VASC, Hampton, Virginia

On the tranquil Chesapeake Bay, right in downtown Hampton, drop by the Virginia Air and Space Center. This splendid facility is the official visitor center for the nearby NASA Langley Research Center, adjoining Langley Air Force Base. The main gallery is an immense glass atrium, enclosing a remarkable array of aerospace vehicles. I spent a couple of years as a docent (volunteer teaching gude) here, and really enjoyed the chance to share aerospace history with kids from 5 to 85. The Center underwent a major transformation and exhibit upgrade for the 2003 Centenary of Flight.

Museum exhibits include a NASA F/A-18 Hornet research aircraft, which was used to flight test emerging thrust-vectoring technologies. My good friend, docent colleague, and fellow space collector Jason Schreck sits near the main landing gear. Ask for Jason if you want the really top-notch museum tour - he's a ten year veteran docent.

 

 

Only eight other ships in the Fleet have been where She's been:

The VASC centerpiece, Apollo 12 Command Module "Yankee Clipper" (CM-108). Appropriately, the all-Navy crew has their spacecraft on display in a true Navy town. Yankee Clipper is uncovered except for the main hatchway and top hatch/docking tunnel opening, offering an incredible firsthand view of this rugged spacecraft. The heatshield bears stark evidence of the 25,000 mph plunge back home.

Signed, Sealed, and Infested:

Notably, Yankee Clipper is also autographed! Both the outer hull and interior instrument panel were signed by the crew, after and during the flight, respectively.

The inscription reads: "Yankee Clipper, who sailed with Intrepid to the Ocean of Storms, Moon, November 14, 1969. Charles Conrad Jr., Richard F. Gordon, Jr., Alan L. Bean"

Yankee Clipper also carried the first Stowaway to the Moon (not to be confused with a cheesey 1974 movie about a kid hiding away in a storage locker aboard a Lunar mission). During the inflight press conference on the way back home, Pete Conrad holds up a cockroach which hitched a lift in a food locker. (OK, it was really only a fake cockroach.) I'm not sure who fessed up to the prank, but Pete asks for NASA Deputy Administrator George Low, plus Mission Control sounds like they're laughing at an inside joke when Pete puts the critter on camera.

 

Norway borrowed the rest of my Gemini!

The sculpted spacewalker represents Mike Collins during his Gemini 10 EVA, while John Young pilots the vehicle. The Gemini spacecraft looks a bit representational except for the single open pilot's hatch because the rest of the ship is in the Norwegian Technical Museum in Oslo. The two governments arranged a little trade, allowing Europeans a more convenient look at an American spacecraft.

 

 

Gemini's "Little Brother," the one-man Mercury which carried our first astronauts into space, hangs nearby. This Mercury spacecraft number 14, a test and research article which took even shorter trips than the first suborbital flights. The hatch and window are sealed, and it really does look like a titanium can: an image which created the derisive "Spam in a Can" description of early manned spacecraft.

 

 

The Spirit of Al Shepard

There's a lot of Al in this corner of the gallery. He was of course the premier Navy astronaut of the Apollo era, having retired as a Rear Admiral Upper Half (two stars). His actual backup EMU (the Lunar pressure suit) stands near two sculptures: one of Al in full Lunar gear, and a NASA engineer. Press a button, and they'll tell you a story about all Moon landing training. (I'm not one to judge, but this might not be the most flattering Al Shepard representation.) These figures all stand in front of the actual Lunar Excursion Module Simulator (LEMS). Don't confuse this with the Lunar Landing Training Vehicle (LLTV), the "Flying Bedstead" that is famous for a 1968 crash in which Neil Armstrong bailed out of it. Astronauts also used the less dangerous LEMS suspended from the Lunar Landing Research Facility gantry crane at the NASA Langley Research Center.

 

The Goodwill Rock

Finally, have a look a somewhat bigger-than-typical chunk of Luna. You just don't see samples this big in most museums fortunate enough to have one on loan. This piece of Lunar basalt was picked up by the Apollo 17 crew, and was part of a multi-country 'round-the-world tour before coming to roost in Hampton, VA. Unlike the slivers of Moon material at KSC and NASM, you can't touch this one, but you can certainly marvel at a piece of another world.