OPEN TO THE PUBLIC since earlier this month, the James S. McDonnell Space Hangar at the National Air and Space Museum's Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center justifiably bills the restored space shuttle Enterprise as the facility's main attraction. Huge and center-stage, the white, winged workhorse of the heavens (described by one docent as a "big space truck" during a recent tour) is visible from quite a distance before you even enter the new wing. It is not, however, the most intriguing artifact on view.
Not by a long shot.
There is, I'm convinced, no accident in the fact that the very first display case you encounter upon entering the hangar houses humbler things than the old cruise missiles, rockets, heat shields, computer components, guidance systems and other detritus of the space age and Cold War that vie for your attention overhead. In contrast to the war birds positioned high and low, the case is devoted to such unlofty concerns as what the astronauts ate and how they went to the bathroom. I saw a lot of people poring over the many fascinating items in this vitrine -- including what can only be called a giant space diaper -- and it wasn't just the 5-year-olds in the crowd.
Here you'll find, in addition to the aforementioned undergarment and a couple of fecal collection bags, something resembling a toothpaste tube filled with cottage cheese for the hapless Soviet cosmonaut as well as sunglasses and a machete. The last two items? No, they're not meant for fending off glowing green men, but were rather part of a survival kit intended for use in remote terrain in case of a botched landing back on Earth. The mind reels at the possibilities.
That is to say, the mind is inspired to flights of fancy -- fancy that goes well beyond such prosaic details as the propulsion of heavy objects outside the Earth's atmosphere and such tech-talk as the "ablation" (i.e., charring and evaporating) of the "paste-like silicone elastomer material" found on the singed, honeycomb surface of a Gemini capsule. Of course, that's precisely what a museum is supposed to do: Spark the imagination.
Sure, microscopic sections of damaged mouse brain and lung tissue from the 1932 French lab that experimented on the results of powerful G-forces on the body are only a small part of history. So is the preserved spider Anita, whose webmaking abilities were studied aboard Skylab; or the Snark, an "air-breathing" (as opposed to rocket-powered), subsonic winged missile built in the late 1950s to carry nuclear warheads; or the Massively Parallel Processor, an early computer. (Okay, so those last two aren't so small after all.)
My point is this: The McDonnell Space Hangar contains lots of big, flashy things, but the biggest of them are ideas.
THE JAMES S. MCDONNELL SPACE HANGAR -- At the National Air and Space Museum's Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center, 14390 Air and Space Museum Pkwy., Chantilly, just south of the main terminal at Dulles International Airport near Routes 28 and 50. 202-633-1000 (TDD: 202-357-1729). www.nasm.si.edu/museum/udvarhazy. Open daily 10 to 5:30 except Christmas. Admission to the museum is free, but parking is $12.