Sunshine bathes the hulking gray frame of the World War II-era aircraft carrier permanently parked at Pier 86 in Manhattan. Two giant American flags fly high above the deck. Inside the dimly-lit and winding halls of the ship’s third deck, the hollow patter of little feet is echoed by the expression of awe as a young boy takes in the original dining area—a cafeteria-style mess deck akin to a ‘70s-themed, windowless diner. “So, so, so, so cool,” he says, admiring the neatly set tables adorned with familiar bottles of Heinz ketchup.
The boy is visiting The Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum—a giant, floating historical landmark and a monument to our nation’s heroes. The aircraft carrier, once home to a crew of 3,000 men during World War II, served as a floating, mid-ocean airport for the United States Navy. The sheer size of the USS Intrepid is breathtaking and allows kids to run, jump, and explore the many features the ship has to offer, including the space shuttle Enterprise. Named after the ship in “Star Trek,” Enterprise was the first space shuttle orbiter and the initial ship used for atmospheric testing. Despite never actually reaching the depths of space, test flights of this prototype helped prepare scientists and astronauts for future space exploration.
According to Intrepid president Susan Marenoff-Zausner, the space shuttle pavilion portion of the museum, which features Enterprise, is scheduled to reopen this summer after undergoing repairs due to the damaging effects of Hurricane Sandy. During the fierce superstorm, the generators were flooded by a six-foot wall of water that gushed over the pier, rendering the space shuttle pavilion nonfunctional.
“We were very fortunate to be able to look at the space after Hurricane Sandy and be able to see what worked and what didn’t work, and we realized that we could actually do some new things to maximize the use of the space in the pavilion,” Marenoff-Zausner says.
The re-opening of the space shuttle in July promises to be an exciting experience featuring personal artifacts from astronauts, an interactive historical timeline of space exploration and the future of space travel, and much more family-friendly fun. Of course, just visiting Enterprise is an awesome opportunity for children in and of itself. What kid hasn’t dreamed of floating around in space, discovering uncharted territories, and eating astronaut ice cream?
In addition to Enterprise-inspired astronaut fantasies, there are plenty more exhibits for kids to delight in. On the hangar deck, helicopters, fighter jets, and torpedo bombers stand proud. Outside, families marvel at the Concorde, the retired VIP aircraft that can travel faster than the speed of sound. In the Exploreum on deck, there are buttons to push, levers to pull, knobs to turn, and things to climb on—not to mention slideshows, puzzles, and even a mini space shuttle launch.
“There are so many different, fun things for kids to do and learn about [on the ship and in the Exploreum] in what we call the STEM studies—science, technology, engineering, and math,” Marenoff-Zausner says.
Today, children are laughing as they pile into a lifeboat simulator in the Exploreum, designed to mimic the feeling of being at sea. At the end of the giant hangar is the G-Force Encounter, a two-person flight simulator that lets visitors control their own aircrafts. Giggles and shrieks of excitement erupt from inside the pod-like “cockpits.” It’s reminiscent of an educational carnival ride.
While there’s plenty of fun and games at the Intrepid Museum, there’s also tons of important history to discover. Original artifacts line the walls inside the ship, including uniforms, medals, historical documents, and commemorative patches. This permanent exhibit celebrates the crewmembers that lived and worked on the ship and provides a singular sense of what it means to serve our country. Probably one of the most impactful ways children can learn about service firsthand is by talking to the tour guides and listening to their stories, Marenoff-Zausner recommends. Many of the guides and volunteers at the museum are actual former crew members of the Intrepid.
“Kids leave the Intrepid with a real sense of leadership, sacrifice, and pride,” Marenoff-Zausner says. “It really teaches them about giving something up in order to help others.”
But for a true sense of what it was like to serve in the US Navy, the Growler submarine is the attraction to see. The once top-secret missile command center is considered by insiders to be a hidden gem of the Intrepid experience. The partially submerged watercraft can make even the tiniest NYC apartment look vast.
“It is so extraordinary that people lived in such confined quarters for so long,” Marenoff-Zausner notes. “We get so much feedback from people when they get out of the Growler that it was, by far, the coolest part of their experience.”
The Growler’s narrow, maze-like hallways connect petite rooms packed with space-saving bunks, operating stations, and pocket-sized bathrooms. While on board, fresh water was usually scarce and crewmembers were allowed a single two-minute shower every five to six weeks. Everybody smoked. Surely, life underwater was a fetid experience, fit for only the most dedicated seaman.
The Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum can be an unforgettable learning encounter for girls and boys of all ages, with varied exhibits suitable for a range of age groups. And because there is so much to see and do, it’s probably best to make a day of it in order to get the full experience. From the Enterprise to the Exploreum to the Growler, kids walk away with a new understanding of some truly dynamic sea, air, and space travel—as well as an appreciation for our armed forces.