Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Luciana, the National Air and Space Museum, and Astronaut Ice Cream

Boldly going where few dolls have gone before!

Way back when I started collecting American Girl dolls again, I told myself I wasn’t going to collect the modern dolls. Several Girls of the Year later, and we all know how that turned out. 

This year, the Girl of the Year is Luciana Vega, a Chilean-American girl growing up in Virginia who dreams of being the first girl on Mars. To make that goal happen, she attends Space Camp, gets SCUBA certified, learns about teamwork, and presumably will have a few more adventures before the year’s out. Everyone – myself included – is very enchanted with her STEM focused collection and unique accessories, and while I had a couple issues with her first book, overall, she’s an extremely solid addition to the Girl of the Year line up. 

I was also excited about her introduction because there’s still an obvious Public History connection between Luciana and the museum world in DC: the National Air and Space Museum! I’ve visited there before with Molly (and plenty of times since then!), but our coverage was a lot more Air than Space. A few weeks ago, I headed down there to give you all a look at one of the most visited museums in the world from a doll’s eye view, complete with a discussion of one of the most popular items sold in any space themed museum gift shop.

The National Air and Space Museum was founded in 1946 as the National Air Museum, and first opened its doors to its facility on the National Mall in 1976. NASM (as it is often abbreviated, pronounced nah-sim) is a part of the Smithsonian Institution, but contrary to popular belief, it is not the Smithsonian. 

This confusion happens because it tends to be the museum that gets swarmed by school groups and tourists on trips to DC and might be the only Smithsonian museum they step inside. It's also backed up by pop culture, including the incredibly cringe inducing scene in the otherwise flawless Captain America: The Winter Soldier, where a PA system announces "Welcome to the Smithsonian" as Steve Rogers goes to see the Captain America exhibition which is inexplicably at NASM instead of NMAH, the National Museum of American History. These are the things that keep my up at night. 

(Not really.) 

Anyway, because NASM is often insanely busy no matter what time of year you go, I strongly recommend going as early in the morning as possible, and going during the off season will help it feel less cramped. The entrance on the National Mall side spills you into the Boeing Milestones of Flight exhibit, with some of the best highlights of the collection ready to greet you, including the Spirit of St. Louis and the Lunar Module LM-2. 

Also on the ground floor are exhibits highlighting two big sources of inspiration for current astronauts and members of the space program: Sally Ride, the first American woman in space. Intensely private about her personal life while she was alive, after her death in 2012, it was revealed that she was also the first known LGBT astronaut. She and her partner Tam O’Shaughnessy wrote acclaimed children’s science books together, and were/are big advocates for science education.

The second might surprise some people: the studio model of the USS Enterprise!

The museum explains although Star Trek is obviously a work of fiction, exhibiting the studio model is important as Star Trek served as such a huge inspiration for women, minorities, and everyone else to get into STEM and specifically the study of space. Nichelle Nichols even worked as a recruiter for NASA after the cancellation of the series, and Sally Ride was one of those she recruited. 

The Milestones of Flight gallery allows guests to get up close and personal with the objects, although you’re obviously not able to touch them.

But none more so than what was once the most popular object in the whole museum: the moon rock, which guests are allowed to touch!

One of my professors grew up in DC, and likes to use the moon rock as an example of how public reaction to artifacts can change over time. When she was a kid, there would be a massive line of people waiting for their chance to touch the moon rock, but now it’s off to the side, not very well signed, and you generally can walk right up and touch it. It’s still a really cool object (and people are always excited to get to touch an artifact!), but she’s right in saying it’s just not as popular as it used to be. 

One of the ground floor galleries – Space Race – gets into the nuts and bolts of the space program, talking about its origin going back as far as the first missiles and rockets. They have a lot of cool artifacts on display, including space suits worn by John Glenn and Yuri Gagarin.

The gallery overlooking the ground floor gallery – Apollo to the Moon – discusses the history of the race to the moon specifically, explaining the history of the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo missions, with a small memorial to the astronauts killed in a pre-launch test of the Apollo 1 mission.

There’s also an in depth look into the history of food in space, discussing how scientists worked carefully to develop food that would meet the unique nutritional needs of astronauts in space. The first time solid food was eaten in space was when Astronaut John Young smuggled a corned beef sandwich on board Gemini 3, surprising fellow Astronaut Gus Grissom. They didn’t finish the sandwich because it was creating too many crumbs!

