the space hangar. During that time the hangar will be closed to the public, although visitors will be able to walk up to the entrance of the hangar and see the shuttle, coming within about ten meters of the nose of the orbiter. Valerie Neal, a curator with the NASM’s Division of Space History, said that once the cleaning work gets underway in earnest after the first of the year, there may be times when part or all of the orbiter is obscured under tents.
The Smithsonian has not announced a specific date when the space hangar will open to the public: museum documents said only that the hangar will open “during 2004.” Dailey said he hopes to have the hangar open by late March, and Neal said that the cleaning work on Enterprise will take three to four months. Other sources have suggested that it might not be until summer, though, before the hangar opens.
Until then the space hangar is home to only two other artifacts. One is the Gemini 7 capsule flown by Frank Borman and Jim Lovell for a record-setting two weeks in late 1965. The other is the Mercury capsule that would have flown on Mercury-Atlas 10, a second Mercury flight for Alan Shepard. That mission, which Shepard had dubbed “Freedom 7 II”, was cancelled to clear the way for the Gemini program. The capsule on display is, as a result, in pristine condition, with its retrorocket pack still attached and its parachute system still intact.
The remainder of the space artifacts at the center are temporarily stored in a corner of the museum, near the Concorde. The NASM claims to have 61 “large space artifacts” on display at the center, although they count items like air-to-air and cruise missiles that definitely stretch the definition of “space artifacts”. That figure also includes scale models of launch vehicles and a model of the mothership from the movie Close Encounters of the Third Kind. There are several items of interest there, though, including a Spacelab module, the mobile quarantine facility used to house the Apollo astronauts after the early lunar landing missions, a boilerplate Apollo command module, and a full-scale model of the Soviet Vega spacecraft used to explore Venus and Halley’s Comet.
Early visitors to the Udvar-Hazy Center will also notice that the Enterprise on display is missing a few components. Sections of the leading edge of both wings are missing, removed by NASA earlier this year for use in the Columbia investigation. The leading edge panels of Enterprise’s left wing are made of fiberglass, not reinforced carbon-carbon (RCC), but were used in some of the early foam impact tests to test the setup for later tests involving real RCC panels from other shuttles. Neal said the museum is working with NASA to get those sections returned, but is not sure when that will happen.
A related question is whether the NASM—either at the Udvar-Hazy Center or the main museum on the Mall—will ever display artifacts from Columbia itself. “If there was some significance to a particular part of it, where there was some reason why we would want to focus on that,” the museum might consider it, said Dailey. “It’s not been our policy in the past to display it. We didn’t display the Challenger or the Apollo 1.”
Neal said the museum might consider displaying some selected Columbia artifacts “after a respectful time has past.” This would include the OEX data recorder from Columbia that provided investigators with information about the shuttle’s final minutes, as well as the RCC panels from other orbiters damaged during the foam impact tests. The purpose of such a display, she said, would not be for “morbid curiosity” but instead to “show a detective story” about how investigators used the debris to piece together the circumstances of the accident.
Another thing museum-goers should keep in mind is that the center, while free like the other Smithsonian centers, has a de facto admission charge. Parking at the center will cost a staggering $12 per car (yearly passes are available for $50), a price designed to deter people from using the museum’s parking lot as additional airport parking. The museum will offer an express bus from the museum on the Mall to the center for $7 per person. While parking in downtown Washington can also be quite expensive, there are public transportation (bus and subway) options not available at the Udvar-Hazy Center, and there are a wide range of other tourist options within easy walking distance from the NASM’s Mall location. The Udvar-Hazy Center, on the other hand, is isolated, with its own dedicated exit off Route 28, a highway that parallels the eastern edge of Dulles Airport, and nothing besides the museum within walking distance.
Those interested in visiting the museum in the opening months should keep those caveats in mind. If your interest is exclusively with space artifacts, the current state of the museum may be something of a disappointment, and you should wait until the space hangar opens some time next year. However, if aviation in general is of interest, make plans to come to Dulles as soon as you can. There is plenty to see at the museum already, with more planned for the months to come.