on September 22, 2009
Since I was a kid, I have always been fascinated by all things aviation and space related. If you’re like me, the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum is one place you shouldn’t pass up. There are hundreds of different artifacts, original and accurate replicas, documenting our history off the ground. The Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum is located off the National Mall, by Jefferson Street and 7th Street. It’s best reached from the Metro Station at L’Enfant Plaza, which is just south on 7th Street.There is no entry fee, but there is always has the obligatory security screening. Once inside, I was immediately in the middle of the Milestones of Flight exhibit. This exhibit features the milestones, such as Robert Goddard’s first rocket, the Bell X-1 which broke the supersonic barrier, Charles Lindberg’s Spirit of St. Louis and the first transatlantic flight. One thing I found especially interesting is the display of an actual North American X-15, basically a hypersonic rocket plane that is the fastest plane ever flown. It only has a few minutes of fuel, yet often reached altitudes high enough to be considered space, qualifying the pilot for astronaut wings. In addition, the few minutes of fuel propelled the X-15 to over 6 times the speed of sound.There is the Space Race exhibit, which mainly consists of rockets, missiles, and space capsules. There are exhibits of the German V-1 and V-2 rockets, both Soviet and US ballistic missiles, a test version of the Hubble space telescope, and mock-ups of a Soviet and US space capsule as they docked together in the cold war. An interesting observation is that the German V-2 rocket was built by slaves during World War 2. The metal skin of the V-2 is very rough and has lots of wrinkles, as compared to the smooth surfaces of the American and Soviet missiles.There is an exhibit of the lunar landings, which have different lunar probes and a replica of the lunar landing vehicle. I was stunned by how small the unmanned lunar probes are, most of them could fit, folded up, in the bed of a pickup truck. There is also an exhibit of aerial and space photography. They have prints of photos from various altitudes and angles for all reasons ranging from mapping, topography, natural disaster survey, to military reconnaissance. One exhibit I found interesting is a display showing before and after photos of places that have been camouflaged and how to see through it. For example, there is a Cold War era photo of a Soviet oil tank farm where the tanks were made to look like residential homes, yet at a certain angle late in the day, their shadows were perfectly circular, as they came from the oil tanks.There are also exhibits of military aviation, from famous fighter planes used in both World Wars, to the clothing and uniforms worn by the pilots, weapons, and instrumentation used. A Naval Aviation exhibit is in a room fashioned after an aircraft carrier’s hangar deck and features aircraft and artifacts from naval aviation. An unmanned aviation exhibit has highlights from early unmanned aircraft to the Predator drones, and experimental ones such as the Darkstar, which have the exhaust and and air intakes sealed due to their classified nature.There is also a dedicated exhibit to the Wright Brothers and their first flight. There are interactive displays showing how the Wright Brother’s flight controls and control surfaces work. There is also a history of how the Wright Brothers turned a printing and bicycle manufacturing business into an aircraft manufacturer. There is a life size replica of the Wright Flyer 1, which made the first powered air flight. This exhibit is very interesting and taught me many things about the Wright Brothers that I never realized before.There is an exhibit called America by Air, which chronicles commercial flight. There are such exhibits as older, propeller driven commercial planes. There's a front end of a Northwest Airlines 747 where you can walk into the cockpit.There is an IMAX theater showing different aviation related movies which require $8.75 tickets. A planetarium showing movies on exploring the universe as well. There is a gift shop, a food court with McDonalds and Boston Market, as well as a pizzeria. There is jet fighter plane simulator, which requires paid tickets. All in all, the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum is an excellent place to learn about flight and space exploration, and a really great place to bring kids, even the adult ones like me.
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