More than eight million people. That’s how many visitors this museum, and its annex near Dulles Airport, get yearly (this outlet of the museum gets a whopping seven million). This makes it, according to the Smithsonian, the most visited museum in the United States.
It’s not hard to understand why. The National Air and Space Museum manages to tap into that most primordial of human impulses: the urge to fly. And it does so in a multi-layered fashion, mixing extraordinary artifacts with IMAX movies, videos, computer terminals with quizzes, even flight simulators.
The seeds of this museum were planted when the Smithsonian Institution acquired its first aeronautical objects in 1876: 20 kites from the Chinese Imperial Commission. By the time the National Air and Space Museum opened on the National Mall 100 years later, the collection had grown to tens of thousands of objects. Today, the inventory of historic aircraft and spacecraft artifacts numbers 66,000, the world’s largest such collection.
The place is huge, as is much of its collection. Enormous aircraft and spacecraft dangle from the ceiling or are placed in floor exhibits throughout both levels. Visitors of all ages, but mostly families, take pictures of each other against the backdrops of the towering Pershing II (34.8') and SS20 Pioneer (54.10') missiles, or the Hubble Space Telescope (42’), or just about anything in the museum, as most of the artifacts dwarf humans. Tours and demonstrations are in constant rotation.
And, unfortunately, there are often lines—many, many lines. The first is just to enter the building. Then there are lines to get tickets for IMAX films, or a show at the Einstein Planetarium, to take a ride on a flight simulator, and to enter the cockpit of the Northwest Airlines Boeing 747 on display in the America by Air exhibit. (FYI: You enter the nose of the plane from the second floor.) I have never visited the museum when it hasn’t been a frenzied scene.
All this means you need to be strategic in your visit. What you see will depend on what interests you, and unless you have the entire day, you won’t see it all. Here’s what you need to know:
The two-story museum’s 23 galleries extend either side of the building’s central open-floor expanse. You’ll find exhibits on aviation history and exploration on the east side (closest to the Lincoln Memorial), and exhibits on space exploration and history on the west side (closest to the Capitol) of the building. First floor aviation exhibits focus on the civilian flight story, for instance Golden Age of Flight, while upstairs exhibits are devoted to the military aviation story, for instance, World War II Aviation.
The first floor’s space-themed galleries include exhibits on the Space Race and the development of huge telescopes (Explore the Universe); upstairs space-themed galleries highlight Exploring the Moon, and Time and Navigation in space.
The central area on both floors takes a look at historic milestones and individuals in aviation and space research and development: The first floor Boeing Milestones of Flight hall’s space and aviation artifacts illustrate ways that aviation and flight transformed the world. Look here for the first American jet aircraft, the Spirit of St. Louis, flown solo by Charles Lindbergh across the Atlantic Ocean. The second floor exhibit, Barron Hilton Pioneers of Flight, features Amelia Earhart’s brilliant red Lockheed Vega plane, her "little red bus," as she called it, which she piloted alone and nonstop in 1932 from Canada to Northern Ireland.
If you’re short on time or simply overwhelmed, there are two things you shouldn’t miss. The Sky Lab Orbital Workshop, in the Space Race gallery on the first floor (but you enter the spaceship on the second floor), allows you to walk through the country’s first space station. You’re actually inside the astronauts’ living quarters; if you look up, you’ll see that most of the rocket’s construction lies overhead. And be sure to visit the second floor Wright Brothers exhibit, which displays the Wright brothers’ 1903 Flyer ★★★, the world’s first successful airplane.
Amateur astronomers should head outside to the museum’s east terrace to look through the telescopes in the Phoebe Waterman Haas Public Observatory. The observatory is free and open to the public Wednesday to Sunday noon to 3pm for daytime sightings of moon craters and sun spots, and once or twice a month for nighttime observations (more info on the website).
Or get off your feet for a while and take in an IMAX film, like the ever popular To Fly, or Hubble 3-D, or watch a show at the Albert Einstein Planetarium. IMAX and planetarium films require tickets, which cost anywhere from $6.50 to $15 per person (plus $3 per ticket processing fees), depending on the film, age of filmgoer, and whether or not the person is a Smithsonian Institution member. There’s a charge to ride the flight simulators, as well: $7–$12 per ride per person.
This location is also home to the Smithsonian’s largest gift shop (three levels, 12,000 sq. ft.), and several fast-food restaurants.
The National Mall’s Air and Space Museum should certainly satisfy most aviation and space buffs, but if you’re still curious, or if you’ve got a flight leaving from Washington Dulles International Airport and have time to kill, drive the 25 miles or so to the National Air and Space Museum’s companion Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center, which celebrates its 15th anniversary in 2018. Here you can explore one huge hangar filled with aviation objects, another with space objects, each arranged by subject (Commercial Aviation, Korea and Vietnam Aviation, Sport Aviation, and so on), and you can tour an observation tower that gives you a bird’s eye view of planes landing and departing at Washington Dulles International Airport. IMAX movies and simulator rides are options here, as well. Its address is: 14390 Air and Space Museum Pkwy., Chantilly, VA.
- Elise Hartman Ford