Space History in DC: The Space Window

Events of July 3, 2011

In the course of spending five weeks living in a city like Washington DC that's so popular with tourists, I couldn't help but think about the way different people have different reasons for visiting a site or attraction. Architecture, history, landscaping, personal memories, "see every (whatever) in the city"-type scavenger hunts, the desire to visit the site where a movie or TV show was filmed...

When my father came to visit me for the weekend, I suggested that we spend our first whole day together visiting the Washington National Cathedral, as I hadn't been there yet. It wasn't too far from the hotel where my father was staying (Which was just down the street from the BU dorm), so we decided to walk. The cathedral ended up being uphill from where we were, and since this was late-morning in early July, we did get a little sweaty, but I was used to it after so long in DC and my dad was a good sport about it. It just made it that much sweeter to reach the cathedral and come inside. It was a Sunday and services had just ended.

The first thing that struck me when we entered the cathedral was how beautiful the architecture was and how wonderful the light looked coming through the stained-glass windows. Stained-glass is one of my favorite art forms. As a space fan, my earliest memory of the cathedral was listening to the memorial service held there for the crew of the Space Shuttle Columbia in 2003 on the radio as my family drove home from the trip we'd been on. (Every year on the anniversary, I listen to Patti LaBelle's rendition of "Way Up There" at that memorial service. You can watch it here, but you might want to get out your hankie first.)

Although I was looking at all of the stained-glass windows above me in awe, there was one in particular I was looking for- the "Space Window", which I had read contained an actual moon rock brought back by the Apollo 11 mission. I asked a woman from the cathedral staff where to find it, and she told us where to go.

The "Space Window", technically called "Scientists and Technicians", was every bit as beautiful as I'd imagined, especially with the morning light poring through it. Two circles floating in space represent the Earth and the moon, connected by white lines showing the flight path of Apollo 11. A half-halo surrounds the "day side" of the "Earth" circle. The moon rock is (appropriately enough) at the center of the "moon" circle, and the seams of the glass pieces all radiate out from it, drawing attention to it. I stood looking at the Space Window for a long time, appreciating its beauty.

After that, I asked another staff member where to find the Darth Vader gargoyle on the outside of the cathedral. She handed me binoculars and a sheet of instructions, but corrected me that the statue of Darth Vader's face is technically not a gargoyle but a grotesque. (A gargoyle is sculpted so that water runs out of its mouth, while a grotesque is sculpted so that water runs off the top it its head. You learn something new every day!) I found the grotesque pretty quickly and eagerly showed my dad. As you might imagine, the Darth Vader design was selected by a competition in a children's magazine.

We came back inside to look at the architecture some more, and my dad said he wanted to go up by the altar. He walked around and smiled to himself.

"That's where Jed Bartlett put out his cigarette in The West Wing!"

Like I said, people have all kinds of different reasons for visiting the sites they do!