This is a story about light and time and distance, about years and light years and how they intersect. It is partly a personal story, so I beg your indulgence. I hope it will inspire you to find your own star. I moved from Boston to Northern Virginia in November 1983 to work as an editor for a national association. In my free time, I began exploring the museums on the National Mall. I visited the National Air and Space Museum for the first time, and there I encountered an exhibit I’ve remembered ever since.
I found it in an exhibition called Stars, which had recently opened in Gallery 111. Perhaps because I had worked at Boston’s Charles Hayden Planetarium and knew the sky pretty well, I was drawn to an interactive exhibit called “Find Your Birthday Star.” The way it worked, as I recall, was you provided your age or birth year, pressed a button, and then on a large map of the heavens a star lit up—a star whose light shining in the current sky began traveling across the universe in the year you were born.
I knew that light travels through space at about 300,000 kilometers (186,000 miles) per second and covers almost 9.6 trillion kilometers (6 trillion miles) in a year, and that because the stars in the sky are different distances from us, they represent different “ages” of light. Still, I was enchanted by the discovery that I could now look up at the sky and locate a star whose light was about as old as me. I was just days away from turning 30, so my “birthday star,” 30 light-years away, turned out to be the sixth brightest star in the constellation Hercules—Zeta Herculis.
I was so enchanted by this discovery that I went home and dashed off a poem about Zeta Herculis. It wasn’t a great poem—I’m not a great poet. But it captured for me that moment of wonder and delight.
Thirty years is a long time in the life of a museum. In 1983, in addition to Stars, you could visit galleries at the National Air and Space Museum named Balloons and Airships, World War I Aviation, Flight Technology, Flight Testing, Vertical Flight, Satellites and Sounding Rockets, and Rocketry and Space Flight—all long gone now. General Aviation had recently closed, soon to be replaced by The Golden Age of Flight. Stars had replaced Social Impact of Flight, which had been called Benefits from Flight until someone decided that not everyone considered the atomic bomb on display a benefit. A bitter debate over the use of atomic bombs would arise in 1995, when the Museum became embroiled in controversy over plans for an exhibition called The Last Act: The Atomic Bomb and the End of World War II. The Smithsonian’s secretary canceled The Last Act a few months before its scheduled opening. The Enola Gay exhibition took its place but didn’t end the controversy.
Even the galleries that haven’t been completely replaced have changed in many ways. A good example is Milestones of Flight, the Museum’s soaring entrance gallery. New skylights filter the sunlight, and an added vestibule helps keep out dirt and dust. While visitors in 1983 swarmed through revolving doors, they now file through magnetometers and have their bags scanned, a sobering reminder of other ways the world has changed.
Standing here in Milestones, I see many things I wouldn’t have in 1983: the XP-59A Airacomet, the Breitling Orbiter 3, two decommissioned U.S. and Soviet ballistic missiles, and SpaceShipOne. Even more noticeable is what’s no longer here—the iconic 1903 Wright Flyer, which moved to its own gallery upstairs in 2003, replacing Where Next, Columbus? The other of the Museum’s three biggest galleries, Space Hall and the Hall of Air Transportation, have seen many changes as well. The exhibits in Space Hall were revised, enhanced, and unified in 1997 to create Space Race. A similar upgrade of Air Transportation in 2007 created America by Air.
Wandering through America by Air reminds me of how the Museum’s approaches to creating exhibits have changed. When the Museum first opened, each gallery was devoted to a particular era or aspect of aviation or space flight and displayed an assemblage of artifacts and exhibits relating to that topic. Technology was the main emphasis. Beginning in 1991, with Legend, Memory and the Great War in the Air, exhibit teams began creating exhibitions that used the artifacts and exhibits to tell more complete and coherent stories.
You can see the result when you compare World War II Aviation, an original gallery that hasn’t changed all that much, to the Barron Hilton Pioneers of Flight Gallery, completely redone in 2010 but featuring many of the same artifacts as the original gallery. The exhibits here are designed to engage a broad range of visitors, from children to adults, from those who like their exhibits “hands-on,” to those more information-oriented, to those who simply want to explore the gallery and enjoy discovering things. Like Pioneers of Flight and America by Air, new exhibitions try to satisfy a range of learning styles and use diverse approaches to excite and inspire visitors and hook their interest.
Not that an old-style exhibition doesn’t have its own appeal. A study some years ago revealed that Sea-Air Operations, an original gallery just upstairs from America by Air, remains a favorite among visitors. The main part of the gallery immerses you in the bay of an aircraft carrier hangar deck. It may lack the bells and whistles of newer galleries (although the whistle of a bosun’s call does welcome you aboard), but no other gallery in the Museum so completely transports you to a different place.
Another change has been an increasing emphasis on interactivity. In 1996 the Museum opened How Things Fly, its first and only gallery featuring mostly hands-on exhibits. Most new exhibitions now provide for interactivity of some sort, although hands-on exhibits here are challenging to maintain, given the phenomenal wear and tear they receive.
Like a constellation of stars, the Museum’s galleries represent a range of times—some exhibitions having just been born, others aging and changing, some ready to expire, and many existing now only in memory.
Thirty years is also a long time in the life of a person. When I first entered these halls in 1983, I had no idea that the National Air and Space Museum would become such an important part of my life. That a year and half later, I would meet the love of my life here on a museum tour and speak my first words to her beside the Apollo 11 capsule in Milestones of Flight. That 18 months after that, I would call to tell her I’d been offered the writer-editor job in the Museum’s Publications Office. That two years later, I’d move over to the Exhibits Department, where I’ve remained as its writer-editor ever since. That I would play at least a small role in shaping every exhibition created here since 1990. And that among those countless projects, I would work with the curator and a designer who created Stars to write its replacement, Explore the Universe.
Which leads me back to that poem I mentioned, the one I wrote after my first visit to the Museum. For what it’s worth, here it is:
Birthday for Zeta Herculis
I learned today the light
from Zeta Herculis we see
left that star
about the time I was born.
Were Hercules not shining
in someone else’s sky,
I would rush outside
to greet the light
as it passes by,
toast that slender ray
from that sixth-brightest star
of that modest constellation,
wish it happy birthday,
bon voyage, eternal youth.
Think of it:
a ripple of light
so fresh and unruffled
after trillions of miles
on the road,
the same radiant energy
that burst from that hearth,
diffused through the starry sea,
and breaks now over this reef
of planets and moons
like the wake of a passing ship,
or this poem in your hands
thirty years from now.
Light, time, distance. I am standing once again in Gallery 111, where Stars used to be, wandering through Explore the Universe, where you can still find an exhibit that will help you locate your birthday star. I hold in my hands those words I wrote about a minor star in a modest constellation—a message I tossed into the universe almost exactly 30 years ago and that has now floated back to me.
As I reflect on the seasons of my Smithsonian past, I wonder about the life I will have lived and where I will be, on a starlit night 30 years from now, when the light born tonight on Zeta Herculis washes over me.
What’s your birthday star?
Thanks for reading; I have to go. I have a birthday to celebrate, and heavens to behold.