Looking Back at "Looking at Earth"

Posted on Thu, November 29, 2018

“From balloons, to aircraft, to spacecraft, we have pushed ourselves higher and higher to different goals and challenges. Yet to many who have participated in these thrilling voyages, the best part of all was looking back toward home.”

These words that introduce Air and Space’s "Looking at Earth" gallery still ring true today. After 32 years, the gallery will close on December 3 as the Museum embarks on a years-long project to revitalize our infrastructure and transform our exhibitions. What better time to take a look back at the early days of the exhibit and how it came together?

 It was one of our first major exhibitions to combine our air and space sides together.

When I first received the assignment to be curator of the gallery, it had been conceived as an update to the existing Satellites gallery with an added emphasis on Earth observing satellites.  When a staff member suggested to Walt Boyne, the Museum’s Director at that time, that the very large U-2 aircraft in our collection could actually fit in the gallery, the theme changed and the exhibition became a look at both aerial and orbital remote sensing of the Earth. It was one of our first major exhibitions to combine our air and space sides together and was a valuable collaboration through many departments of the Museum.

I’ll have to admit, though, at first I thought they’d never fit the huge U-2 with its more than 80-foot wingspan into that space. Ultimately this was accomplished by re-routing some of the gallery’s sprinklers and ducts and raising a portion of the drop ceiling. As you may imagine, installing this aircraft was a challenge. Early one morning in August, 1985, with wings and tail off, it was driven from our Paul E. Garber Facility in Suitland, MD downtown to the Museum on the National Mall. I can only guess what some commuters must have thought that day as they drove to work next to a U-2!

The Lockheed U-2C enroute to the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, DC, 1986. Credit: National Air and Space Museum.

Despite my initial concerns, the U-2 formed a dramatic centerpiece for the exhibit. Kelly Johnson, renowned for his work with the U-2 at the Lockheed “Skunk Works”, attended the gallery’s opening reception in May, 1986. Then in his late 70s and in a wheelchair, I remember thinking that it must have been hard for him to get there. But I think perhaps it was important to him and others in the field to attend, since they rarely had the opportunity for public recognition of their often very secret work. Art Lundahl, a pioneer in aerial reconnaissance photo interpretation, also attended. He playfully posed for this appropriately labeled photo in a section dedicated to the beauty of aerial images.

Art Lundahl, a pioneer in aerial reconnaissance photo interpretation, in the “Looking At Earth” gallery, 1986. Credit: National Air and Space Museum.

The opening reception for the "Looking at Earth" gallery, 1986. Credit: National Air and Space Museum

One of my favorite artifacts in the gallery is the engineering model of the Multispectral Scanner (MSS), the sensor flown on the first Landsat satellites. The MSS provided the first images in a now decades-long Landsat global archive of the Earth over time, and showed the beauty of the Earth from a new perspective. Another favorite is the TIROS I backup and test model. First launched in 1960, TIROS revolutionized how we understand and predict the weather.

The designer I worked with on "Looking at Earth" was John Clendening, a talented artist who put the words, images, and artifacts into a striking layout. The “air” side was done in green and brown earth tones, and the “space” side, in blues and blacks, was built on a slightly elevated platform to mirror the increase in altitude of the observations. Stunning 10-foot square photomurals of DC from air and space flanked each side of the gallery.

These satellites exemplify the critical role spacecraft play in weather forecasting. At right, the prototype TIROS II, representing an early series of weather satellites; at left, a test version of ITOS, a later generation TIROS; and between them, a scale-model GOES satellite.

In the field of Earth observations there are always new developments, and in order to reflect this we developed a “What’s New” area that could be easily updated to show the latest imagery, missions, and research. In 1980s technology, that was a bank of backlit transparencies that would be changed out once or twice a year. Now the transparencies have been replaced with flat screens that can be updated constantly.

In the course of conducting research for the gallery, I enjoyed interacting with experts from a variety of agencies, including NASA, NOAA, USGS, EPA, and commercial remote sensing organizations. The science and technology of Earth observations and monitoring continue to have applications in so many different fields, and they help us understand Earth processes and how the Earth changes through time. As the gallery closes, I’ll always have fond memories of a place where the science and beauty of "Looking at Earth" came together.

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