Two world-famous museums sit just 11 miles apart in Virginia: one looks at the history and naval war, the other takes us into the future and space exploration.
Photography by the authors
Europeans today seem to know all about the Pilgrim Fathers and have heard New England’s 1620 tale that hosts its conceit that its immigrants came first to the New World. In the Deep South, Americans are well aware that Roanoke Island saw the first Europeans in 1585-1587 and after North Carolina’s Lost Colonies, it was the Virginia Peninsula that really received America’s first immigrants; and that was way back in 1607.
“The sea is all around us,” says a waitress in the Jefferson Diner in Newport News. “On my way to work I pass tug boats that are bringing ships in for repair and I see all those fishing vessels and our oyster beds. And this gives me a greater understanding of my heritage!”
Wow, such insight surely suggests locals really revel in their city. And so they should.
We had just come from the U.S. Army Transportation Museum in Newport News where we had been looking at the 1955 De Lackner Aerocycle, a “flying platform” capable of moving a combat-ready pilot across terrain at 70 mph, futuristic gadgets that seemed designed by Q for James Bond. It was a definite contrast with the folksy charm of the art on the walls of an American diner.
Newport News is an easy city for its residents to find their way around: the city is 25 miles long and only three miles wide. Visitors to Virginia seeking contrasts have to drive only 11 miles south from the world-famous Mariners Museum in Newport News to reach the equally grand Virginia Air & Space Center in Hampton. Those are national Smithsonian-quality treasures.
Just 11 miles from the building that has the secrets found in the USS Monitor 230 feet deep in the North Atlantic off Cape Hatteras to one that has fragments of meteors that blasted out of space to deliver bits of Mars rocks to Earth — and has the original Apollo 12!
The Mariners Museum
We humans are creatures of the sea. It’s hard not to get a buzz from the smell of brine and the tang of seaweed and the roar of crashing waves. Visitors to the nationally famous Mariners Museum may come wanting to see specific artifacts from America’s history or they may arrive ready simply to soak up whatever is offered.
We had our shopping list, but we wandered around first, receptive of anything that caught our eyes, including the figurehead of the HMS Edinburgh, a British 74-gun ship of the line from 1811 to 1866. The figurehead was carved as a replacement in 1819 in Portsmouth Dockyard.
Exhibits also included a nurse Commander’s dress uniform and a nautical umbrella stand and, of course art, much historical painted at the time of the event. The 1845 L’Astrolabe Caught in an Ice Pack 9 February, 1838 by French artist Auguste Mayer (1805-1890) shows the despair of a happening a mere seven years before and the little book dated between the two larger ones is Nathanael Low’s Astronomical Diary, or Almanac For the Year of Christian Era 1779.
But we wanted to understand more about how the evaluation of the remains of the USS Monitor was going. We were aware of the story we suspect is known to every American school-kid that the Monitor sank in a storm off Cape Hatteras in December 1862. And we knew, although the Battle of the Ironclads had been inconclusive, metal ships so impacted naval warfare thereafter that the British Navy canceled its orders for all 35 wooden ships under construction.
We are also aware that we’re standing in a city, Newport News, which has built one half of all the U.S Navy’s aircraft carriers, including the US Enterprise, the world’s first nuclear powered carrier. This city has reason to be proud.
William Hoffman, the conservator, tells us about the ship he is safeguarding.
“The USS Monitor’s guns were impressive,” he says, “Fifteen-pound charges and 11-inch solid shot. But the Monitor had more than guns or a revolving gun turret. It had a crew in a shallow draft ship that, for the first time, worked and slept below the water line. And it had flush toilets!”
Hoffman seems to be half engineer, half chemist and another half historian. He has about 20% of a 210-ton ship to work with and he knows he cannot hurry. He has only one chance to preserve what’s left of the Monitor. We look down on one of its cannons and its famous gun turret, inverted as it sits, like the cannon, in whatever mysterious solution Hoffman has chosen for its next life. He is a patient man.
There are other mysteries to the salvage of this ironclad warship. Whose skulls were those found in the wreck of the ship? Archeological pathologists and forensic sculptors have narrowed it down to two sailors. They created computerized soft tissue to cover the bones then use faces to compare to photographic records. The concept is better seen in the following image.
