Museum of Flight

25 07 2012

Pioneer Pullman of the Air, Boeing 80A-1, Museum of Flight, Seattle, WA. Photo credit: JR

As you could probably tell from my Monterey Bay photo, most of my vacation had nothing to do with work or this website. Kayaking, hiking, running, watching Perry Mason…it was nice to get away from my job for awhile. We did make one stop worth mentioning here, though, when we joined a friend for a day at the Seattle Museum of Flight. Wow, has that place grown since the Red Barn first showed up on the edge of Boeing Field in 1983. The Great Gallery went up while I was a student at University of Washington and the museum has since added the Library and Archives Building (2002) and the J. Elroy McCaw Personal Courage Wing and Airpark (2004) to its campus. We gave it a good effort, but left one wing (no pun intended) almost completely unexplored at the end of the day.

Many of the artifacts at the museum have some connection with the Pacific Northwest. I’m sure the fact that my father grew up in Alaska and never missed a chance to warn me about flying over glaciers had something to do with my interest in the Bush Pilots of Alaska exhibit (or maybe not, it was a damn good display). I’m also sure I drove my partner crazy with my ramblings on Seattle/PNW aviation history as we moved from aircraft to spacecraft. She probably didn’t need to be reminded that Richard (Dick) F. Gordon and I grew up in the same town or that I met Pete Conrad while studying at UW, but she was a good sport about it.

Catherine’s first EVA. Photo credit: JR

We gave most of our time and attention to the exhibits focused on space exploration, particularly the Space: Exploring the New Frontier section. Rendezvous in Space was also sweet and gave me the excuse to start talking about Pete Conrad and University of Washington again. I tossed out a couple of tweets while I was wandering around, but @rindsay beat me to the best one: Science is for gals in housecoats, too.

I know I’m supposed to be a crack architectural photographer, but I found the Great Gallery to be a tremendously challenging space. Everything, everywhere, is backlit and a fill flash doesn’t help much. So, while I managed to get a few good photos of the aircraft and exhibits, I didn’t manage many of the building itself.

Iron Annie, Beech C-45H Expeditor, Museum of Flight, Seattle, Washington. Image Credit: JR

The Charles Simonyi Space Gallery, new home to the Space Shuttle Trainer (FFT), also threw up a few challenges to my camera, but I’ll get to those in my next post.

Super Guppy Delivers

1 07 2012

NASA’s Super Guppy loaded with crew cabin of shuttle trainer. Image credit: NASA

If you’ve been following the dispersal of the Space Shuttles to various museums around the U.S., you may have been struck by the variety of transportation methods used by NASA to relocate the retired fleet. Discovery traveled to its new home at the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Virginia, on the back of NASA 905 SCA. Explorer traveled to Houston by barge. Enterprise combined those two methods to arrive in New York. Later this year, Endeavour will piggy back on NASA’s jet to LAX, after which point it will travel by flatbed up the Santa Monica Freeway to the California Science Center. The journey, arrival, and unloading of the Shuttles have made for some riveting television for space enthusiasts.

This weekend, when the crew cabin of the Space Shuttle Trainer (aka Full Fuselage Trainer, or FFT) arrived at Boeing Field for installation in Seattle’s Museum of Flight, we saw yet another method for moving equipment. It is safe to say that Seattlites are accustomed to seeing a lot of air traffic and they can be somewhat jaded when it comes to flying objects (listen to the complaints about the Blue Angels during Seafair if you don’t believe me). But it’s not often the Super Guppy buzzes the Space Needle, much less lands and parks in a museum parking lot. I’d say it was a once-in-a-lifetime experience, but the Super Guppy should touch down at Boeing Field twice more to deliver two sections of the payload bay. If you’d like to witness one of those landings, keep an eye on the Museum of Flight’s webpage for scheduled arrival dates. In the meantime, enjoy some sweet photos of yesterday’s landing courtesy of the Seattle Times.

Sphinx Observatory

17 07 2011
Sphinx Observatory

Sphinx Observatory, Jungraujoch. Photo credit: Eric Hill

I travel a lot for work.* That can be a bad thing, in that I often miss sleeping in my own bed, but it can also be a good thing, because it gives me a chance to visit observatories that don’t necessarily fit in with my academic research agenda. One place I’d really like to visit–but let’s face it, the odds aren’t good–is the Sphinx Observatory at the High Altitude Research Station at Jungfraujoch, Switzerland. With its 76 cm Cassegrain telescope and Coudé focus, the observatory operates as part of the solar spectrometer of the Institut d’Astrophysique et de Géophysique de l’Université de Liège, Belgium, and the LIDAR system run by the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne, Switzerland.

I’ll admit that my interest in Sphinx is more about aesthetics and history than  current science research. LIDAR (Light Detecting and Ranging) is interesting, although meteorology isn’t my field, and certainly solar spectroscopy would hold my attention. But what really attracts me about Sphinx is its location 3500 m above sea level in the Bernese Alps.

Sphinx Observatory

Sphinx Observatory

Photos of Sphinx tend to emphasize the remote location and the extreme weather surrounding the observatory. The site looks pristine and almost primordial, as if humans had scarcely touched the mountain during the process of dropping an astronomical castle on its summit.

