Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Summer vacation, Part 1

One thing that I will have trouble understanding about blogs... if you blog about your work, you can spend time at work blogging.  If you blog about your vacation, and tie it to your work... there's a risk of spending time blogging about your vacation instead of having your vacation.  So, I hope you will excuse the delay in this first of two little blurbs about how I spent the week of July 4.  (Pictures to follow.)

I've heard for a long time that you have to go to the National Air and Space Museum Udvar-Hazy Center near Dulles Airport.  However, most times I am in Washington, I am car-free and with a tight schedule--both factors that limit the ability to get there.  But, on Tuesday, my best friend and I decided to take a trip, as part of my aerospace history vacation.  It's one thing to see pictures of a museum on a website.  However, it's pretty amazing to go into the front hallway of the Center, and off to one's left, is a bunch of planes.  (Since it's the Smithsonian, you just walk past the security desk, and you're in.  No hiding the goodies from view, or waiting for you to pay your admission (other than the $15 parking fee).  No preparation, or pretense.  Instant immersion.)  Normally, I'm a pretty calm and circumspect engineering type person.  And, to be honest, I don't remember aircraft silhouettes or production specifications.  But, the first experience I had of the exhibit was about a dozen planes dating from before 1930, suspended from the ceiling or sitting on the floor, or mounted in various poses.  Samuel Langley's monument to elegant failure (scaling up a small test model doesn't always get you a working bigger system).  I had never seen this concentration of prior flight before.  Wood and canvas, bold new experiments in pushing back the frontier of the heavens.  Life and dreams from over a century ago.  I got every one of the airplanes' names wrong.  The planes were displayed, almost as though encased in amber, flies from a past age.  One was even unrestored, with canvas frayed and torn from flapping in the winds and a century of waiting for its story to be told.

I broke down and started crying.

I've cried at sunsets, and night skies filled with stars, and expanses of oceans, and wonderful music, and exquisite poetry.  People understand those things as beautiful, as precious, as transcendent.  How can an old plane garner that response?  Because, to me, such museum pieces speak of the history of science, technology, and society.  I get a sense of the passions of those who built and flew those planes, and their desires to do something that spoke to their souls.  That's beautiful to me, too.  It's how I feel with some of my research.  It gets me excited when I see a student getting turned on about their internship, or their research project.  It's an expression of what I have always called, signs of life.  And that is overwhelmingly compelling.

There were lots more experiences, and dozens of photos, and wonderful stories about the history of flight and space travel.  No more tears, but lots more enjoyment and excitement and wonder.  Since I was on vacation, I resisted going into lecture mode when listening to kids talking about their newly-blossoming enthusiasm and learning about a particular aircraft system or element of human physiology.  It was nice to just drink it in, on a summer day.  That's a good vacation experience, whether you're a passionate engineer or not.

Stay tuned for Part 2, with mosquitos, more tears, and flames against the sky.  (Yes, I went to the STS-135 launch.)  

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