The forklift didn't go to the moon, but a simple misunderstanding illustrates the respect and credence that the public gives museums.
Starting in the late 1950s, the National Air and Space Museum occupied more and more of Smithsonian's old Arts and Industries Building until funding was released for a new building. The most important artifacts – like the Wright Flier, the Spirit of St. Louis, and a New Mexico-era Goddard rocket – were exhibited in the north hall, with its entrance facing onto Washington's National Mall.
Inevitably, the Space Race produced new items that were shoehorned in after curators figured how to rearrange what they couldn't bear to move out.
On such a day, a Mercury capsule was being gently repositioned when the forklift moving it ran out of gas. Before going for a new gas bottle, the operator placed steel stanchions with velvet ropes around the forklift to keep guests from climbing aboard.
A few minutes later, deputy director Melvin Zisfein walked through the hall on his way to the cafeteria and passed a middle-aged couple discussing the artifacts.
"Did that really go to the Moon?" the wife asked as she pointed at the forklift.
Her husband gave her an incredulous look: "Of course it did. Why do you think they have the rope around it?"
Our patrons are inquisitive and curious, but space can be complex, so patrons take what we present as writ in stone. This drives our passion to be accurate – is it correct? – without being too precise – detail that will drive the patrons away. It's a fun challenge as we work to let you sample space exploration without being overwhelmed.
But the Smithsonian, at least, doesn't have to worry about velvet ropes anymore. Their design guidelines ban them because the ropes are too high and wide for visually impaired patrons to detect readily with their canes.
Dave Dooling has been education director of the New Mexico Museum of Space History since February 2012. He started his science-writing career in 1970 soon after he worked as a summer-hire security guard for the Apollo 11 launch. As science editor of “The Huntsville Times,” he covered space shuttle development and its first missions. He moved west in 2002 to serve as education officer at the National Solar Observatory in Sunspot until joining the museum in 2012.