Museum of Flight Opens its Doors
IT’S BIG!! That’s likely to be the first thing visitors notice when they set foot inside the Museum of Flight’s $12 million Charles Simonyi Space Gallery, opening to the public Saturday. The gallery, across East Marginal Way South from the museum’s main building, is indeed cavernous: 100 feet across, 140 feet deep and a ceiling 70 feet above the floor. But the main reason it seems so mammoth now is that it’s largely empty. It does have a few temporary exhibit panels, but its star attraction doesn’t take the stage for another six months. “It’s just a preview for now,” said Museum of Flight CEO Doug King. Entry to the gallery is included with admission to the museum, connected by a skybridge.
By sometime in June, King expects the gallery will complete an exhibit built around the “full fuselage trainer” the museum is receiving from NASA as the agency parcels out space-shuttle equipment, now that shuttle missions have ended. The 121-foot-long plywood trainer, still at NASA facilities in Houston, looks like a space shuttle without wings. It never flew, but every space-shuttle crew trained inside it. King was recently in Houston, where the trainer is being disassembled and prepared for shipment to Boeing Field in five main pieces: crew quarters, tail, fore and aft payload sections, and its base. Each section is so large it will be flown up aboard a NASA guppy, a cargo plane resembling a flying whale.
For Seattle, the trainer is something of a consolation prize. Museum of Flight backers had hoped to land one of the four space shuttles NASA is retiring. The space gallery, with its vast glass east wall facing the street, was designed by SRG Partnership architects and built by Sellen Construction to provide the indoor, climate-controlled site NASA required for the shuttles. But in April, Seattle was among two dozen also-rans when NASA Administrator Charles Bolden announced the shuttles would go to museums in New York, Los Angeles, the Kennedy Space Center in Florida and the Washington, D.C., area. Disappointed but not deterred, King said the trainer will offer something an actual shuttle would not — the ability to let museum visitors step inside. Regular museum visitors will be able to enter the craft’s cargo bay, and limited guided tours will enter the crew quarters.
This week, the gallery is acquiring its official name, honoring Charles Simonyi, Medina software innovator, philanthropist and one of the first “space tourists,” who twice traveled as a paying passenger on Russian space missions. The focus of the space gallery, King said, is not simply where space travel has been, but where it’s going. To that end, the museum Friday is hosting “Future of Spaceflight — NASA Future Forum,” which will bring together NASA officials and leaders from private companies exploring space travel and space technology.
The conference, King said, recognizes that in the future, private industry is likely to play a greater role in space exploration, although partnerships with government will still be crucial.