In the new sci-fi movie Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen , an airplane on display at the Smithsonian's Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Virginia, gets a star turn. The real-life reconnaissance plane, an SR-71 Blackbird, is the basis for the character Jetfire, a souped-up superplane brought to life by the film's animators. (The Transformers franchise recounts a series of epic battles between two factions of alien robots who disguise themselves by morphing into machines.)

Of course, the actual SR-71 Blackbird had transformed manned flight long before special-effects animators saw its potential. Created as the ultimate spy plane, the SR-71, which first took to the air in December 1964, flew reconnaissance missions until 1990, capable of hurtling along at more than Mach 3, about 2,280 miles per hour—faster than a rifle bullet—at 85,000 feet, or 16 miles above the earth. It is the fastest jet-powered airplane ever built. At top speeds, the surface heat of the airframe could reach 900 degrees Fahrenheit. In their pressurized suits and breathing pure oxygen—mandated by the extreme altitude—the two-man crew looked like astronauts.

Brian Shul, one of fewer than a hundred pilots who flew the plane on recon missions from Beale Air Force base in California as well as bases in England and Japan, calls the SR-71 simply "the most remarkable airplane of the 20th century. We'll never see a plane like that again."

The Udvar-Hazy Blackbird, identified by its tail number, 61-7972, holds several records, including: New York to London in 1 hour 54 minutes 56.4 seconds. (Another Blackbird, 61-7958, set the record for average jet speed: 2,193.167 mph.) On March 6, 1990, as it made its final flight, the Smithsonian plane set another record—Los Angeles to Dulles International Airport, outside Washington, D.C., in 1 hour 4 minutes 20 seconds (barely time for a snack and a snooze). That day, a team including Air Force Lt. Col. Ed Yeilding and Lt. Col. Joseph Vida touched the plane down at Dulles for delivery to Udvar-Hazy, the National Air and Space Museum's companion facility.

I asked Shul, a former Air Force fighter pilot and Vietnam veteran who has written two books about the Blackbird—one recounting his reconnaissance for a dramatic raid on Libya in 1986—what it was like to fly such a phenomenal craft. "It wasn't like any other airplane," he told me. "It was terrifying, exciting, intense and humbling every time you flew. Each mission was designed to fly at a certain speed; you always knew the airplane had more. It was like driving to work in a double-A fuel dragster."

A team of engineers and designers at a southern California unit of Lockheed, headed by legendary aeronautical designer Clarence "Kelly" Johnson and his eventual successor, Benjamin Rich, created the SR-71. To deal with airframe heat at Mach 3 and to reduce weight, the SR-71's skin is 85 percent titanium and 15 percent carbon composites. Ironically—because the spy plane was a creature of the cold war—its titanium was purchased from the Soviet Union, although the use to which it would be put remained a closely guarded secret.

The unarmed Blackbird depended on its speed and altitude for defense and on a high degree of invisibility. The plane's distinctive flat profile, with a sharp edge, or chine, running the length of the fuselage, presented very little surface to be detected by radar. Its features anticipated the F-117A stealth fighter, developed at the same Lockheed unit. The SR-71's unusual silhouette caused workers at a U.S. base in Okinawa, Japan, to refer to the plane as the habu —a poisonous black snake indigenous to the island. Crews dubbed the plane the "sled"; SR-71 enthusiasts call themselves "Sledheads."

Achieving Mach 3 performance is expensive. The 32 Blackbirds cost an average of $34 million each. Of the billion-dollar SR-71 fleet, 12 were in accidents, but none was shot down by hostile action. Only one crew member was killed, in a mishap that occurred during a midair refueling. "We knew," says Shul of his fellow Blackbird pilots, "that we were flying a piece of history."

And history the planes have become. However advanced they were, time and technology overtook them; in 1990, as satellites appropriated their mission, operational flights ended. Today's unmanned orbital droids may represent the state of the art. But compared with the Blackbird, they are hardly art at all.

Owen Edwards is a freelance writer and author of the book Elegant Solutions

Apollo 15’s Al Worden on Space and Scandal

Shortly after his return to earth in 1971, Apollo 15 astronaut Al Worden found himself mired in scandal—he and his crew had sold souvenir autographed postal covers they had taken aboard their spacecraft. As a result, they were banned from ever flying in space again. Recently, Worden was at Smithsonian’s Air and Space Museum to sign his new book, Falling to Earth , about his lunar mission and the ensuing scandal. He spoke with the magazine’s Julie Mianecki.

