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Large and Small Wonders at the Intrepid
The Intrepid Sea, Air and Space Museum revolves around the Intrepid itself, the imposing aircraft carrier that is the centerpiece of the museum. The Intrepid houses the majority of the museum's exhibitions, yet it itself is one of the museum's most breathtaking and powerful attractions. I had planned to visit the Intrepid primarily to tour their new exhibition, HUBBLE@25, a display containing large pictures of some of the largest objects in space that all fit in the museum’s (relatively) small Space Pavilion located on the flight deck of the Intrepid. But before I even made it into the Space Pavilion, I found myself overwhelmed with curiosity and excitement to explore more of this historic and majestic vessel.
Entering the Space Pavilion, a short hallway leads to a large hangar, containing the Space Shuttle Enterprise, the first space shuttle. The shuttle looms majestically over the other exhibits in the pavilion, many of which provide fascinating information about the life of the shuttle (original plans called for the shuttle to be named “Constitution,” but the name was changed to “Enterprise” thanks to a campaign by Star Trek fans). The back portion of the pavilion is dedicated to the new exhibit HUBBLE@25, and features a maze of large photos taken by the famous telescope. Although many of us will have seen these or similar pictures before, their presentation, at a large scale, in this exhibit makes it even more impressive just how massive and distant these celestial bodies are from Earth. It is easy to take these depictions of space for granted, but this exhibit makes it clear how difficult it was to capture these images, and how much work, effort and material it took to make this possible. When the Hubble was first put into orbit, the photos were all blurry due to a tiny flaw in Hubble’s primary mirror. The front page of Newsweek (on display in the exhibit) called Hubble “NASA’s $1.5 Billion Blunder,” and a nearby screen shows dozens of editorial cartoons mocking NASA and Hubble. It took almost four years for astronauts to repair Hubble, including almost a year of training in preparation for a mission unlike any ever attempted. Taken in this context, the pictures from Hubble are even more impressive, beautiful, and significant.
I left the Space Pavilion and returned to earth on the flight deck of the Intrepid. This top level of the ship houses a large and varied collection of aircrafts throughout history, as well as a pavilion where aircrafts are restored. I was immediately drawn to the ship’s navigation deck. A narrow staircase leads up to the heart of the vessel, lovingly and painstakingly preserved as it was when it was first launched in 1943. A guide in this area of the museum explained that the vast majority of the museum’s revenue goes directly towards maintaining and preserving this incredible piece of history. In my remaining hour at the museum, I was only able to explore a tiny fraction of the tangled maze of the Intrepid. One narrow path near the front desk led me to the cramped quarters of the junior officers, and beyond them, the huge room from which the anchors were deployed. I could have easily spent an entire day exploring the catacombs of this historic vessel. Yet the Intrepid is also a museum in its own right – much of the hangar deck has been transformed into a modern exhibition space, containing a variety of rotating exhibits as well as an interactive “hands-on” space where visitors can experience what it’s like to ride a helicopter or work in space. A short film, The Story of Intrepid, reveals a bit of the Intrepid’s rich history, its variety of uses from an attack carrier in World War II to a base for FBI operations after the terrorist attacks on 9/11 to the museum it is today.
While I felt like this trip was only a brief casual introduction to the Intrepid, it is immediately clear just how important this vessel is to our nation’s history, and to the thousands of veterans who served on it. I am looking forward to visiting the Intrepid again and exploring more of its secrets (the museum also hosts the USS Growler submarine and the British Airways Concorde, neither of which I had a chance to explore!) The Intrepid is a truly unique and special museum, one where you can explore the tiniest corners of a historic aircraft carrier as easily as you can explore some of the largest and most distant objects in the universe.