Intrepid Sea, Air, and Space Museum

Edification value  4/5
Entertainment value  4/5
Should you go?  
Time spent 150 minutes, including 26 queued to get in. I could easily have spent more (inside, that is).
Best thing I saw or learned Concorde, Intrepid Museum, New York

For all those who think technology progresses in only one direction, Intrepid offers a few counterfactuals, but none better than Concorde.  From 1976 until 2003, people (very few, and very rich to be sure) jetted across the Atlantic in under 3.5 hours.  I hope we see supersonic travel again in my lifetime.  But I doubt it.

Intrepid Air Sea Space Museum New YorkDriving up the west side of Manhattan helps New Yorkers exercise our jadedness.  Here’s my routine with out-of-towners. 

  • Oh, the Renzo Piano Whitney building.  I was just there the other day. 
  • Hmph, High Line.  Too crowded with tourists. 
  • Frank Gehry’s IAC Building is really showing its age, isn’t it?
  • I can sometimes be bothered to look up from my smartphone at midtown’s forest of skyscrapers.
  • Hudson Yards, a whole new city within the city, is an inconvenient and messy construction zone. 
  • And that over there?  Oh, that’s just our aircraft carrier.

I can act the part. But, oh, the Intrepid. I’m still a kid at heart. I love boats and planes and exploding things. And the Intrepid has all of that, including a Concorde, a nuclear submarine, and even a (sort of) space shuttle. I love that we’ve got an aircraft carrier, just parked next to Manhattan like its crew dropped by to see a show or go shopping on Canal Street.

As I’ve observed, New York has a glut of art museums and far too few science museums.  Intrepid is one of the latter, with a good dose of history to boot.  Partly due to supply and demand, then, there can be long lines. And it gets away with charging a hefty entrance fee.  Still, it’s worth it.

Intrepid, New York
Beware of jet

Intrepid Herself

The first thing I noticed when I walked into Intrepid’s interior was the smell.  There’s a very particular smell that comes from…I don’t know what, exactly.  A combination of steel, aging industrial paint, old electrical insulation, and the military grade oils and solvents to keep a crap-ton of parts running smoothly.  It’s uncommon, but it is highly distinctive.  It’s the smell of the mid-twentieth century Military Industrial Complex. 

Intrepid air craft carrier bridge, New York
Bridge, With Skyline

Her cramped spaces and obsolete machinery amazed me…how did they make something this big and complex before computer aided design?  How did they run it without computers?  Wandering through the Intrepid begs these questions.  And I felt pretty free to wander.  I climbed up to the bridge to see what it was like for the officers up there, then wended my way downwards to check out the crew quarters, the radio room, the fo’c’sle, and other key parts of the ship.

Radio Room, Intrepid, New York
Radio Room

The hangar deck is also open as well.  Its vast space displays more aircraft, historic and explanatory exhibits, some cool-looking simulator rides, and a couple of theaters.

Hangar Deck, Intrepid Air Sea Space Museum New York
Hangar Deck Exhibits

Enterprise Zone

Enterprise at Intrepid Museum, New YorkNew York’s space shuttle sits on Intrepid’s aft deck, under a blocky, ugly, protective housing that looks like it comes from Bob’s Discount Steel Sheds.  Here we are in the greatest city in the world and we got the shuttle prototype.  Enterprise didn’t do much beyond get piggy-backed around on a 747 and wind tunnel tested and such.  It was never fully equipped and certainly never “slipped the surly bonds of Earth.” In short, I feel disappointed and grumpy about it.  I do like that fans of Star Trek convinced NASA to name her Enterprise.  And this before the Next Generation and nerdy culture dominating society. That’s a good story.  And the shed tells a decent story of space flight’s history and challenges as well.

Fortunately, Intrepid has so much to offer that any shuttle disappointment doesn’t matter.

Naming the Enterprise

Think of the Children

Intrepid Air Sea Space Museum, New York
Try a bunk!