Apollo 15 was the first mission to use the lunar rover, to conduct extensive scientific experiments in space, and to place a satellite in lunar orbit, among other things. What is your proudest accomplishment? Interesting question. God it was all so great. It’s hard to pick out any one thing. But I would say doing the orbital science—we did everything. The thing that was most interesting to me was taking photographs of very faint objects with a special camera that I had on board. These objects reflect sunlight, but it’s very, very weak and you can’t see it from [Earth]. There are several places between the Earth and the moon that are stable equilibrium points. And if that’s the case, there has to be a dust cloud there. I got pictures of that. I photographed 25 percent of the moon’s surface, which was really kind of neat. And also took mapping camera pictures of the moon for the cartographers.

You spent approximately 75 hours in the command module alone, isolated from even NASA as you went around the far side of the moon. How did you keep yourself entertained? I didn’t really have to worry about it too much because I didn’t have a chance to think about it very much. I only slept about four hours a night when I was by myself; and that was because I was really busy. But when I wasn’t busy, I was looking out the window taking it all in. It was hard to go to sleep, because there’s a certain amount of excitement involved in it, and there’s also the thought that we’re only going to come this way once, we’re never going to do it again, so we better do all we can while we’re here. So, I was busy 18 hours a day doing science stuff, and I was kind of looking out the window for another two, three, four hours each day, just taking it all in, which was great. The greatest part of it all, of course, was watching the Earth rise. Every time I came around the moon I went to a window and watched the Earth rise and that was pretty unique.

When you did get a chance, what kind of music did you listen to? I took a collection of tapes with us on the flight and we had a lot of country western, but I was pretty much into the Beatles back in those days, so I carried a lot of Beatles music, and then I carried some French music, a French singer Mireille Mathieu, I carried some of her music too, and then we also carried the Air Force song and some others. Didn’t play it a whole lot on the flight because we were so busy but it was fun to have it there.

You performed the first deep-space extravehicular activity, or space walk, more than 196,000 miles from Earth. Was it frightening to work outside of the spacecraft? It wasn’t really because it’s like anything that you learn. You practice it and practice it and practice it to the point where you don’t really think about it very much when you’re doing the real thing. I had a lot of confidence in the equipment and Dave and Jim back in the spacecraft. So it was fairly easy to do. But it was pretty unusual to be outside the spacecraft a couple hundred thousand miles from Earth, too. It’s dark out there. The sun was shining off the spacecraft, and that’s the only light I had, the reflected light. So it was different. You’re sort of floating out there in a vast nothingness, and the only thing you can see and touch and grab a hold of is the spacecraft. But I wasn’t going to go anywhere, I was tethered to the spacecraft, so I knew I wasn’t going to float away. So I just did what I had to do, went hand over hand down the handrails, grabbed the film cartridges, brought them back and went back out again and just stood up and looked around, and that’s when I could see both the Earth and the moon. It was a problem with the training, I had trained so well that it didn’t take me any time to do what I had to do, and everything worked out okay, and when I was all done, I thought, “Gee, I wish I had found something so that I could have been out there a little longer.”

Previous astronauts had taken objects into space that later found their way onto the market. Why was the Apollo 15 crew singled out for disciplinary action? Those postal covers were sold a couple of months after the flight and quickly became public knowledge. So, I think NASA management felt they had to do something. There had been a similar incident the previous year, when the Apollo 14 crew allegedly made a deal with Franklin Mint to bring silver medallions into space. But NASA kind of smoothed that over because the [astronaut] involved was Alan Shepard, (the first American in space] who was a little more famous than we were. The government never said that we did anything illegal, they just thought it wasn’t in good taste.

After leaving the Air Force, you ran for Congress, flew sightseeing helicopters and developed microprocessors for airplanes. What are you going to do next? Right now obviously you guys at the Smithsonian have got me busy running around the world, that’s going to take a few months. I’m thinking when this is all over that I might finally, actually retire. I’ve done that a few times and I’ve never been very happy in retirement. So I always go out and find something else to do. I retired the first time in 1975 from the Air Force, and I’ve retired three times since then. I’m just one of those people. I just have to find something to do. So I don’t know, I don’t have anything specific in mind right now, except my wife and I are making plans to build a house on a lake up here in Michigan, get our grandkids here, get a boat and teach them how to water-ski and stuff like that. So that’s kind of our plan right now.

What are your reactions to the end of the space shuttle program? It’s really sad. The space program is exactly the shot in the arm this country needs—not just from the standpoint of going somewhere, but in developing the technology to go there, and in providing motivation for kids in school.

What advice would you give to young people who wish to pursue a career in space? The opportunity’s still there. I think there are going to be several avenues for young people to follow. One is in the private sector, because I do believe the private sector will be able to do some things in space. I don’t know about going into Earth orbit. I think that’s a long shot. But there’s a lot of other things that need to be done in space. I think there is just a great need for scientists to look at the universe, not necessarily flying in space, but looking at objects in space, and figuring out what our place is in the universe.

