01 January 2020 Reviews

Virginia Air & Space Center

It is unusual for ROOM to review places to visit, but when they have a space-related element they are clearly of potential interest to readers. The Virginia Air & Space Center, the official visitor centre of NASA Langley Research Center, is one such example.

Located in Hampton, Virginia – just over an hour’s drive from the state capital Richmond – the VASC is one of 14 NASA Visitor Centers and features more than 30 historic aircraft, interactive STEM exhibits, an IMAX cinema, café and giftshop. It is, however, the real space hardware that will be of greatest interest to ROOM readers.

Arguably the biggest space-related attraction is the Apollo 12 command module from the second manned lunar mission. It sits on the floor of a large, open gallery and is tilted so that visitors can see inside the cramped capsule. The artefact is signed by the astronauts (Conrad, Gordon and Bean) under a printed caption that reads “Yankee Clipper Sailed With Intrepid/ to The Ocean od Storms, Moon/November 14, 1969”. The heat damage from re-entry is clearly visible on the heat shield, which helps to remind visitors that this spacecraft has actually been to space and back.

One wall of the gallery’s ground floor is adorned with a large mural by celebrated space artist Robert McCall called “Expanding the Frontiers of Flight”, which commemorates the 75th anniversary of NASA Langley. It’s a famous painting, with which many space fans will be familiar, and features an astronaut in an MMU apparently rocketing into the cosmos, surrounded by aircraft, spacecraft, Langley’s historic wind tunnel and astronauts visiting the Viking lander on Mars.

As far as real space hardware is concerned, the museum also displays the Mercury 14 capsule (used to test the launch escape system), a Gemini boilerplate drop-test vehicle and the Orion PA-1 pad abort test capsule, built at Langley and launched from White Sands in 2010 (which if nothing else reminds us how long the Orion programme has been in gestation!). The museum also houses the lunar module simulator that was suspended from a huge gantry at Langley to physically recreate the landing experience for astronauts, a full-scale engineering model of the Viking orbiter and a full-size inflatable moonbase concept. VASC has plans to further develop and modernise the experience for visitors, which will make it an even better place to visit. Many thanks to CEO Bob Griesmer for facilitating ROOM’s visit.

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