Space Geek’s Guide to the Navy Museum

Did you know that without Naval Aviation, there might not be a U.S. space program? From our first manned space flight, America’s space program is replete astronauts who wore Wings of Gold:

  • Alan Shepard, the first American in space
  • John Glenn, the first American to orbit Earth
  • Neil Armstrong, the first man to walk on the moon
  • Jim Lovell, commander who brought the ill-fated Apollo 13 mission home safely
  • Wally Schirra, only astronaut to fly in the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo space programs
  • Eugene Cernan, the last man to walk on the moon

The Museum’s many space exhibits honor these extraordinary individuals and their path from Naval Aviation to outer space. So, if you’re crazy about the cosmos, we’ve compiled a list of things you won’t want to miss.

Stratolab V
A year before the Space Race kicked into high gear with the launch of the Soviet Union’s Sputnik 1 satellite, manned flight reached closer to space using a more traditional method—a balloon. There was, however, nothing traditional about this particular balloon.

Funded jointly by the Office of Naval Research and the National Science Foundation, this balloon was designed to carry a crew of two in a pressurized gondola called a Stratolab and was constructed with an extremely thin layer (two-thousandths of an inch thick) of polyethylene plastic, which, unlike rubber, would not expand and explode at high altitudes.

Stratolab was a United States Navy program designed to scientifically explore the upper reaches of the stratosphere. Stratolab balloon missions made observations, performed experiments and collected biomedical data, providing vital research for the manned space programs to come. The five Stratolab flights culminated in a record-setting flight on May 4, 1961, by Commander Malcolm Ross and Lieutenant Commander Victor Prather, who set an altitude record of 113,740 feet just two hours and 36 minutes after takeoff from the USS Antietam. Their historic achievement ended tragically when Victor Prather drowned during the post-landing recovery.

For one day, the balloonists held the record for traveling higher into space than any American. The next day Alan Shepard would fly beyond Earth’s atmosphere and become the first American to reach outer space. Later that year, President John F. Kennedy awarded the Harmon Trophy for Aeronauts to Ross and Prather (posthumously). The Stratolab V gondola and Mark IV pressure suits like those the pair were testing that fateful day are on display on the second floor of the Museum, by the new Lighter-Than-Air exhibit, which highlights naval aviation in balloons and airships from the Civil War to the Cold War.

Freedom 7 Replica
The first manned Mercury launch included four Naval Aviators, among them Alan Shepard, who became the first American to fly in space on May 5, 1961. The Freedom 7 capsule was launched to an altitude of 116.5 nautical miles in a flight lasting 14.8 minutes. Measuring only 6 feet, 2.5 inches in diameter, the cone-shaped one-man capsule offered precious little maneuvering room. It featured an orange escape tower that in the event of an aborted mission, ejected the capsule from the rocket. A replica of the Mercury Freedom 7 spacecraft flown into space by America’s first group of astronauts is on display next to a bust of Shepard.

Apollo Space Exhibit
Six of the seven Apollo missions to the moon were commanded by Naval Aviators, so it’s no surprise that the Museum’s Apollo exhibit commemorates the Navy’s role in this signature period in American history. The interactive exhibit features the sights and sounds of Apollo missions, including a rich collection of footage shot by NASA from launches and moon landings to the Navy’s recovery of command modules after splashdown. The surface of the exhibit resembles the dusty landscape of the moon, complete with footprints. The centerpiece is a replica of the Lunar Module, Challenger, that landed Apollo 17 astronauts on the moon December 11, 1972, as well as a replica Apollo spacesuit and lunar rover. An array of Apollo artifacts on display include the rescue basket from the Sea King helicopter that was used to recover Apollo 11 astronauts Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins from the Pacific Ocean for transport to the USS Hornet on July 24, 1969.

Astronaut Space Suits
Included in the array of space suits worn by U.S. astronauts is an XN-17 suit manufactured in 1962 by B.F. Goodrich in Akron, Ohio. The XN-17 is an adaptation of the Mark IV pressure suit that was tested by Malcolm Ross and Victor Prather on the Stratolab V mission and was eventually adapted for use by astronauts in Project Mercury. Interestingly, each of the seven Mercury astronauts was provided three space suits specifically tailored to their physical size. Each cost about $5,000.

Skylab Command Module
The Skylab program was America’s first experimental space station. Skylab made extensive use of Saturn and Apollo equipment and was designed to prove that humans could live and work in space for extended periods. Skylab 1 was the launch of the unmanned Skylab station into space via a Saturn V rocket. Skylab 2, 3 and 4 were manned missions to the orbiting space station, where crews performed maintenance and conducted experiments.

The first manned mission, Skylab 2, was flown by an all-Navy crew (Charles Conrad, Paul Weitz and Joseph Kerwin) on July 28, 1973. The 28-day mission established records for the longest duration manned spaceflight, greatest distance traveled and greatest mass docked in space. Despite early mechanical difficulties, the Skylab program was wildly successful, with crews occupying the space station for a total of 171 days and 13 hours and performing nearly 300 scientific and medical experiments.

A centerpiece of the Museum’s collection of space artifacts is the command module for the Skylab 2 mission, on loan from the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington D.C.

Astronaut Ice Cream
When you’re all geeked out from visiting the Museum’s space exhibits, head over to the Flight Deck Store for some tasty astronaut ice cream. Originally developed for the early Apollo missions, Astronaut foods are frozen to -40º F and then vacuum-dried and sealed in a special foil pouch. The products sold in the Flight Desk Store are manufactured by the same company that supplies freeze-dried foods to NASA for the space missions.

There’s much more to see and do at the Navy Museum, so please download a map or browse our exhibits today to plan your perfect visit!

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