Where do you stand in the debate over manned versus unmanned space exploration? We can find out a lot about other planets by sending probes and robotic rovers. But, ultimately, you’ll need people on site who can evaluate their surroundings and quickly adapt to what’s going on around them. I see unmanned exploration as a precursor to manned exploration—that’s the combination that’s going to get us where we want to go the quickest.

You grew up on a farm in rural Michigan. What motivated you to become an astronaut? I won’t say that I was really motivated to be an astronaut when I was young. In fact, I was the only one working the farm from the time I was 12 until I went off to college. And the one thing I decided from all that—especially here in Michigan, which is pretty hardscrabble farming—was that I was going to do anything I could so that I didn’t end up living the rest of my life on a farm. So that kind of motivated me to go to school, and of course I went to West Point, which is a military school, and from there I went into the Air Force and followed a normal career path. Never really thought about the space program until I had graduated from the graduate school at Michigan back in 1964, and I was assigned to a test pilot school in England, and that’s when I first started thinking about being an astronaut. I was following my own professional line, to be the best pilot and best test pilot I could be. And if the space program ended up being something I could be involved in then that would be fine, but otherwise I was very happy doing what I was doing. They did have an application process and I was able to apply and I did get in, but I can’t say it was a driving force in my life.

Astronauts are heroes for many people. Who are your heroes? My grandfather would be first, because he taught me responsibility and a work ethic. Then there was my high school principal, who got me through school and into college without costing my family any money. Later in life, it was Michael Collins, who was the command module pilot on Apollo 11. Mike was the most professional, nicest, most competent guy that I’ve ever worked with. It was amazing to me that he could have gone from being an astronaut to being appointed the first director of the new Air and Space Museum in 1971.

The Power of Imagery in Advancing Civil Rights

“One of the most extraordinary and least understood aspects of Dr. Martin Luther King’s leadership was his incisive understanding of the power of visual images to alter public opinion,” says Maurice Berger, standing in front of an oversize silk-screen portrait of the slain civil rights leader. Berger, who is a professor at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County’s Center for Art, Design and Visual Culture, is the man behind a moving and expansive new exhibition documenting the effect of imagery on the civil rights movement for the National Museum of African American History and Culture. (The traveling exhibition, “For All the World to See,” is on view through November 27 at the National Museum of American History.) Berger worked on the collection—movies, tele­vision clips, graphic arts and photography, most of it from eBay—over the past six years. But in a larger sense, he’s been putting it together his entire life.

In 1960, when Berger was 4 years old, his accountant father, Max, and his mother, former opera singer Ruth Secunda Berger, moved the family into a predominantly black and Hispanic housing project on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. “My world was not a world of whiteness when I grew up, which was great,” Berger says, because it gave him insights into black culture and racism. He recalls, for example, that he could walk unconcerned around a department store, while his black friends would be followed by store security guards.

In 1985, he met Johnnetta Cole, who was a professor of anthropology at Manhattan’s Hunter College, where Berger was an assistant professor of art history. Two years later, he and Cole, who would become director of the National Museum of African Art, collaborated on an interdisciplinary project, including a book and an exhibition at the Hunter College Art Gallery, called “Race and Representation,” which explored the concept of institutional racism. “We were the first large-scale art museum project to broadly examine the question of white racism as an issue for artists, filmmakers and other visual culture disciplines,” Berger says, “and that really started me on this 25-year path of dealing with two things that are most interesting to me as a scholar: American race relations and the way visual culture affects prevailing ideas and alters the way we see the world.”

In the new exhibit, Berger examines how visual messages were used not only by movement leaders and the media, but also by ordinary people not mentioned in history books. “I really wanted to understand the level of human interaction on the ground,” Berger says. “Whether it was TV or magazines, the world got changed one image at a time.” He believes the most simple images can deliver an emotional wallop, such as a poster by San Francisco graphic artists that declares in red letters, “I Am a Man.” It was inspired by placards carried by striking black sanitation workers in Memphis in 1968—the strike that brought King to the city on the day of his assassination.

The exhibition takes visitors through themed sections, beginning with such stereotypical images as Aunt Jemima, followed by an exhibit of rare African-American magazine covers, which sought to counter stereotypes with images embodying pride, beauty and accomplishment.

Farther along, Berger examines the 1955 murder and mutilation of 14-year-old Emmett Till, after he was accused of whistling at a white woman while visiting Mississippi. His gruesome death, brought starkly home by his mother’s insistence on having an open casket at his funeral in Chicago, became a rallying point for the civil rights movement. “She also directed photographers to take pictures of the body, saying, ‘Let the world see what I’ve seen,’” says Berger, explaining the exhibition title. “And I thought, well then I’ll answer Mrs. Till’s call. It’s this totally distraught, grieving mother, not a historian, not a political figure, who suddenly realizes that that one image could spur a revolution.”

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