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Reviews: James S. McDonnell Space Hangar

Discover Magazine reviews the James S. McDonnell space hangar in Chantilly, Virginia and more.

Jul 25, 2004 5:00 AMApr 27, 2023 3:02 PM


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Jul 2004 Exhibits

Enterprise Survives Sneak Attack

A space-age relic comes to rest in a sheltered roost after a relentless assault by winged marauders.

By Brad Lemley

Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center

14390 Air and Space Museum Parkway, Chantilly, Va.

Courtesy of Dane Penland/Smithsonian Institution

The 150,000-pound shuttle Enterprise never made it into orbit, but it did fly in tests on top of a 747 jumbo jet. It now stands silently in the Smithsonian's new James S. McDonnell space hangar in Chantilly, Virginia.

The space shuttle Enterprise is among the most advanced flying machines ever built, but it was no match for the woodpeckers. “You can see where they’ve pecked all along the tail,” says museum specialist Tony Carp. We are riding in a hydraulic lift some 50 feet above the floor, examining a sprinkling of quarter-size dents in the aft section. They look even worse than the wasps’ nests I just saw in the landing-gear wells.

Two years of sitting outside in the mid-1980s turned the Enterprise into one of the world's most expensive wildlife habitats, but four technicians armed with putty, detergent, and paint are busily undoing the damage. They expect most of the restoration to be done by the end of the summer, at which time the craft will become one of the jewels of the Smithsonian Institution’s Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center, a vast new air-and-space museum next to Washington Dulles International Airport in northern Virginia. The Enterprise was named after the starship in Star Trek in response to a flood of pleading fan letters and never flew in space; it was built in 1976 as a prototype to demonstrate that the orbiter could fly and land like an airplane. It did go aloft 13 times on the back of a 747, and 5 times, pilots disengaged and landed it. Clad in foam-which explains how the woodpeckers managed to ravage it-the shuttle still has as much value as it did when it was first built. “Within days of the Columbia accident, NASA called and said they would be needing our leading-edge panels for foam impact tests,” says curator Valerie Neal.

The Enterprise is just one of many incredible flying machines at the new museum. Opened on December 15, 2003, the center’s adjacent space and aviation hangars are packed with artifacts too big and too numerous to fit into the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum on the mall in Washington, D.C. Stepping inside the 986-foot-long aviation hangar, my first impression is of a gigantic version of a teenage boy’s room. Many of the airplanes hang from massive trusses, much like plastic models suspended from tacks thrust into bedroom ceilings. “We took care to hang them in the attitudes that you would see them flying in,” says Frank McNally, a public affairs specialist who, like everyone else on the staff, is a certified aviation nut. The rakish angle of the 1937 Vought-Sikorsky Kingfisher, a World War II scout plane adept at slow flight, indicates that it’s coming in for landing, while the Pitts Special S-1C that hangs above the entrance is fully inverted, the way that aerobatics champion Betty Skelton often flew it in the late 1940s.

Other historical gems in the aviation hangar include a 1976 Concorde supersonic airliner donated by Air France after its last flight on June 12, 2003; a 1967 Lockheed SR-71A Blackbird reconnaissance jet capable of Mach 3.3; and a 1938 Boeing 307 Stratoliner, the first passenger plane with a pressurized cabin. But the star attraction is the silvery Enola Gay, which dropped the atomic bomb on the Japanese city of Hiroshima on August 6, 1945. Donated to the Smithsonian in the late 1940s, it was taken apart in 1961 and underwent surgical reconstruction beginning in 1984. “The whole restoration took about 300,000 man-hours,” says McNally. “Once, a guy came through it and said, ‘Those aren’t 1945 radio tubes-they were put in in 1947. I have some 1945 tubes in my collection that I'll give you.’ That gives you an idea of the level of detail in this.”

