Under Your Nose: The Sky’s No Limit

Posted July 31, 2009 at 2:36pm

Prince George’s County offers some fascinating choices of activities for families. Just down the street from each other — and not far from the Capital Beltway and the Baltimore-Washington Parkway — are two historic, educational and fun places celebrating major milestones this year.

[IMGCAP(1)]The first option is Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. As NASA celebrates the 40th anniversary of the Apollo missions this year, the enormous Goddard center is celebrating its own 50-year anniversary.

“We’re working on making education fun for the masses,— said Wade Sisler, executive producer for NASA television. Goddard has initiated a big push to make science visible, accessible and captivating to a general audience — a group is even working on a visual accompaniment for a symphony that was inspired by gamma rays (watch the prelude at youtube.com/watch?v=EJfJyI8f7OU).

“In your own backyard … if it happens on the planet, the universe, these guys are exploring it, researching it,— Sisler said.

One of the center’s visual education projects happens to be in the visitor center: a large, suspended sphere, similar to the new one at the Museum of Natural History’s Sant Ocean Hall, that shows movies. Goddard scientists and engineers create custom presentations on the sphere, “helping to see things that you cannot see any other way in the universe and cosmos,— Sisler said. Though the sphere is on an hour loop on different short topics on the weekends, it’s often intermixed with speakers talking about various subjects.

Goddard’s visitor center, while not large in size, encompasses a large range of topics in an interactive way. Children can climb inside a Mercury capsule model, put on a specially made pint-sized spacesuit, learn about climate change and participate in a monthly model-rocket launch.

Just outside is a rocket garden with a Stonehenge feel, created out of actual NASA hardware, and a gorgeous panoramic view of the immense Goddard campus. There are also picnic tables and an ozone-monitoring garden (Sisler says he’s not sure how much it says about the ozone, but it’s a nice backdrop for picnics).

“Any year might have a big launch or two, but this year has already brought so many … milestones and missions,— Sisler said about the vast amount of research and exploration NASA is currently conducting. With this, Goddard has been hosting celebrations for the launches and offering many opportunities for the community to see the campus.

Sisler said interns, staffers and Members are all welcome to visit the center and get a personal tour — something any group can do if you call ahead and schedule it. “The science committee should come out and get personally briefed. [They] should get visual tours of the issues to better understand,— he said.

“Did you know that phytoplankton glow at night? Did you know you can see it from space?— Sisler asked. And, most importantly, did you know that the growth of phytoplankton “shows the health of the ocean?—

Admission to the visitor center is free, but visitors must arrange for a tour to get access to the campus. Visitor center hours for the summer are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday to Friday and noon to 4 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. For more information, visit nasa.gov/goddard.

First in Flight

Just down the road, the College Park Airport is marking the 100th anniversary of the first flight from its fields, and the adjoining aviation museum is celebrating all year.

1909 offered many firsts for both the history of aviation and for the College Park Airport. It was the year and place that Wilbur Wright (of the famed Wright Brothers) brought the first successful military airplane — the appropriately called 1909 Wright Military Flyer, one of which will be unveiled at the 100-year celebration — to the field in College Park. Wright proceeded to set the speed record for flight, clocking in at 46 mph. It was also where the first military officer flew solo and the first female was a passenger in a plane in the United States, all in the same year.

After that initial year of firsts, the soon-to-be military pilot school and eventual government aviation research facility celebrated many milestones.

Now the oldest continually operated airport in the world, the 26-acre flying field was joined by the College Park Aviation Museum in 1998. The museum offers an interesting and active history of the adjoining “Field of Firsts.—

The current featured exhibit, “Amid Cheers of Thousands,— is a photographic celebration of the Wright Military Flyer, the Wright Brothers’ record-breaking flight trials at Fort Myer, Va., and pilot training at College Park 100 years ago.

There are usually two to three temporary exhibits per year, said Warren Kasper, program curator for the aviation museum, on a wide range of topics, including a recent showcase of Snoopy as a World War I Flying Ace.

An affiliate of the Smithsonian Institution, the museum is much like the Air and Space Museum but more hands-on. The main gallery showcases historic aircraft and their reproductions seemingly everywhere — hanging from the ceiling, on the floor, and some, in fact, are available to climb into.

There are great interactive exhibits for children, one of which allows them to dress up like a pilot, get into a model airplane and pull on levers, watching the wing flaps move. There’s also an area where kids can create postcards while parents read about the history of airmail. There is even a 1919 airmail hangar on the grounds.

Kasper said it’s common for people to exclaim, “I never knew this was here,— when they first come to the museum, but they often become repeat visitors.

For a nice summer afternoon lunch, there’s a small picnic area by the operations building, but the better option is to pay the small price for admission and sit on the museum’s upper-level deck, for a leisurely day of watching planes come in.

While the actual centennial is in October, when Wright first began using the site to test planes for the military and to train officers, the big celebration will take place Aug. 29 (because of autumn weather concerns, Kasper said). AirFair 100 will feature aerobatic performances, helicopter and airplane rides, and aircraft displays.

The museum also hosts events such as Pilots Day, Hollywood Flyers film series and workshops year-round.

Open daily from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission is $4 for adults and $2 for children. Parking is free, and the museum and airport are accessible from the College Park Metro station. For more information, visit collegeparkaviationmuseum.com.