Story and Photos by Claudia Newcorn
From the moment you step through the glass doors into the Smithsonian National Air & Space Museum in Washington DC, you can be overwhelmed – in a good way.
A showcase of all things aviation, you will encounter everything from the jet engines used to propel rockets into space and lunar modules to the Star Trek Ship Enterprise, along with full sized planes suspended three stories above from the ceilings.
There is so much to see among the changing exhibits that you can take two strategies: skim and visit everything, or focus on an area of particular interest. I started with the space program, given this year’s celebration of the first moonwalk.
To the Moon
Right in the main lobby sits the Lunar Module LM-2, golden in its unbelievably thin skin. It’s one thing to see it on TV – but up close, you marvel at its compact size and the courage it took Neil Armstrong and Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin to climb into it and head down to the moon.
The exhibit, 50 Years from Tranquility Base, showcases the objects and tools uses by these first space pioneers, adding a moving element of humanity to the scientific aspect of space travel.
A visitor marvels at the “state-of-the-art” devices the astronauts used. I found myself wondering how “quaint” today’s technology will look to people 50 years from now.
The Space Race exhibit provides a fascinating insight on the U.S.-Soviet space rivalry and how it fueled both military and scientific developments that anchored the future technologies we enjoy today.
Among the large gallery’s highlights are a German V-1 “buzz bomb” and V2 missile, an inside view of a Minuteman rocket guidance system, a Skylab Orbital Workshop which you can enter, and a full-size test version of the Hubble Space Telescope, most of which fill the 3-story gallery.
Space satellites were and remain an integral part of the space program. Mariner 2 marked the beginning of robotic exploration of planets, and dangles in the Milestones of Flight Hall. Fired off in 1962, Mariner 2 measured the atmosphere of Venus.
Originally established in 1946, the main building opened on the National Mall in 1976. The museum has 22 exhibition galleries which dramatically cover the history of astronomy, aviation, spaceflight, and planetary science. A testament to what an amazing place it is can be summed up with it having earned nearly 5 stars – out of nearly 27,000 reviews!
I was mesmerized by the early era of flight, the derring-do and risks that aviators, as they were known, were willing to take – both women and men. Seeing exhibits about Amelia Earhart and Charles Lindbergh – including the Spirit of St. Louis, the first plane to make a trans-Atlantic flight – were inspiring.
There are science demonstrations, a planetarium and an IMAX theater that offers multiple shows, and makes a nice break from hiking the museum. One room actually has rides in the form of simulators, giving you a chance to experience flight.
You can enjoy tours led by museum docents, which add depth and insights to your visit. Discovery Stations offer interactive learning sessions and demonstrations, such as Living & Working in Space, and America by Air: The History of Air Exploration.
Exploring the Museum
As with other Smithsonian museums, admission is free and no tickets are required to visit. It is open daily, 10-5:30 (except for Christmas Day). The IMAX theater shows do require paid tickets.
It is very family-friendly, with hands-on exhibits that engage kids and the kids-at-heart. Wear very comfortable shoes!
While there are places to sit and a cafeteria, this is a walking museum with concrete floors.
While I did not get a chance to visit it (yet), the museum actually has a second location in nearby Virginia: the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center, with two large hangars which house where the really big objects including a Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird, a Concorde, and the Space Shuttle Discovery, among thousands of other aviation and space artifacts.
The museum is in the process of a major renovation, and some galleries are closed. Planning your trip can be simplified by visiting their website and reviewing the current exhibits and floor map guides (AirandSpace.si.edu/visit/museum-dc/floor-plan-guides). L