It seems a bit perverse to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Wright brothers' flight at Kitty Hawk in an underground gallery. Given that we've progressed from flights that lasted mere seconds to an age of commuter flights and routine trips into outer space, shouldn't we be able to make the Science Center's Flight! Gallery actually fly? Are we still in the Stone Age?
This idealistic quibble aside, the new Flight! Gallery, which opened this past Sunday with a gala ceremony, will appeal to anyone with an interest in air and space travel. Stretching from the Science Center's bridge over Highway 40 to the lobby of the McDonnell Planetarium (5050 Oakland Avenue, 314-456-7572, open daily, free, www.slsc.org), the gallery is designed to look like an airport concourse of the future (which will apparently bear a strong resemblance to the corridors of Star Wars' Death Star after extensive work by an interior decorator). The airport theme is fitting, because the Flight! Gallery doesn't cover the nuts and bolts of air travel (for example, why an airplane stays in the air) so much as how we as a culture have reacted to the phenomenon of mechanized flight. Upon entering the gallery, the first things you see are quotes from famous aviators along with an exhibit of flight-themed lunchboxes, coffee mugs and other knickknacks, all of which attest to human beings' perennial obsession with flight (a message we get loud and clear without R. Kelly's "I Believe I Can Fly" being piped in, thank you).
To feed this obsession, the gallery has a number of more interactive displays. An adjoining Mission Control area features footage from the Mars Rover and other space probes, as well as a "flight school" with a Boeing flight simulator so would-be aces can test their mettle without actually junking a 747. Similarly, a mocked-up cockpit in the planetarium lobby allows younger pilots to practice steering a model airplane and to polish their evasive maneuvers. The lobby also has interactive exhibits on weather stations and building your own plane, plus monitors showing current news on aviation and space travel.
But the exhibit with perhaps the most local appeal is the stretch of concourse devoted to the X Prize. While it sounds like something that might be given out on ESPN2, this is actually the successor to the Orteig Prize, the award won by Charles Lindbergh for making the first transatlantic flight. In the spirit of the cash prizes that were offered to prod aviators into new achievements, a consortium of local businesspeople calling itself (ever-so-creatively) the New Spirit of St. Louis Project has offered $10 million to the first private group to complete a suborbital flight in a reusable three-person craft. (Even accounting for inflation, that's a hefty bump from Lindbergh's $25,000 paycheck.) The Flight! Gallery provides a history of these prizes, as well as a list of the groups currently competing for the X Prize and pictures of their crafts, which look like they could have flown out of a science-fiction movie. This portion of the exhibit best illustrates the perpetual lure of flight: the thrill of breaking another barrier. And just as our will power brought us into the air, it can make this vision of space travel a reality, too.