How do you put people into space?
That was the burning questioning that fueled the international Space Race of the 1960s.
“The early approach was to treat human beings as if they were payloads that would sit on top of a rocket, much like a nuclear weapon would sit on top of a missile,” said Valerie Neal, curator and chair of the Space History Department at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum.
The Washington Examiner recently toured the human spaceflight space collection inside the massive hangar at the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Va. — the companion facility of the Air and Space Museum on the National Mall.
The two locations house a vast collection of NASA artifacts, from space suits to shuttles.
“One of the most visible symbols of NASA and of human exploration of space is the spacesuit, which itself is a personal spacecraft,” Neal said.
The exhibit follows the timeline of early human space exploration, including Alan Shepard’s suborbital hop in the Mercury spacecraft, followed by the Gemini program, when astronauts learned to live in orbit for extended periods.
“The Gemini missions were longer because at this point NASA started rehearsing the various steps that would be needed to go to the moon,” she said.
From Neil Armstrong's first steps on the moon to the last Apollo lunar mission, the series of spaceflight programs dominated the '60s.
“The shuttle came about in answer to the question, ‘What do you do after you’ve won this Space Race?’ What does the nation do after it’s sent people to the moon eight times?”
Arguably the most awe-inspiring spacecraft on display is the Discovery shuttle, which flew 39 times — more missions than any of the other five shuttles. Neal describes it as the space equivalent of a big freight truck, responsible for construction missions and carrying components and crew of the International Space Station. It also served as a research vessel for scientists to learn about changes to the human body in space.
“It flew every type of mission that the shuttle was designed to fly,” Neal said. “You can really encapsulate the whole story of the 30-year shuttle period through Discovery.”