Less than a week before the 100th anniversary of the Wright Brothers' famous flight in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina - the Smithsonian Institution unveiled its newest museum, dedicated to the history of aviation achievements through the years. VOA's Rebecca Ward gives us a preview of the Smithsonian's new air and space museum - the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Virginia.
From high above the earth, Astronaut Michael Foale and Russian Cosmonaut Alexander Kaleri counted down to the mock "first flight" of a replica of the Wright flyer. Sending their greetings by video, the two-man crew on board the International Space Station said the Wright Brothers flight 100 years ago ushered in a new, limitless frontier. And it is to that frontier of air and space that the new Udvar-Hazy Center is dedicated.
Actor John Travolta, who is a jet pilot and spoke at the museum's dedication ceremony, says seeing the crew on the International Space Station pay homage to the those first flight pioneers was a moving experience.
"It was the moment where the astronauts introduced the countdown for the Wright flyer to fly over the top of the audience and I started to cry because it was the [biggest advance] in aviation history and, speaking back to the beginning moment the first moment, there's something that's really emotional for me," said John Travolta.
The Udvar-Hazy Center opens to the public on Monday. As part of its congressional mandate, the Smithsonian's Air and Space Museum is to collect, preserve and display aeronautical and space flight equipment of historical interest and significance.
Speaking at the opening ceremony, Vice President Dick Cheney - who also serves as Regent for the Smithsonian - said not only is the center a monument to great achievements in flight, it represents the even greater possibilities that lie ahead.
"The displays on view here capture one of the greatest stories in human experience," he said. "When we look at those early bi-planes or the SR71 Blackbird or the first space shuttle, we see the workings of technological progress. Yet we see much, much more in this collection. All of these give testimony to the imagination, the resourcefulness and the daring of the men and women who made them and who flew them."
The Udvar-Hazy Center does indeed capture the spirit of flight, as we now know it. Even the gleaming silver, 1938 Boeing Stratoliner - known as the Clipper Flying Cloud - inspires awe. It sat only 33 passengers, flying a little more than 2400 meters above the ground, and was one of the first jetliners to offer a comfortable pressurized cabin. Looking at theFlying Cloud, museum guest David Esterson says it brings back memories of a flight he took in a similar plane.
"I flew a Boeing Stratocruiser which was also based on a Boeing bomber and the bomb bay had been turned into a bar for the passengers," he said. "So you went downstairs and had a drink. I think there were 82 passengers. And you flew from Prestwick in Scotland and you had to stop, I stopped in Iceland sometimes Newfoundland, it couldn't make it all the way across the Atlantic."
Among the dozens of aircraft housed in the giant hangar is Air France's supersonic jet, the Concorde. With nearly 15,000 square meters of space in the hangar, there's still plenty of room for artifacts of space exploration, like the space shuttle Enterprise, and warplanes, including the Enola Gay which dropped the first atomic bomb in August of 1945. In addition, museum goers can see somewhat humorous looking attempts at build-it-yourself aircraft, like the 1930's Crosely Flea that could be put together from a kit.
Although the new museum currently has about 80 aircraft, it will eventually house 200. There's also an IMAX theater and an observation deck for a bird's-eye view of the mechanical birds.