Of course, the Enola Gay is more than a quaint technological artifact; it’s a war machine fraught with historical symbolism. On opening day, a man was arrested after hurling a jar of red paint at the plane, which bounced off the aircraft’s side and smashed on the floor, releasing its contents like spilled blood. The man was among a group of about 75 protesters angered that the Enola Gay’s placard makes no mention of the Japanese casualties caused by the bomb. McNally insists that such a reaction is an anomaly. “Aviation brings out the kid in everyone. You look around, and all you see are big smiles. When people get to the door, they can’t help turning around for one last look.”

I certainly couldn’t. By turns thrilling, inspiring, and sobering, the Udvar-Hazy Center is a fitting tribute to humankind’s ongoing effort to conquer the skies. The woodpeckers’ loss was not in vain.

Jul 2004 Science Best Sellers

1. THE FABRIC OF THE COSMOS: Space, Time, and the Texture of Reality

By Brian Greene, Alfred A. Knopf


By Bill Bryson, Broadway Books

3. THE GREAT INFLUENZA: The Epic Story of the Deadliest Plague in History

By John M. Barry, Viking Press

4. MATH AND THE MONA LISA: The Art and Science of Leonardo da Vinci

By Bülent Atalay, Smithsonian Institution Press

5. LAB 257: The Disturbing Story of the Government’s Secret Plum Island Germ Laboratory

By Michael Christopher Carroll, William Morrow

6. EINSTEIN’S COSMOS: How Albert Einstein’s Vision Transformed Our Understanding of Space and Time

By Michio Kaku, W. W. Norton

7. COUNT DOWN: Six Kids Vie for Glory at the World’s Toughest Math Competition

By Steve Olson, Houghton Mifflin

8. MIND WIDE OPEN: Your Brain and the Neuroscience of Everyday Life

By Steven Johnson, Scribner

9. KEPLER’S WITCH: An Astronomer’s Discovery of Cosmic Order Amid Religious War, Political Intrigue, and the Heresy Trial of His Mother

By James A. Connor, HarperCollins

10. HUMBOLDT’S COSMOS: Alexander von Humboldt and the Latin American Journey That Changed the Way We See the World

By Gerard Helferich, Gotham Books

Jul 2004 Books

The Quest to Gauge the Girth of Earth 

Centuries before satellite photography, mapmakers ascended the Andes to measure the globe

By Elizabeth Svoboda

The Mapmaker’s Wife: A True Tale of Love, Murder, and Survival in the Amazon 

By Robert Whitaker

Basic Books, $25

The Mapmaker's Wife: A True Tale of Love, Murder, and Survival in the Amazon

During the Middle Ages, a mapmaker depicted Earth in the shape of the body of Jesus, with rivers traversing the land like veins. By the 16th century, scientists had cast aside such holy visions and generally acknowledged that Earth is a globe. Yet its exact shape was to become a point of fierce contention: Was Earth squashed at the poles or elongated at the equator? The issue was not simply academic: As explorers fanned out across the world, it became crucial for navigators to determine their precise location at sea. That, in turn, depended in part on knowing the length of a degree of latitude. If Earth was a perfect sphere, that length would never vary; but if it was flattened at top and bottom, the length of a degree would increase slightly toward the poles. If Earth was stretched at the equator, that length would decrease at the poles.

Using the position of celestial bodies and earthbound landmarks whose latitude was known, astronomer Jean-Dominique Cassini and his son Jacques calculated in the early 18th century that the length of a degree of latitude seemed to increase slightly as they traveled south, indicating that Earth was pulled in at the equator, or as others quipped, like a “potbellied man wearing a tight belt.” Isaac Newton, by contrast, argued that Earth must be shaped like a slightly squashed sphere. He based his conclusion partly on the observation, by Frenchman Jean Richer in 1672, that pendulum clocks moved more slowly at the equator. That could be the case only if gravitational pull was weaker in the tropics, meaning these areas were farther away from Earth’s center.

