Sometimes, seeing isn't believing until you take something apart. On the 60th anniversary of the launch of Explorer 1 by the United States, I'm prompted to recall the most valuable lesson I ever learned about what it means to be a curator.
With its spherical shape and piecemeal construction, it’s easy to see similarities between the Telstar satellite on display at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum and the infamous Death Star of the Star Wars films. Aside from a passing resemblance in design, both pieces of technology also address a larger question that has been a focal point for humankind in reality and fantasy: what does space mean for humanity?
Visitors to the newly renovated Boeing Milestones of Flight Hall may miss one particular satellite hanging amongst historical heavyweights such as the Ryan NYP Spirit of St. Louis and the Lunar Module LM-2. This object, however, with its distinctive blue solar panels deployed, is a full-scale engineering prototype of Mariner 2, the first spacecraft to radio useful scientific data from the vicinity of another planet, Venus.
Given the enormous popularity of GPS among civilian users, and the critical applications for the military, it is not surprising that a large body of literature has arisen about the origins of this remarkable technology. The curators of the new Time and Navigation exhibition discuss this history, and we have illustrated it with a few select artifacts, such as the engineering model of the Navy’s NTS-2 satellite, one of the key demonstrators of the technology that led to the deployment of the GPS constellation.
Preparation of the upcoming Time and Navigation exhibition is in full swing, and objects are being installed in cases throughout the gallery. In fact, the gallery became a little more shiny just in time for the holiday season thanks to a delivery from our friends at the Naval Research Laboratory.
“Are you sure you want to donate this?” I asked the intern. “This” was a slightly-used Smartphone, in perfect working condition. The intern, Rebecca Bacheller, was, indeed, willing to donate it. She heard that the Time and Navigation team wanted to disassemble one and showcase the current state of geolocation devices, enabled by the Global Positioning System and other advanced electronics. Our plan was to label the phone’s circuits, and show how they correspond to classical methods of navigation that had been practiced for centuries. Becky was excited that she would be credited in the label; she also had another motive: namely a reason to trade up to the newest version of the popular phone.
Last week, the Museum recognized the 50th anniversary of Telstar, the first “active” satellite (one that can receive a radio signal from a ground station and then immediately re-transmit it to another) and the first technology of any kind that enabled transatlantic television transmissions. In 1962, both accomplishments generated intense interest, excitement, and commentary.