There is a magical spot in Washington, D.C. I’ve just recently discovered. The spot has been there for years. Eons, in fact. But the inspirational quality of it has only become apparent relatively recently. Thank goodness I was fortunate enough to happen upon it and reflect on its power.
The spot I’m so enthralled by is located inside the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum on the South side of the National Mall. If you enter from Jefferson Drive SW, as I did, you’ll find this majestic spot of aeronautical reflection just inside, past the metal detectors, and the x-ray machines, and the security personnel who exhibit a general malaise so pervasive as to suggest they have never entertained the idea of turning around to see the wonders that lie just behind them. But I digress.
If you move south toward the Independence Avenue exit, you’ll notice a tall glass case to your right. It’s not particularly intriguing in its own right. To be honest, it contains little to grab the attention of a hard-core aviation enthusiast, and nothing that would attract the eye of the average ground-pounder. That is until a closer inspection is undertaken.
The main item in the case is a wooden disc, less than 2′ in diameter, I would guess. An inner circle has been cut from the outer ring. A hinged attachment running across the center of the piece fixes the two wooden discs together. Fasteners that appear to be made of brass shine against the dark, ancient woodgrain of the main structure.
This is the outflow valve of a balloon flown by a visionary pilot with a showman’s heart. His name was Thaddeus Lowe. Lowe didn’t just pilot the balloon, he began a movement with it. For it was this same Thaddeus Lowe who finagled a meeting with then President Abraham Lincoln to pitch the idea of an aeronautical corps being attached to the military might of the troubled and divided United States.
He sold this idea brilliantly, with a demonstration of his balloon, the City of New York, levitating to a height of 500′. While aloft, Thaddeus made use of a telegraph key and associated wired connection to the ground he’d worked out with the American Telegraph Company, and sent the first message from an aircraft in flight — to the President of the United States.
Lincoln was sold. Thaddeus Lowe was hired on as the big dog in charge of the fledgling Balloon Corps. The aeronautical age began in earnest at that point with a memorable and magnificent demonstration of the first practical use of aeronautics intended specifically to benefit people on the ground.
That’s not what’s magical about this spot of floorspace, however. It’s impressive. It’s a little-known chapter in American as well as aeronautical history, but it’s just the first part of a long, long, story that’s only separated by a few steps across the museum’s floor.
If you back away from the glass case containing Thaddeus Lowe’s homemade outflow valve, refocus your eyes on the case itself, the glass that protects this historic treasure, you will find where the magic happens. There, reflected in the glass of the case, you will see the image of a Lunar Module of NASA’s Apollo era.
In the space of only a couple dozen feet rests a remnant of the first serious aeronautical exploit on this continent, and an example of our greatest achievement in human exploration. The two are separated by only a hop, skip, and a jump in physical space, a century in terms of time, and an almost unimaginable leap of human imagination, engineering, and production.
Squeezed into that short gap between these two museum pieces is the Wright Brother’s success at Kitty Hawk, Bleriot’s crossing of the English Channel, Glenn Curtiss’ development of the seaplane, the St. Petersburg to Tampa Airboat Line that pioneered scheduled airline passenger service, Juan Trippe’s launch of Pan American World Airways, Boeing’s introduction of the globe-spanning Boeing 707, John Glenn’s orbital mission in Friendship 7, and the shrinking of the world as aviation transformed the human experience forever.
Somewhere in that century of time, I learned to fly. You may have as well. That’s amazing. Our story is contained in that timeline, unspoken perhaps, unwritten about, but it is there, and it is important to us at the very least.
Now for the really good news. If you look past the Lunar Module, with Lowe’s outflow valve at your back, you will notice empty space. The rest of the story of aviation, aeronautics, and aerospace is yet unwritten. For those millions who have not yet taken to the skies, for those inventors who haven’t perfected their greatest achievement yet, for the travelers who will take humanity to places we can only dream about today – there is a long road ahead. A road that is only restricted by our own imaginations and our ability to produce and pilot the vehicles of our dreams.
And dream we will. As we always have. As Lincoln and Lowe did — and look where that got us. All the way to the moon and back.
Life is good. Aviation makes it better. I don’t know about you, but I can’t wait to see what’s just around the corner.