Big news: The National Air and Space Museum has embarked on an enormous, multi-year, nearly $1 billion makeover that will transform the entire visitor experience and is expected to be fully completed by 2025. In October 2022, half of the museum reopened, debuting eight shiny new galleries.
Even with renovations ongoing, there's lots to see here. The Spirit of St. Louis, the 1903 Wright Flyer, Bell X-1, the Apollo Lunar Module, and Skylab are all housed here, currently in a massive ground floor hall that traces the history of air transportation and explores how technology revolutionized air travel.
Based on visitation numbers (7 million annually, prior to the renovation), this is among America’s favorite museums. And even in its current state, 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, and hands-on exploration of displayed equipment.
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 ft.) and SS20 Pioneer (54.1 ft.) missiles, or the Hubble Space Telescope (42 ft.), or just about anything in the museum, as most of the artifacts dwarf humans.
You’ll enter through the South Lobby, where Star Trek fans can geek out and snap photos of a studio model of the Starship Enterprise. Just beyond that, the story starts where it should, with Wilbur and Orville Wright and the story of how they got a plane in the air in the early 1900s, and how the world reacted to their new invention. Next door to Gallery 1, the Early Flight gallery offers a look at how humankind developed the first airplanes, from the early days of the Lilienthal Glider to the French aviation era’s Blériot XI aircraft. Another first-floor gallery highlights how the commercialized flight experience has changed over time, with displays showing early flight attendant uniforms by major airlines, and what the golden age of travel once looked like (spoiler alert: more style and legroom, less cramming passengers into tiny seats). The final first floor gallery showcases the Thomas W. Haas We All Fly exhibit, which looks at aviation-related careers, and such extraordinary flying machines as the Lear Jet 23, Cirrus SR22, and Aviation Specialties Unlimited Challenger III.
Upstairs is the spectacular Kenneth C. Griffin Exploring the Planets Gallery and its impressive model of the solar system. The rest of the room delves into the origins of the universe, the sun and the planets, and how scientists today are working to uncover the many mysteries of space. The gallery next door focuses on the U.S. space program, featuring stories and artifacts from the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo missions. The last two galleries explore the ways technology, satellites, and the internet have worked to connect the people of the world, and the technology behind some of the fastest vehicles and planes on earth—like Mario Andretti’s Indy 500 race car and the Sharp DR 90 Nemesis plane, both of which can be viewed here.
Also on the second floor, the Planetarium is a good place to take a breather, especially if you’re touring the museum with overexcited children. Choose from two kid-friendly shows—Worlds Beyond Earth and Dark Universe. The 30-minute films rotate every half hour, offering a visually stunning look at the cosmos. Check the Planetarium box office schedule for current prices and times, as tickets can only be purchased there in person at this time (not ahead of time online).
The National Air and Space Museum’s companion location, the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center, is adjacent to Washington Dulles International Airport in Chantilly, Virginia. If you’re hungry to see more aviation artifacts and spacecraft, or if you’ve got a flight leaving from Dulles Airport and have time to kill, drive the 25 miles out to the satellite museum—you can also get there from downtown D.C. by taking the Metro’s nifty new Silver line extension to the Innovation Center Metrorail Station, then a 15-minute ride on the 983 Fairfax Connector bus. Here you can explore one huge hangar filled with aviation objects and another with space objects, each arranged by subject (Commercial Aviation, Korea and Vietnam Aviation, Sport Aviation, and so on). Perhaps the center’s most notable artifact is the enormous space shuttle Discovery, which retired in 2011. A Lockhead SR-71 Blackbird, the world’s fastest-jet-propelled aircraft, is also here, along with the Concorde, the first supersonic airliner. IMAX movies and simulator rides also are options. Note: Admission is free at Udvar-Hazy, but there is a $15 fee for parking.