Of special interest to Luciana fans will be the Exploring the Planets, a gallery that discusses the other inhabitants of our solar system and how humans have studied them. There are even replicas of three Mars rovers to look at!

Our final stop was Moving Beyond Earth, which focuses on the space shuttle program and similar modern space exploration programs.

It’s a very interactive exhibit, with one area allowing you to open several compartments to learn shuttle program and space station trivia. Along with more discussion of food in space, you’ll also get face to face with a real Space Ranger! He spent 15 months on board the International Space Station beginning in 2008.

Speaking of space food, it just wouldn’t be a trip to a space themed museum without taking a look at their selection of astronaut ice cream, right?

Astronaut ice cream is definitely the most iconic “space age” food, and even shows up in Luciana’s accessory set.

Although it’s not officially branded, the model looks like authentic Neapolitan astronaut ice cream, and is a fun little piece of authenticity to her currently available accessories. 

Or is it?

You see, although astronaut ice cream is usually the first thing people think of when they’re picturing what Neil Armstrong and co. would have been snacking on to and from the moon, in reality, that’s just not true. 

The truth is freeze dried ice cream was developed for NASA for the Apollo missions, but it was never actually brought along on any of them. Other freeze dried foods were, but the ice cream just didn’t make the cut. According to a 2005 article, NASA food scientist Vickie Kloeris said "It wasn't that popular; most of the crew really didn't like it, so it isn't used any more.” 

I’d actually never had astronaut ice cream before, and had no idea of what to expect, so I picked up a few different packets to sample for this post: traditional Neapolitan, a vanilla ice cream sandwich, and a Neapolitan ice cream sandwich.

The astronaut ice cream sold at NASM is produced by Astronaut Foods and made in Colorado. Each packet features trivia about the photos used on the packaging, how freeze drying works, and what the ice cream is actually going to taste like, explaining your saliva will help rehydrate it and return it to its original creamy texture. 

It also falsely claims that this ice cream has been eaten by astronauts in space since the early Mercury missions, so I guess that’s part of where the confusion comes from…

I opened up the regular ice cream first.

It was sealed in a paper packet and cracked much like Luciana’s was.

And it tasted… like ice cream. The flavors and texture were all there, but I have to admit, wow, I cannot say I’m a fan and understand why this was given the thumbs down by the original taste testers. It’s extremely chalky, and biting into it set my teeth on edge. 

I think there’s also the issue of expectation versus reality: when you’re told hey, this is ice cream and it’s freeze dried! You’re still envisioning it being cold, and this obviously isn’t, so while the flavor is there and the texture eventually becomes familiar, it’s just not the same thing as chowing down on a bowl of Ben and Jerry’s, you know what I mean? 

One more thought: I can’t help but wonder if Young and Grissom’s sandwich caused too many crumbs in space (or Homer’s Ruffles…), wouldn’t this potentially cause a problem with the delicate instruments on board a spacecraft? It’s so crumbly that certain parts were definitely more powder than cube, and I definitely don’t think eating this is worth risking your communication or other important systems failing. Then you might never know if ants can be trained to sort tiny screws in space!

I was still excited to try the ice cream sandwiches, and those came out of the package far more intact. They were also wrapped in protective paper, but I think the cookies might have helped keep these safer in the packet.

Imagine my surprise when these both turned out to be a lot tastier! I think the cookies kind of helped mask my textural issues with the block of solid ice cream, and again, you’re kind of expecting a cookie to be a little crunchy in a way you’re not expecting straight ice cream to be. Although I can’t say I’m in any rush to buy more of these, I was definitely glad I gave them a shot and the novelty factor here was a lot more fun. I’d definitely happily eat it again if presented with another one. 

So, thus ends our brief exploration into the National Air and Space Museum and astronaut ice cream. I hope you’ve enjoyed getting a look into this part of history that the historical line up just hasn’t quite covered on its own just yet. I’m holding out hope for a more space race focused book for Maryellen! 

One other thing to note: NASM is scheduled to go through some major renovations in the coming years to make sure the building is structurally sound, but also to update a lot of the exhibits, which are starting to look a little well loved, especially compared to the snazzy new exhibits at NMAH, NMAI and NMAAHC. The museum will stay open, but galleries will be closed for renovation, and entire wings or floors of the building might be off limits. I think the repairs are scheduled to begin this year, so if you want to go and can make it happen, I'd suggest doing it sooner rather than later!

Have you tried astronaut ice cream? What did you think of it?

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