Three Firsts by Imran H. Khan

The Air and Space Museum in Washington DC holds some of the most historic air and space crafts in the history of flight. The invention of flying machines is quintessentially American and this museum is a testament to that fact. I was recently visiting DC to see my daughter and had a few hours to kill. So I moseyed over to this museum with my camera and took some photos of these amazing machines that I am sharing here with you.

DSC_0589The first thing that strikes the visitor is the rapid pace of development from flimsy Wright Brothers plane to the SpaceShipOne that will soon be ferrying space tourists. This evolution of flying machines happened within a century and was in large part driven by defense spending and two world wars. As you enter the museum you find yourself in a huge hall that boasts planes and spacecrafts that were the first in their genres. It has aircrafts like Spirit of St. Louis that crossed non stop the Atlantic Ocean, the first space craft Sputnik, the first plane to go supersonic X-1, the first plane to go hypersonic and space X-15, the first jet aircraft and many other firsts. Another adjacent hall boasts the evolution of civil transport aircraft without which I would not have come to the States. These days we take reliable and safe air travel for granted. But when you look at these aircrafts it is obvious that not too long ago the act of flying was full of risks. The photo of the flight deck of 1950’s transport plane shows that the complexity of controlling the aircraft was very high. The flimsy mechanical controls and primitive radar scope is an indication of the frailty of the plane.

There is no other piece of machinery where the form strictly follows the functionality. Each aircraft evokes the sensibility of the role of that aircraft. The high flying U2 is reminiscent of flying sea gulls. X-15 evokes raw power and speed. Air breathing crafts are stream lined with smooth flowing skins. As they enter space the construct suddenly turns exoskeletal and the internals become exposed. DSC_0606Spacecrafts exude the free style dictated by the insatiable need to replenish power through their solar cells and connectivity through multiplicity of antennas. The design of satellites is light and has the minimalist feel of insects. The SpaceLab is a bulky precursor of eventual space colonies.

The UAVs are the first forms of airborne robots. The technologies developed for these robots will eventually find its way into all kinds of future robots that will allow us a much higher quality of life and be our surrogates for most menial tasks. Highly evolved robots many centuries from now may look at these robots as we view Neanderthals and view us as their creators.
DSC_0591As an aeronautical engineer I can imagine the zillion design tradeoffs that must have gone into the design of each of these birds. The photos of the internals of piston and jet engines expose the beauty of designing something intimately tied to the laws of thermodynamics. These machines are the result of synergies of innovations and understandings in materials, propulsion, lift, drag, control, communications, gravity and navigation.

The Apollo 9 mockup on moon brought back distant childhood memories of the summer night in Peshawar when I lay awake looking at the moon listening to Neil Armstrong’s words on radio as he first stepped on it.


These machines have brought about a qualitative change in our lives which is so omnipresent that we are at many times not even aware of it. When an overnight package arrives at our door steps, when we watch weather reports or when we make an overseas phone call we are enjoying the fruits of these machines. Even the evolution of computers was sped up by the effort to land the man on the moon.

We are indebted to the pioneering spirit of those who designed and flew these machines first. The U-2 and F-104 are the artwork of my all time engineering hero Kelly Johnson. Wernher Von Braun engineering and administrative genius led to the lunar landing in record time. The rest of the space endeavors since then have yet the catch up with the marvels achieved in the 1960s. Charles Lindberg succeeded in crossing the Atlantic where so many had failed because of his complete belief in the success of his flight which allowed him to take fuel instead of rafts and other survival equipment. He navigated to the landing site in France by following the cars headed to the landing field. Chuck Yeager’s X-1 in which he broke the sound barrier and other X planes can also be seen here.

I have put the album of these photos for your viewing pleasure. You can view the album and also download the high resolution images HERE. They are for your personal consumption only.

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3 Responses to “Visual Story of Flight at Smithsonian Air and Space Museum”

  1. Sohail Rabbani on November 29th, 2009 6:36 pm

    Thanx for the Eid message, Imran. It is a pleasent relief to get away from the grotesque orgy of animal slaughter on this annual festival and look at modern things instead of primitive practices.

    I love the Smithsonians… Admittedly, my first preference is the natural history museum, or museums — where ever they happen to be (London, NY and Denver also have great NH museums, I hear LA too but haven’t seen that one). Science museums come next in my book, and to me the air and space museum is just a specialized form of ‘science and technology museum’… And speaking of science and technology museums, Toronto’s is also fabulous.

    Von Braun, as you would surely know, was in Huntsville, Alabama, for twenty years. His accomplishments in advancing the space program, I think, absolve him of his earlier role in the V2 program of the Third Reich.

    Thanks for sharing this.


  2. Kaiser Tufail on November 30th, 2009 2:50 am

    Imran, a very well written piece and the presentation is slick. Keep up the good work. You have heard that one, I am sure: “Man’s flight through life is sustained by the power of his knowledge.” I plan to put that up in my library! You could consider it for your blog as a sub-title.

  3. Flying Games on March 14th, 2010 2:42 pm

    I recently came across your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I don’t know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.