Armstrong Air & Space Museum Holds Touching Surprises

By Scott Spangler on May 25th, 2016

Armstrong-11Interactive exhibits aside, the unifying prohibition at most museums is “Do Not Touch!” A look at the shiny noses on bronze busts of notable figures tactilely demonstrates the long-term wear that would damage more fragile artifacts of historical significance. So it was a surprise to see a band of titanium not covered by the Plexiglas cocoon that surrounded the Gemini VIII capsule on display at the Armstrong Air & Space Museum in Wapakoneta, Ohio.

This exposure was not an oversight, said a docent. Visitors were encouraged to touch history, to make a tactile connection not only with history, but with a place few humans will ever venture on their own. As so many thousands have done before, I ran my fingers across the titanium aft of the capsule cockpit doors. Its texture was uniform throughout my arm’s reach, roughly half of the capsule’s diameter. Titanium clearly seems impervious to bronze’s shiny nose syndrome, and Gemini VIII’s pilots, Neil Armstrong and David Scott, were really little guys.

My tracing touch took place almost 50 years to the day this flying machine made the first docking of two spacecraft on March 16, 1966. It recalled memories of TV news reports and photos (was it Life?) of this capsule docked with the Agena Target Vehicle. Nowhere could I recall the flight’s other first, a critical system failure—a thruster malfunction that sent the docked capsule rolling—that immediately aborted the mission and put its success in question. Learning about its specifics, it reinforced my impression of Neil Armstrong as an unflappable aviator with big brass focus.

Armstrong-23In late 1991 I met Neil Armstrong at Kansas City’s Downtown Airport, where he was filming an episode of A&E’s First Flights. A Flight Training magazine coworker, Loy Hickman, was flying his Beech Baron 58 for the air-to-air of the Super G Constellation, and with still photos I was documenting the production for the airplane’s caretaker, Save-A-Connie, now the National Airline History Museum. A producer made the introductions, and we shared shy smiles and a firm handshake. Reticent but not rude, Armstrong was focused on the mission at hand, and it seemed clear to me during the day that he had no desire or interest in receiving accolades for past accomplishments.

And learning about his early life at the museum that bears his name revealed the roots of this singular focus on what was ahead of him, not behind. Would anyone expect anything less from a dedicated aviation geek who joined the American Rocket Society in his youth and earned his pilot’s certificate before worry about his driver’s license? And this led to another surprise. Hanging on the museum’s wall was the Aeronca 7AC Champ in which Armstrong earned that pilot certification. (And another surprise greeted me in the museum’s foyer: photos of the 24 astronauts from Ohio.) Perhaps the most telling words conclude his yearbook entry the year he graduated, “He thinks, he acts, ‘tis done.”

Armstrong-28In front of the museum was another aircraft Armstrong flew, the Douglas F5D Skylancer. Of the four examples built to simulate the flight characteristics of the planned space vehicle for Project Dyna-Soar, it is the only survivor. Armstrong flew the test program that ran from 1960 to 1962 that led to Dyna-Soar, which launched a winged spacecraft that would glide back to Earth and land like an airplane.

Most of the museum’s other artifacts, Armstrong’s Gemini pressure suit and his backup Apollo attire—and a rock he collected on the moon—were safely behind glass. I didn’t do so well in the LEM simulator; my four lunar landing attempts were unsuccessful, as they were in the space shuttle sim. And like I would have been in the Gemini capsule, I was too big and heavy for the air-cushion zero gravity simulator.

Located just west of Interstate 75, the Armstrong Air & Space Museum is 60 miles north of Dayton, Ohio, and the head of the area’s National Aviation Heritage Area. It was on the way home from a road trip that circled through the eastern half of the United States, so I decided why not stop? As I returned to the road after several hours of eager exploration of its contents, it reinforced the reality that treasure is often found in unexpected places like Wapakoneta. –Scott Spangler, Editor

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