To resolve the issue, French astronomer Louis Godin led a team of scientists, including his surveyor cousin Jean Godin, on a grueling mule-and-canoe expedition to Peru in 1736 to measure a degree of latitude at the equator. Battling disease-bearing insects, bureaucratic snafus, and altitude sickness, the scientists took eight years to complete their mission, which did indeed vindicate the Newtonian view that Earth was broad around the middle. Along the way, one team member died of fever and another was murdered. Attempting to travel downriver, Jean Godin ultimately found himself marooned at the head of the Amazon delta, a full continent from Isabel Gramesón, the Peruvian-born Spanish woman he had married in 1741.

Isabel’s quest to be reunited with her husband provides the narrative thread for Whitaker’s lively chronicle. In 1769 she embarked on a 10-month, 3,000-mile trek through nearly impenetrable Amazon rain forest, subsisting on palm cabbage, seeds, and wild fruit. As Whitaker retraces her footsteps, she emerges as a plucky heroine who transcended colonial stereotypes and proved that in love, as in science, determination can sometimes overcome seemingly insurmountable obstacles.

Geographic Foresight of the Ancient Greeks

Sixteenth-century scientists were not the first to conclude that Earth is a sphere. In the 4th century B.C., Aristotle noted that the height of the sun changed as one traveled north or south, which could be so only if one were traveling along a curve. The Greek scholar Eratosthenes later came remarkably close to computing the size of the globe using the stadium, a standard of measurement equal to the length of an ancient

Olympic footrace, which by modern calculations was between 607 and 738 feet. Eratosthenes noted that at noon on the summer solstice, the sun’s rays shone directly into a deep well in the Egyptian town of Syene (now named Aswān). In Alexandria, 5,000 stadia north of Syene, the sun at that moment was one-fiftieth of a full circle, or 7.2 degrees, from the zenith. The circumference of Earth would therefore be 50 times this distance, or 250,000 stadia (between 29,000 and 35,000 miles). The polar circumference of Earth is now known to be 24,818 miles.


OUR AFFAIR WITH EL NIÑO: How We Transformed an Enchanting Peruvian Current Into a Global Climate Hazard

S. George Philander, Princeton University Press, $26.95

Our Affair with El Nino: How We Transformed an Enchanting Peruvian Current into a Global Climate Hazard

Named for the infant Jesus, the warm ocean current El Niño (Spanish for “the boy”) was once welcomed as a blessing when it periodically appeared at Christmastime off the coast of Peru. But after droughts and floods swept the globe in 1997, El Niño was blamed for everything from erratic stock markets to the decline of the coconut harvest in the Philippines. Philander, a meteorologist at Princeton University, argues that understanding this phenomenon-which affects millions of people worldwide-will help us cope with human-induced climate change.

COUNT DOWN: Six Kids Vie for Glory at the World’s Toughest Math Competition

Steve Olson, Houghton Mifflin, $24

Count Down: Six Kids Vie for Glory at the World's Toughest Math Competition

Are mathematicians created in the womb, or is their human facility with numbers nurtured as they grow? Olson ponders this question while following six math whiz kids as they compete in the International Mathematical Olympiad. Along the way he dispels some enduring popular myths, such as the notion that all mathematicians are “fools, nerds or madmen” and that boys’ brains have an inborn advantage in math over girls’ brains.

Maia Weinstock


Film still courtesy of SK Films Inc.

Bugs! A Rainforest Adventure

SK Films Inc.

To see the world from an insect’s perspective, it helps to have a pair of compound eyes, each composed of several thousand separate light-detecting facets. Mass audience eye transplants being clearly impractical, film director Mike Slee used the next best thing: a sophisticated camera system that portrays the fecund forests of Borneo from a bug’s-eye view. Two IMAX motion-controlled cameras combined with a long lens system known as snorkel optics enabled Slee and his colleagues to focus on scenes the size of postage stamps, producing three-dimensional panoramas that seem to suck the viewer into a world of chomping caterpillars, battling rhinoceros beetles, and raindrop-bathing ants, as well as a seething, silken-threaded cluster of newly hatching green mantises, 200 strong (above). Part horror movie, part delicate dance of life, Bugs! is at the American Natural History Museum in New York through December 31, 2004, and is also appearing at select IMAX theaters nationwide.

