Long known as “The Nation’s Attic,” the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., is home to a wonderful collection of our national treasures. I found that out during my first visit to the National Air and Space Museum (NASM) in April 1993. At the time, Gene and Carolyn Shoemaker and I had discovered Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9, but we had yet to learn the true significance of the discovery. It would soon be known that the comet had slightly more than a year of life left before it crashed into Jupiter in July 1994.
The purpose of my visit to the NASM back then was to discuss comet hunting. I ended up being late for a 9:30 a.m. meeting. I had rushed in to the museum, gone through security, and asked directions to the third floor. “Just cross this large room until you reach the elevators,” I was told. Seemed easy enough, but as I began hurrying across the ground floor concourse, the periphery of my vision kept trying to tell me that there were wonders to see. But I hadn’t come to see the exhibits.
That’s when I almost bumped into a particularly large exhibit. I stopped to take a look. It was Columbia, the Apollo 11 command module. For I moment I just stared, thunderstruck. I was a foot away from the spacecraft that carried Armstrong, Aldrin, and Collins to the Moon and back in July 1969! And soaring high above it was the Spirit of St. Louis, Lindberg’s plane that made the first transatlantic flight in 1927. I walked a little farther, and stood alongside Friendship 7, John Glenn’s Mercury capsule that orbited Earth in February 1962. Skylab was nearby. I decided it was well worth being a few minutes late in order to feel this unparalleled sense of humanity’s accomplishment in space.
Since the NASM opened in July 1976, its collection has been getting better and better. One of Clyde Tombaugh’s two photographic discovery plates of Pluto resides there. And the museum now boasts William Herschel’s twenty-foot telescope. This is the instrument with which he did most of the observations from the mature part of his career after discovering Uranus with a smaller scope. It is also the telescope that his son John took to Cape Town, South Africa, during the 1830s to chart the southern sky.
My recent visit to the NASM was to give the opening lecture for a 2009 series honoring the International Year of Astronomy. David DeVorkin, curator of the museum’s astronomy collection, asked me to answer the question “Why is astronomy so popular?” When I got started in astronomy that was an easy question to answer. In those days we were headed for the Moon. Today, however, with Moon landing just a memory, the topic is more challenging.
I did think of three good reasons. Astronomy deals with distant places and other times that take us away from the routines of daily life. It forces us to look at the world from the quieter perspective of the sky that is ushered in at sunset, an activity far removed from the evening news and the trivia of the day. Astronomy also deals with unimaginable vastness; giant worlds, fusing suns, great clusters of stars, and superclusters of galaxies. And. at its most basic level, astronomy is accessible to everyone. One cannot be an amateur brain surgeon, but one can easily enjoy a lifetime of success as an amateur astronomer. Without a formal education in the subject, it is possible, and in fact fairly easy, to enter the peaceful, magnificent world of the night sky and spend a lifetime enjoying it.
During my stay in Washington I had a chance to pass by the White House, which reminded me of my January posting here about “Obamastronomy,” and a photo caption suggesting that the White House might have room for a dome on its roof. After returning home I had a little Photoshop fun with a few of my snapshots, as you can see here.
Wouldn’t it be great if every home had an observatory so that we could all reach for the stars?