“Where is it”, I wondered, as I crossed the threshold and entered.
My eyes glued to the ceiling, looking right first, and then left. It was nowhere to be seen.
This can’t be right. Am I looking in the right corner? I can’t have forgotten. Not after almost two decades of fascination. In fact, so much had changed I could no longer recognize where everything was.
Was it really gone?
You see, my fascination began almost at the beginning. It was Spring of 2003 when first news of the spacecraft rippled the airwaves. In May of that year flight tests for SpaceShipOne began over the Mojave dessert. Uncrewed captive flight tests were followed by glide tests. That fall I was fortunate enough to attend the 99s Southwest Section Meeting hosted at Lancaster, CA. The organizers had planned a trip to Scaled Composites at Mojave Airport. The highlight of that event for me was seeing SpaceShipOne up close and personal in its hanger, standing right under its wings almost a touch away.
In June of the following year, I made the pre-dawn early morning trek back to the Mojave Dessert and watched SpaceShipOne achieve its destiny as the first commercial spaceflight and later that year won the Ansari X Prize. SpaceShipOne flew its last flight in October 2004, made the victory lap in Oshkosh, WI in 2005 during Airventure, and reached its final destination at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum in October of that year. Displayed along with The Spirit of St Louis, Bell X-1 and Apollo 11 Command Module, Columbia, it graced the main atrium for more than a decade. A replica of SpaceShipOne hangs at the EAA Museum in Oshkosh, WI. Over the years, I have had the pleasure of seeing both many times.
The National Air and Space Museum (NASM) has been undergoing a multi-year renovation, since 2018. All exhibitions are being reimagined, with new presentation spaces and attractions. Construction and the recent pandemic had resulted in partial or full closure of the museum over the last two years. Although construction will continue through 2025, and some exhibits are not yet available, this past October the museum reopened to the public. Museum visits are available through reservations through March of next year. While I knew transformation was happening, I had not expected such drastic changes.
The main atrium like the rest has been transformed. The Milestones of Flight gallery which hosted aircraft that were used to achieve first flights is now replaced by America by Air. My favorite SpaceShipOne for now remains in storage. Meanwhile there is always the replica in Wisconsin to appease the mind.
It was just after I got my private pilot license, one of the first airshows I attended was the Salinas International Air Show. The biggest attraction was the Sean Tucker and Team Oracle. Local news was abuzz that year:
“Tucker returns with the excitement and enthusiasm of a kid who”s back to play before his hometown crowd. Having won the Championship Air Show Pilots Association (CASPA) Challenge for the fourth straight year this past July, he also brings the very best that the world of aerobatics has to offer.”
After watching him fly and see my very first airshow, I came away with excitement too. Aerobatics was on my mind. Tucker School of Aerobatics was a mere short drive away from my airport homebase and I even made the trek up there to checkout the school and aerobatics training opportunities.
Oracle Challenger III, the aircraft now graces the Thomas Haas We All Fly exhibit at the National Air and Space Museum. Since that first airshow, I have seen the Oracle Challenger at many airshows around the country, so excited to see it displayed at NASM.