Adventures in Air & Space


Both my husband Mason and I are at an age that we remember watching the moon landings on TV. Despite our fascination with space, our ten-year-old daughter Sorrell hadn’t been particularly interested until she and I spent the night at San Francisco’s Academy of Sciences (which I wrote about in January). There we saw a slide show of photos from the Hubble telescope. That opened her eyes.

Earlier this year, we explored the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, DC with Sorrell. She fell in love with the museum when she discovered it had a full-size duplicate of the Hubble. She took picture after picture of it to show her teachers back at school.

It helped, too, that she loved Night at the Museum 2: Battle of the Smithsonian, which features pieces from the National Air and Space Museum’s collection. Of all the treasures they held, Sorrell most wanted to see the Wright Brothers’ biplane that Amelia Earhart flew in the movie.

Unfortunately, the Air and Space Museum was wildly crowded the day we visited. We headed down a hallway that seemed less busy than the rest and discovered the museum had flight simulators. None of us really knew what that meant, but Mason supposed it was something like the Star Tours ride at Disneyland.

We walked up to the ticket desk in a knot. The clerk asked which ride we wanted: if we did the motion simulator, the three of us could go together, but the machine moved on its own. No one would be controlling it. If we chose the flight simulator, it only sat two.

Sorrell really wanted to fly the simulator herself.

I let her go with her dad, figuring it would be a bonding experience. After they were shown to a capsule, I thought about taking a photo, but there Rhoads_ASM_3149wasn’t much to see from the outside. I went to sit in the hallway and read email on my phone.

When she bounced up to me afterward, Sorrell was giddy. She flew the simulator while Mason served as her gunner. She wasn’t excited about how many planes they’d shot down — I don’t think it was many — but she’d crashed into the surface of the ocean at a low angle and managed to skip the plane across the water like a stone. That seemed to be the coolest experience ever.

A short amount of poking around later, it got to be lunchtime, so we headed to the museum’s cafeteria. I’d guess three thousand people were milling around in there. The food court only sold food from McDonald’s, Boston Market, and Donatos Pizzeria, so Mason whipped out his phone and discovered that the nearby Museum of the American Indian had a great cafeteria. We abandoned the Air and Space Museum before any of us were really done exploring it.

The next day, Mason was laid low by a cold, so Sorrell and I took the Metro downtown. We headed back to the Air and Space Museum to see everything we’d missed.

Sorrell was most excited to see the Wright Brothers’ planes, of which the Smithsonian has three. We even found the one flown by Amelia Earhart in the movie. It looked as fragile as a balsa-wood toy. We’d still be taking the train across the country if it had been up to me to test pilot that.

Rhoads_ASM_3148We also found Able, one of the monkeys who had been sent into space and was featured in the movie. She’d been stuffed and placed in her capsule. Sorrell was struck by Able’s death: an electrode used to monitor her trip into space had gotten infected and she died from a bad reaction to the anesthetic they used to remove it. Of all the space relics, Sorrell spent the most time looking at that monkey, while I gawked at the squashed tube of toothpaste and a razor: mundane things somehow exalted by where they had been used. I imagine that everything was saved as relics, from the clothes the astronauts wore to the things they carried.

Sorrell and I looked hard to see which objects were real: the space capsule with its surface charred from coming through the atmosphere was real, but the lunar rover was a model or a copy, since the original was left on the moon (with the keys in it, if you believe commercials on TV).

I really wanted to take Sorrell to see the IMAX movie. She’s never been to one and I thought the Hubble images would be amazing, blown up to IMAX size, but what she really wanted to do was fly the simulator again.

The ticket collectors instructed us to put our stuff into a locker. We were supposed to empty our pockets and take off our jewelry, anything loose that might fly around inside the simulator. I kept my glasses on, because I’m fairly blind without them.

As we waited in line, we watched one of the simulators roll over and over and over, just like a barrel rolling down a hill. I noticed garbage cans placed discreetly beside the steps into the simulators. I had assumed they were for spitting out gum, but maybe they served other purposes.

Sorrell saw me watching the rolling simulator and asked if I was nervous. I wasn’t really, but she promised she wouldn’t roll us over.

Most of the other people in line were male. A handful of moms chaperoned boys Sorrell’s age, who went alone into the simulators. I wondered where the girls were.

I’d be okay with it if my daughter grew up to be a pilot. Apparently, there are only 450 women airline captains worldwide, according to the International Society of Women Airline Pilots. Seems like, if you can overcome the sexism, it would be a good job for a girl who likes to travel. Well-paying, too, but we didn’t talk about any of that as we stood in line.

Eventually, we stepped up to one of the featureless white capsules. Sorrell climbed confidently into the pilot’s chair. I crawled in beside her. She showed me how to strap myself into the safety harness.

“Are you her mom?” the attendant asked as she lowered the over-the-head restraint bars.

I nodded. The woman looked past me to Sorrell. “You’re lucky you have such a cool mom!”

“I know,” Sorrell said.

The door slid closed and the video screen flicked on before us. The acceleration to takeoff pressed us back into our seats. We hadn’t been flying long before Sorrell rolled us over and got us stuck. It wasn’t too uncomfortable hanging upside-down, but I was glad for the restraint bars. I reached out to hold my glasses over my eyes. They wanted to drift over my forehead.

Once she got us righted, Sorrell took a nosedive into the water on the video screen. She aimed us straight down at speed. The view screen went black as we bounced around.

Before long, the system rebooted and we accelerated for takeoff again. Sorrell’s big grin lit up the darkness around us.

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