Josie Glausiusz


Photograph by Jens Mortensen

Hyco Fuel Cell Car Demo

Fuel Cell Store, $220

If you hurry, you can be the first one on your block to own a cheap, hydrogen-powered car-with some limits. The Hyco Fuel Cell Car Demo is only eight inches long and consists of little more than a chassis, wheels, an electric motor, and a detachable fuel cell. But it chugs right along and even comes with a separate solar-powered rig for making the fuel.

For most prototype hydrogen-powered cars, including General Motors’ $5 million Hy-wire (see “Stop Driving With Your Feet,” Discover, October 2003), fossil fuels supply the hydrogen. In this case, a solar panel slightly bigger than a playing card harnesses the sun’s energy to generate an electric current that splits water into oxygen and hydrogen—a process known as electrolysis. One simply wires the solar panel to a set of two plastic cylinders filled with water. After 10 minutes in the sun, the water is replaced by the two gases-hydrogen in one cylinder, oxygen in the other. The cylinders are then disconnected from the solar panel and loaded, together with an attached fuel cell, onto the chassis of the car. There, the fuel cell forces the hydrogen electrons through a circuit, generating current and powering the motor before the electrons rejoin the hydrogen protons and oxygen to form the car’s only emission: water.

Presto, it’s off to the races: The Demo can scoot along silently for about five minutes on its tiny tankful. It’s just as much fun, though, to sit back and sunbathe as water slowly fizzes into fuel, musing on the day when fields of solar panels or high-tech windmills produce hydrogen just as cleanly as this device. In the meantime, if you want to see full-size hydrogen-powered vehicles in action, take a trip to Reykjavík or Stuttgart: In 2001 the European Union ordered fuel cells for 30 bus engines from the Canadian company Ballard Power Systems. The zero-emission buses now run in these and eight other European cities.

Jon Luoma


Mind Wide Open: Your Brain and the Neuroscience of Everyday Life

By Steven Johnson

Scribner, $25

Mind Wide Open

We know what the brain is. We can measure it, weigh it, and say with increasing precision how it works. We know that, with its wrinkles and creases, the brain is as ugly inside a jar of formaldehyde as it is beautiful, mechanistically, inside our craniums. But what is the mind? Is it a philosophical construct or is it something more, um, concrete? Is it inside the brain and, if so, where? Is it a part of the brain, or is the brain a part of it? In Mind Wide Open, journalist Steven Johnson takes on these questions starting in a note to the preface and suggests that we “consider the mind an emergent property of the brain: a whole that is somehow greater than the sum of its parts.” It’s a good answer, but one that he doesn’t tend to apply beyond the note itself.

The mind-brain question is important because what Johnson does is use new neuroscientific tools to give us insight into how individual minds work. By submitting himself to brain scans and neurofeedback technology and by interviewing researchers who are decoding the brain in new ways, he hopes to prove that “brain science has become an avenue for introspection, a way of bridging the physiological reality of your brain with the mental life you already inhabit.” Johnson is an engaging and intelligent guide, as readers of Discover (where parts of this book first appeared) have had many chances to learn. One follows him eagerly when he explores the neurophysiology of laughter or allows himself to be inserted into a magnetic resonance imaging machine reminiscent of an “oversized clothes drier,” where “the space itself is astonishingly small, and the sense of being encased in a huge piece of machinery unsettles more than you think it will.”

Given his geniality, and the intrinsic interest of what he writes about, one fights at first the nagging doubts that grow out of the mind-brain question. Is the mind more than the sum of its parts or isn’t it? Johnson explains how chemical processes in the brain are associated with such emotions as pleasure, affection, and fear, but we do not learn whether the chemicals control the emotions or express them. How far do chemicals and genes take us in describing the mind itself? Will chemistry ever explain the musical edifices of Mozart's mind? Or the finely textured web of any given half hour that any of us spends daydreaming? I doubt it. Science can say more and more about what the brain is, but it has some way to go before it can do the same for the mind.

Robert Wilson

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