The Intrepid is a phenomenal kids museum.  Half her hangar deck is devoted the “Exploreum,” a host of kid-friendly exhibits…which now that I think about it may be a subtle and subliminal recruitment technique for the Navy?  Get ’em young?  Hmm.  Anyway, lots of hands-on exhibits, a helicopter you can sit in, and other things to do to get a taste of life on board an aircraft carrier.  I didn’t have a kid in tow, but those around looked like they were very into it.

Droning On

Volantis, Intrepid Drone Exhibit
Volantis, sans GaGa

The Intrepid’s pier currently hosts a special exhibition on drones.  It’s comprehensive and highly interactive, discussing the history of drones, their uses in science, war, commerce, and even art. It even has Lady GaGa’s drone, Volantis, all lit up in racy purple. If there is one person I was not expecting to come across during my Intrepid visit, it’s Lady GaGa. 

On a more serious note, it also has a mock-up of a control room as used by Air Force pilots when they fly drones remotely in war zones.  No photos allowed.

The show struck a good balance between excitement about the possibilities and honesty about the problems and challenges.  And of course it had a gift shop at the end where you could buy your own little drone, or a “Game of Drones” t-shirt if you really wanted one.  I kind of did.

That Other War

Intrepid was state of the art in World War II.  She was falling behind the times but still in service during Vietnam.  I expected Intrepid to relegate Vietnam to something of a footnote, focusing on better, more successful missions.  It therefore surprised me that a large installation on the hangar deck tells that story — and in a well-rounded way.  The Vietnam exhibit talks extensively about the ramp-up of the war, Intrepid’s mission as a base for bombing runs, and the protests against the war back home. It even discloses that several servicemen on Intrepid deserted because of their opposition to the war.

Life on Intrepid

The Intrepid tells military and technological stories, but it tells human ones as well.  The Vietnam show includes a 1967 diary jointly kept by four pilots who bunked together in compartment 111.  I paged through a digital version — it’s a fascinating recording of missions, parties, irritations, concerns, and interests of young servicemen thrown together by the Navy.  Better still, the Intrepid staff also reconstructed what their room looked like up in “Officers’ Country.”

Intrepid effectively uses quotes and anecdotes from servicemen to bring to life what serving aboard her was like.  You had your job, and you certainly weren’t free to go wandering the ship willy-nilly.  Many enlisted men didn’t see very much of her, beyond their bunks and wherever they worked.  It’s hard to imagine that kind of discipline.

Finally, the Intrepid also deploys veterans as explainers to talk to visitors as well. One nice older gent was up on the bridge, patiently answering the same questions over and over as different people trooped through the tight spaces up there.

Should You Go?

Stealth Plane, Intrepid Flight Deck, New York
Lockheed A-12 Reconnaissance Aircraft, 1962

Visiting the Intrepid is expensive.  There’s no getting around that. Even after the hefty entrance fee, Intrepid has a bunch of other things that cost extra: simulators, guided tours, and such.  However, I opted out of those things and I still felt like I had more than enough to engage me.

Intrepid is almost unique. According to some guy on the internet, there are just four other aircraft carrier museums in the U.S.: 

  • The Lexington in Corpus Christi, TX
  • The Hornet in Alameda, CA
  • The Midway in San Diego
  • The Yorktown in Charleston. 

No virtual or simulated experience can do justice to actually exploring the antique innards of a vintage aircraft carrier, seeing the clunky, computer-free equipment, smelling the smells of aging industrial paint and steel, and imagining the lives of all those who served on her, in boredom, fun, and  sometimes sheer terror.

Ultimately, the Intrepid is more than just big steel, impressive aircraft, and the Military Industrial Complex–though it’s those things as well.  She tells a host of stories, from those of low-level WWII enlisted men to the grand sweep of manned spaceflight.  As a museum, she gives you a small glimpse into the systems, rules, and processes that make something as complex as an aircraft carrier–or a space program–run.

Despite the lines and the cost, at some point everyone should go.

Growler Nuclear Submarine, Intrepid, New York
Growler Nuclear Submarine Viewed from Intrepid

For Reference:

Address
Website intrepidmuseum.org
Cost  General Admission:  $33 (!) NYC Residents $19.  Military and Veterans Free.  Lots of a la carte tours, rides, experiences, and other add-ons, too.
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