Sphinx Observatory

Sphinx Observatory

For the most part, however, the photos are illusory. Don’t misunderstand me: working conditions at Sphinx are challenging. The regulations for the research station highlight some of the challenges, noting that, “because of the high altitude and the isolation, life and work at Jungfraujoch make great physical and psychological demands. Experience has shown that in general the researchers at Jungfraujoch do not have the same working capacity and are more irritable than at lower altitudes. If possible, researchers should not stay at Jungfraujoch for longer than approximately four weeks at a time.” So, that’s a serious emotional and physical commitment in pursuit of scientific research. The alpine weather can’t help much (check out the mountain web cam if you don’t believe me).

Still, as beautiful as they are, the photos misrepresent the observatory just a bit, in that they mask the site’s accessibility. The observatory is accessible year round via the Jungfrau Railway and, in fact, it was because the railroad made visiting the summit so (relatively) easy that the mountain was chosen as the site for meteorological research. Discussions for implementing a research program began as soon as the railroad was completed in 1912. The research station grew in fits and starts for years, and the observatory wasn’t completed until 1937. The first dome was added to the observatory in 1950. As it turned out, the need for astronomical observing was so great at the station that another two domes were added at the Gornergrat High Altitude Research Station (Matterhorn region) in the 1960s.

As the histories of both Jungfraujoch and Gornergrat research stations demonstrate, high altitude research is as connected to tourism as it is to science. While early explorations of the alpine region were driven by what we might call “scientific curiosity,” particularly the glacial and geological studies, the introduction of the railroad opened up the mountains to anyone who could afford to pay for passage. Hotel building at Gornergrat began in 1896, and when the railroad was completed in 1898, tourists flocked to the region. The Hotel Kulm Gornergrat was built between 1897 and 1907; today the hotel uses its immediate proximity to the research station as a draw for tourists. Visiting is still a matter of money: the roundtrip ticket from Zermatt to Gornergrat is 60 Euros; a double room at the Hotel Kulm will run you 167.65 Euros. You can eat fairly cheaply in the cafeteria of the Top of Europe Restaurant at Sphinx, but the Crystal dining room will set you back a bit more (I have no idea why they have a Bollywood room in the Alps). Some forms of leisure are just always reserved for the monied among us.

Sphinx Observatory

Sphinx Observatory

I can’t say that Switzerland has ever made my top twenty list of places I’d like to visit, but the photos of Sphinx Observatory are certainly making me reconsider my priorities. It’s going to require some serious re-working of my household budget, though.

Sphinx Observatory

Sphinx Observatory

*A lot. In the past six years, I’ve spent fourteen months in India, three months in the United Kingdom, and two weeks in France, all in the pursuit of research.  Other work-related travel conducted in the same time period has taken me to:  Minneapolis, Madison (x2), Chicago (x4), Boston, Los Angeles, Austin, Washington D.C., Savannah, Pittsburgh, New Orleans, Philadelphia, South Bend, Princeton, and New York. I’m not even going to talk about trips to visit family in Washington, Oregon and California.

Meteor Crater Observatory

20 06 2011
Meteor Crater Observatory

Meteor Crater Observatory, c. 1943. Image courtesy Illinois Digital Archives

The building shown above wasn’t designed for viewing the night skies, but as its caption suggests, it was built for the purposes of contemplating a (long past) astronomical event. This is a photo of an observatory built by Harry Locke in the late 1930s for the purpose of viewing the Barringer Meteorite Crater near Winslow, Arizona. Harry and his wife, Hope, owned the land where Route 66 met the road leading to the Barringer crater. At that time, the crater was still privately owned by Barringer’s Standard Mine Company, and tourists weren’t welcome on the active mining site.  The Lockes opened “Meteor Station,” a cafe and gas station, at “Meteor Junction,” hoping the business would bring in enough money to fund their life’s dream, the building of a meteor museum.* They seemed to have immediately leased Meteor Station to “Rimmy Jim” Giddings (maybe they thought his colorful personality would draw in more tourists and so make more money?). Giddings ran the business until his death in 1943, after which time Ruth and Sid Griffin took over the operation.**

Apparently crater observatories weren’t a very lucrative business in the first half of the twentieth century. The Meteor Crater Observatory opened in the late 1930s but went into foreclosure after it lost money. Sadly, Locke was killed while trying to earn a living with the Winslow Police Department. After Locke’s death, Dr. Harvey Nininger took over the property and opened the the American Meteorite Museum in 1946. Nininger managed to attract some 30,000 visitors to the museum in the first year, but the business suffered with the re-alignment of Route 66 in 1949. Nininger hung on until 1953, when the museum closed for good. The building was abandoned and today, exists only as a ruin.

Meteor Crater Observatory, 1992.

Meteor Crater Observatory, 1992. Image courtesy Northern Arizona University Cline Library Special Collections and Archives

Old Observatory near Meteor Crater, 2003

Old Observatory near Meteor Crater, 2003. Photo Credit: D. C. McGhee

*Harry Locke was also an amateur cartoonist. His SW sense of humor was documented by Owen Arnold in the March 1943 issue of Desert Magazine (pp. 17-21).

**Joe Sonderman, Route 66 in Arizona, Charleston: Acadia Publishing, 49.

***Sonderman, 50.

Observatories and Instruments