Friday, August 18, 2006
Not to cripple everyone with despair, but this was supposed to be a fabulous photoblog of the Smithsonian's Air & Space Museum--a post bubbling with the kind of danger, daring and romance that only bad photos of complex gadgetry can convey. Alas, on my way back to the hotel I managed to push some wrong button on my phone and I erased everything. Apparently the words "all" and "selected" in the delete menu are just too similar. I know, I know: thank goodness I'm not entrusted with more sophisticated machinery.
And so, in lieu of graphic representations of rocket nozzles and twin-row radial engines, of spacecraft cockpits and multi-angle photos of the Enola Gay, you'll have to make do with *sigh* a textual description. (But really, once I realized that I had pushed the wrong button I then wondered at the point of the photos anyway. Can I really take any part of the experience with me? And can I convey it to someone else beyond, maybe, inclining them to go see it themselves?) (Help me, I've fallen down an introspection wormhole and I can't get up!)
Aviation, to revisit a threadbare theme here, is the perfect field for someone intrigued with machinery; it is a most fertile soil for problem solving and innovation, realms for showing off the lofty heights of human creativity and intellect. The technical challenges involved in controlled, powered flight are much more daunting than, say, designing an effective machine for transporting people over the ground. And so the rule book is more widely-flung, and the solutions arrived at over a hundred years of struggling with these issues remind me of nature's panoply of adaptation to the earth's hugely variable environments. One finds all manner of shapes and sizes, and wide variation of propulsion and control in these displayed vehicles. (Airplanes and helicopters and rockets do very similar things, but are mechanically utterly different.) If one is interested in design as a reflection of choices made, and if one is driven to figure out how things work, this place is like the Wonka Chocolate Factory. In every field, basic solutions to problems are found, and those solutions are then copied and refined by others in a way that can be traced like one's own family tree. And here we have a museum devoted to an entire and fascinating tree.
I'm mesmerized by this. The museum has (I feel my wife cringing already) an engine gallery, where the various powerplants used in aviation are displayed with explanations of whose idea they were, and whether they worked or not. And these things, on which a person's very life depends to a far greater degree than, say, with a car or motorcycle or boat, cover an absurd number of variants and configurations, in both reciprocating (piston) and continuous combustion (turbine and rocket) forms. The same lowly piston engine which powers all our cars figures so prominently in aviation's first 50 years, and for someone with a modicum of interest it's like a circus freakshow of abominations. Inlines from two to 36 cylinders, arrayed in single or multiple banks, rightside-up or inverted; radials in variants of 7 or 9 cylinders with almost impossible mechanical virtuosity; naturally-aspirated or forced induction; liquid cooled or air cooled; 100 horsepower to over 5,000. Many of them are cut away to show their inner workings. Mundane or passe now, they were the fruits of someone's careful thought and obsessive passion once. They were the ragged, cutting edge of what might be possible. And brave people tried these designers' theories in practice, often at the cost of their lives. And yet someone else was waiting to pick up where the deceased left off.
And much of the history of aviation is full of this stuff. I'm particularly taken, as I know I've written before, with the cockpit environment. This concentrated place of human interaction with the machine seems almost like a sanctuary to me, a near-sacred place where the harsh frontier of physics and mechanical limitations must interface with our delicate organic world. Even the most practical of drivers will have a sense of what they think of their car, of the comfort and quiet and controllability relative to other vehicles they have driven. For the more tuned-in operator, how the controls feel to the hands and feet, and how the machine responds to the control inputs can be important things. And in an airplane these things take on a paramount importance, as the accurate control of the speeding machine is, at least at times, a critical thing. Well, it's easy to forget that none of this was handed down to us on a stone tablet from above. Someone had, as above, to take a stab at how to solve these myriad problems, and the best solutions gradually won out and became standard. Will the pilot sit or lie down? Or stand up? (All have been tried.) Will they use a steering wheel? What will it control? A car maneuvers in two dimensions with control of only one axis; an airplane must maneuver around all three axes. How do we accomplish this? Interestingly, the hands and feet do very different things in an airplane than in a car. You get the idea.
Lastly, there is just no getting around the fact that all this innovation has been expensive, and the resources have been marshaled because the inventions in question could be used to kill people. So very much of the museum is military in nature, and even if the advancements have made their way inexorably to the civilian world, there's no escaping that we wouldn't have spent the time and money if these things did not have a primarily military application. (Not to be too squishy-liberal: I do understand a thing or two about human nature. I'm just saying.)