By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer
A ship from a galaxy far, far away is coming to the National Air and Space Museum. In 2022, an X-wing from the film Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker will go on display in the Washington, D.C. museum. It joins historical vehicles from the space race.
For the first time in its history, Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum in downtown Washington, D.C. will soon feature a full-size aircraft not based on real-life air or space travel. An X-wing, one of the fighter spaceships from George Lucas’s Star Wars universe, will be exhibited at the world-famous museum alongside historical artifacts like Neil Armstrong’s Apollo 11 spacesuit.
The National Air and Space Museum makes for a crucial stop when visiting the nation’s capital. In his video series Experiencing America: A Smithsonian Tour through American History, Dr. Richard Kurin, the Smithsonian’s Under Secretary for History, Art, and Culture, said that exhibits include several capsules from NASA’s Mercury missions.
Visitors to the Air and Space Museum’s sister site, the Steven F. Udvar–Hazy Center in Chantilly, Virginia, are bound to see a real capsule from NASA’s Mercury missions. How did they come about?
“President Dwight D. Eisenhower formed the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA)—as a civilian government agency on October 1, 1958,” Dr. Kurin said. “Its first mission, Project Mercury, was to put an American into orbit. NASA designed and built a small nose-cone capsule that would be launched into space atop a rocket—the challenge, aside from achieving a successful launch and orbit, would be to return the astronaut to Earth alive.”
According to Dr. Kurin, NASA engineers came up with the idea of a conical spacecraft with a cylindrical nose. On the other end, a broad, flat base was covered by a fiberglass and resin heat shield. This would create a shock wave to slow down the spacecraft during re-entry.
NASA recruited astronauts from the military, especially test pilots, who helped work on the Mercury designs and make them more operator-friendly; and in 1961, Alan Shepard became the first American to enter space.
The Bonds of Friendship
Downtown at the Air and Space Museum, another historic item from the Mercury missions is on display in the Boeing Milestones of Flight Hall: the space capsule Friendship 7.
“On February 20, 1962, 41-year-old former jet fighter pilot John Glenn was propelled into space from Cape Canaveral, Florida,” Dr. Kurin said. “Glenn’s space capsule, the Friendship 7, was fabricated by McDonnell Aircraft Corporation. Its skin and structure were made of titanium, with nickel-steel alloy and beryllium shingles.”
Dr. Kurin said it was a small aircraft—just 11 feet along and six feet across at its base. It was so small, in fact, that astronauts would joke that you don’t get in the Friendship 7 so much as you put it on. Glenn orbited the Earth three times in approximately five hours, communicating by radio with NASA’s Mercury Mission Control and taking pictures with two cameras and a rigged pistol grip that helped accommodate his bulky gloves. It splashed down safely in the Atlantic Ocean and Glenn was retrieved by the USS Noa.
“Friendship 7 went on what became known as the fourth orbit, which is really a goodwill tour around the world,” Dr. Kurin said. “It arrived at the Smithsonian in November 1962 and was placed on display; in 1976, the space capsule was moved into the National Air and Space Museum, which opened up on the National Mall for the Bicentennial of the United States.
“It was a testament to America’s spirit of discovery.”