Let’s be honest: the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum would not have been my first choice of museums to visit in New York City. In fact, despite spending two months in the city, I wouldn’t have visited had it not been for my boyfriend, who was very excited to go. I was happy to tag along with him but between you and me (and the Internet), I didn’t have high hopes. Cautiously optimistic, perhaps. Excited? Not quite.
Before visiting, my knowledge of (and interest in) the space race was virtually nil. Much like the time I visited the French military museum at Invalides in Paris with Dad, I was blown away by how interesting the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum was, despite my aforementioned complete lack of interest in fighter jets, submarines and space shuttles.
While I appreciated the retro aircraft more for their aesthetics than their technological capabilities and was more interested in the decor of the sleeping quarters on the USS Intrepid than the control room, I walked out of the Space Shuttle Pavilion feeling very small in a very big and very fascinating universe.
Seeing the profound impact that the space race had on pop culture changed the way I see the world. I started to notice clues the Space Age’s influence on society in fashion, film architecture and design, like the design of diners across New York such as Empire Diner in Chelsea or the stark, white cubic rooms of art galleries the world over.
The museum is housed in the USS Intrepid, a retired military aircraft carrier that was used in WWII, the Cold War and the Vietnam War before being decommissioned in 1974. Docked in the Hudson River at Pier 86, the Intrepid looms over the western edge of Hell’s Kitchen.
History, technology and military service are on display with the USS Growler submarine, the Enterprise space shuttle and 28 aircraft as the star attractions of the Intrepid museum.
We broke down our visit into three parts: air, sea and space.
The flight deck overlooks Hell’s Kitchen, with the Manhattan skyline making a striking backdrop for such an unusual collection of aircraft that looked like cartoons brought to life.
While I admired the colourful paint jobs on many of the older aircraft, I shuddered to think of the pain each aircraft had inflicted in its lifetime.
The Intrepid’s impressive aircraft collection includes the Lockheed A-12, which is the fastest military jet and spy plane in the world, and the British Airways Concorde, which is the fastest commercial aircraft in the world.
The museum’s Concorde on display flew more trans-Atlantic flights than any other Concorde in the British Airways fleet. Before the fatal Air France Concorde crash in 2000, the revolutionary commercial plane had cut the flight from New York to London down to just 2 hours and 58 minutes.
General admission to the Intrepid Museum is $26, or $36 if you also want to visit the Space Shuttle Pavilion (which we did). Entrance to the Concorde for a 45-60 minute guided tour is an extra $15 each, which would have brought our museum visit cost to $102 just for the two of us. We skipped the Concorde tour and climbed into the belly of the Intrepid.
I deeply regretted wearing a short skirt because I was on the brink of a Marilyn moment the entire time we were wandering around the gusty flight deck. I was relieved to go inside the Intrepid until I realised that it involved climbing several sets of stairs that were basically ladders. Ladies, you’ve been warned.
This part of the museum probably made more sense to my boyfriend than to me, but I did find it fascinating peering into the cramped sleeping quarters of the servicemen. It’s hard to imagine life at sea, especially in such sparse conditions.
Inside the Intrepid was very hands on, and ex-servicemen volunteered their expertise, enthusiastically explaining the workings of various parts of the ship.
“Were you in Vietnam, Len?” one volunteer in his mid-sixties asked another.
“Yes, I served in Vietnam. Did you?”
“ I was meant to, but our ship broke down on the way there! A funny story, I’ll tell you about it later.”
It was uncomfortable to consider that if it weren’t for a mechanical fault, the spirited volunteer who stood in front of us, might not be standing in front of us. Some 50,000 servicemen worked on the Intrepid between 1943-1974, with 270 of them never to return home.
The final part of our visit was the Hangar Deck and Space Shuttle Pavilion. My mind had begun to wander to what we’d have for lunch, when I found an exhibit about the Hubble Telescope – something I had microscopic knowledge about prior to my visit.
NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope is still in operation to this day and has led to a number of discoveries and raised more questions about the universe. The telescope has led to the discovery of more than 1800 extra-solar planets, which are planets that orbit around a star other than the sun.
I’m not sure if my high school science classes just didn’t spend a lot of time on outer space or if I’d tuned out, but I learned so much in this part of the museum. On the first section, as we walked between planes I admired the paintwork but glossed over the details of the make, model and each aircraft’s destruction specialty. Likewise, it was interesting to see inside the Intrepid but I’m not sure how much I learned (other than confirming that I am not cut out for the navy).
The “space” component of the museum actually made me interested in outer space as well as helped me to appreciate the magnitude of the human achievement of entering outer space and the profound impact that it had on technology, society and culture.
For example, I learned that in around four billion years the Milky Way (our galaxy) and Andromeda (our neighbouring galaxy) will collide and merge into onto. Galaxies are attracted to each other and this is just what they do. Who knew?
When we look at the night sky, we are looking at something like 690,000,000 galaxies. I saw beautiful pictures of nebulae, which is when a star dies and the energy and gases begin to be released.
It was fascinating seeing how popular culture was influenced by outer space. As the world entered the space age the aesthetic of American life in the 1950s and 60s followed suit. Products that had nothing to do with space started to use images of the Endeavour in their advertisements. The space race had widespread impact on architecture, with the space-inspired designs having a lasting impact particularly on American diners, gas stations and motels. Later in the afternoon, when we were in Empire Diner in Chelsea, I noticed how the space age had influenced the design of the diner. The silver, space-ship like fit out, including stainless steel doors with bubble-like windows, reflected the world’s obsession with outer space.
Tang, a powdered, orange-flavoured drink saw a spike in popularity after NASA began using it in its Gemini space flight program. Space ships and shuttles became popular children’s toys and Pierre Cardin’s space age collection hit the runways with silver PVC pants and white cat suits. The Jetsons took over the small screen and James Bond starred in Moonraker.
It’s a museum I would have skipped in a heartbeat but was one of the most memorable of my time in the city – particularly because I found a new appreciation and understanding of the space age, something I had no interest in before.
I’m much more open to visiting museums when I travel than I used to be. I used to see them as completely alien to the real world that you could experience out on the street, especially when the museums were brimming with artefacts pinched from all over the planet.
Having time to spare in New York, I made several solo museum trips while my boyfriend was at work. I started to see how museums are woven into the fabric of a city and how they can enrich your experience of a new place.
If you’re interested in space exploration or military history, I’d recommend it in a heartbeat. If you’re on your first trip to New York City and have less than a week, and don’t have an overwhelming interest in this sort of stuff, I probably would’t go out of my way to visit.
I’m glad that I had enough time in the city to squeeze in activities that I wouldn’t put at the top of my list, but I know that spending two months in New York City is an exception, not the rule, for most travellers. As a foreigner in the United States and as a millenial, who didn’t experience the excitement of the beginning of the Space Age firsthand, it was a jolt of insight into a point in time (and space!) that I’d never really given much thought to and helped me understand a little bit more of the way the world is and why, which is the reason I travel in the first place.
Have you been to the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum? What is your favourite museum in the world?