The wooden box that looks like a typewriter is an original Enigma machine and when Polish patriots helped the Allies identify it and another was recovered intact from U Boat 110 in WWII the war was significantly shortened. Ships lost at sea and a life jacket from the Titanic also draw attention, as does a model of a Titanic lifeboat.
The big surprise in the Mariners Museum is a detailed display honoring Lord Nelson, the Royal Navy’s hero of the Battle of Trafalgar 1805 that established Great Britain as ruling the seas for the 19th century. Amongst many exhibits commemorating Nelson is a naval surgeon’s case of instruments made in France with the description of the instruments printed in French. Part of the exhibit is a card that allowed the bearer to attend Nelson’s funeral and a mural showing the famous scene where, shot by a French sniper, he is dying comforted by Hardy, his famous junior officer.
Next: The Virginia Air & Space Center
Virginia Air & Space Center
If the Mariners Museum shows the challenge of the seas and the horror of naval war from the past, the Virginia Air & Space Center leads us into the future. From how it all started with the Wright Brothers to how man could and did float in space, the visitor realizes the courage needed to face the unknown.
Whereas airplanes were once delicate machines, now even in war aircraft are powerful brutes like the most terrifying bird in the world, the cassowary, which comes from dinosaur stock and frightens even Australians.
Today’s fighter aircraft look intimidating. Some say the controversial and over-budget stealth multirole fighter, the Lockheed Martin F35, may be the last attack airplane manned by humans. If so, an era has passed.
The Air & Space Center makes its point in its name. It is not just a tribute to 100 years of flight but also an acknowledgement of our role in space exploration. A moon landing training unit is on display that astronauts practiced on. A piece of 3.67 billion years-old basalt moon rock is exhibited (top center of image) and an equally small and unobtrusive piece of Mars rock (mid lower right) has been identified as having come down to Earth as a meteor.
But the thrill for us was being shown around the displays by Kenneth M. Flick, the Volunteer Coordinator who is in charge of all the docents. Flick has a degree in government and “30 years in retail,” but his interest in space started when his father was flying into Washington National in 1959 and found himself sitting in coach beside a young man who said he was going to work for NASA.
“That’s where all the new spacemen are heading,” said his father, “Do you know any of them?”
“Yes, I do,” the stranger said, “My name is John Glenn.”
He waved his hand over other young men sitting around them and introduced all the other astronauts. They were all flying commercial in coach to show the Russians the U.S. program was a civilian one.
Flick is a character. He has encyclopedic knowledge of the Apollo 12 space flight and sometimes wears a T-Shirt that reads BRING BACK PLUTO. He leads us now to the original space module and demonstrates the burning its base endured on re-entry.
“Just think,” he says, “The space for three grown men was about what a VW Beetle offered — around the size of a porta potty. And in it, Charles Pete Conrad and Alan Bean and Richard Gordon, the module pilot, flew continuously 60 miles above the moon. In all they flew for 10 days and 983,000 miles: three days to get there and three days to come back.”
We photograph Alan Bean’s famous photo of himself reflected in Conrad’s visor.
“It took a lot of money to put Americans on the moon,” Flick tells us. “For instance, it cost two and a half million dollars to develop a pen that could write in space. The Soviets used a pencil!”
Flick wants us to understand something about the Apollo 12 mission. The thrust of Apollo 11, the first space shot to land on the moon, was “Let’s get it done!” The desire of those flying Apollo 12 was to seek precision. It landed within 600 feet of the Surveyor 7 probe.
The computers of 1950 were four-stories high. Today’s smart phone can make 150,000 more calculations in a second than the space craft computers of that time. Yet accuracy was so well established that the landing on Phoenix, the North Pole of Mars, came within 30 to 40 yards of its target: A bull’s eye after flying 154 million miles.
Those were great moments for the United States.
The Andersons, who live in San Diego, are the resident travel & cruise columnists for Physician's Money Digest. Nancy is a former nursing educator, Eric a retired MD. The one-time president of the NH Academy of Family Practice, Eric is the only physician in the Society of American Travel Writers. He has also written five books, the last called The Man Who Cried Orange: Stories from a Doctor's Life.