Flights of Fantasy

The National Air and Space Museum situated on the Washington Mall is the most popular of the Smithsonian Institution’s offerings. A gift to the nation for the bicentennial, the museum opened in 1976. I remember first walking into the building, dazzled by the Milestones of Flight giant entrance foyer which featured everything from The Spirit of St Louis to Apollo 11’s Lunar Module and other iconic markers of America’s space exploration. I excitedly waited in line to walk through the display where a moon rock was available for touching and hoped I could convince my parents to buy me some freeze dried ice cream. Learning about everything from the Wright Brothers first flight in Kittyhawk to listening to the transmissions as Neil Armstrong took that giant leap, the brimming potential of American scientific achievement inspired me to wonder what other future discoveries and achievements might someday be displayed.

 

Fast forward thirty-eight years, after millions of visitors have marched through the museum, amazed by what they see, the Milestones of Flight entrance hall requires a little sprucing up. The museum recently announced that Boeing is making a $30 million dollar donation for the hall to be renovated in time for the 40th anniversary of the museum’s opening. At the press conference announcing this donation, museum officials explained that entire generations might no longer be familiar with some of these iconic achievements, so the interpretative materials needed to be upgraded and room added for new items. I was thrilled to read about all of this, until I came to the part that announced that in addition to real airplanes and space craft, a model of the USS Enterprise would be included in the entrance hall.

 

This decision distresses me for a number of reasons, the most important of which is that, in my opinion, displaying a fictional spacecraft alongside authentic technology that resulted from years of hard work, investment, and innovation, where pilots and crew had to risk their lives in order to see if these machines would work, both diminishes the value of true discovery and confuses an uninformed audience by presenting a sci-fi fantasy vehicle as equivalent to what is actual innovation. While I recognize that many people might consider me a wet blanket for objecting to the Enterprise, arguing that everyone knows it’s “just” a tv show and it’s a way to engage visitors who might not otherwise be drawn towards an interest in space exploration, I continue to shake my head. It’s not that fiction can’t presage reality, but presenting fictional representations as corresponding to fact goes in the wrong direction. I believe there is far too much about our culture that celebrates fantasy over reality, and it does no favor to present the two as equivalent—especially when there are so many unthinking people out there who want to be convinced their lives can be magic. Just add water. At the end of the day, aside from the few celebrities who have nestled themselves into an obscenely well compensated fog of delusion, we must live our lives subject to the laws of gravity and other real world conditions.

 

It would be fine with me to have a side exhibit dedicated to space shows inspired by genuine exploration, but to accord the USS Enterprise key real estate in the Milestones of Flight sends the wrong message. It just does. People are confused enough about life as it is—do you believe that all politicians are just like those on House of Cards (ok, bad example because ours aren’t that slick). What did President Obama actually do to deserve the Nobel Peace Prize? How would you feel if you saw a photo of the Kardashians hanging side by side portraits of Bill Gates, Cornelius Vanderbilt, Charles Schwab, and Henry Ford as equivalent titans of industry? Are fake breasts the same as real? How about face lifts? It’s not that any of these things are objectionable in their own right, but they are not the same—the authenticity is missing. Have you heard anything about the controversy surrounding Japanese school texts that gloss over Japan’s role in the Rape of Nanking? When you immerse people in places of authority such as schools, halls of government, or museums and tell them that fiction is just as valid as fact, we all suffer. Propaganda comes in many flavors.

 

Ok, so my fellow re-booters, where in your life have you seen fiction presented as equivalent (or superior) to fact? When have you been confused believing something was real—whether that was a relationship, achievements, or a promise that life would work out a certain way—when, in truth, it was no more than a shimmering wisp of someone’s imagination?

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