The Air and Space Museum has embarked on an enormous, multiyear makeover. During this time, parts of the facility will be closed.
The first of the renovated galleries are expected to reopen in 2022, with the entire project scheduled to end in 2025.
Among the temporarily closed areas: the Albert Einstein Planetarium (until 2022) and the Lockheed Martin IMAX Theater (until 2025).
At the moment, six galleries are open at the Mall museum: Boeing Milestones of Flight Hall, Explore the Universe, Moving Beyond Earth, Space Race, the Wright Brothers, and the Invention of the Aerial.
The facility is still worth visiting. 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 multilayered fashion, mixing extraordinary artifacts with videos and hands-on exploration of displayed equipment.
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 more than 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 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. Tours and demonstrations are in constant rotation.
And, unfortunately, there are often lines—many, many lines.
The east wing’s exhibits focus mainly on space exploration and history. First-floor galleries cover the Space Race and the development of huge telescopes (Explore the Universe).
The central area on both floors takes a look at historic milestones and individuals in aviation and space research and development: Space and aviation artifacts in the first-floor Boeing Milestones of Flight Hall illustrate ways that aviation and flight transformed the world. This is where you'll see the first American jet aircraft, the Spirit of St. Louis, flown solo by Charles Lindbergh across the Atlantic Ocean.
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 (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, where the Wright brothers’ 1903 Flyer ★★★, the world’s first successful airplane, is on display.
Wonder where the museum has put all of the aircraft and equipment that used to occupy the west wing? Much of it now resides temporarily in the National Air and Space Museum’s second location, the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center, adjacent to Washington Dulles International Airport. 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. 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). Perhaps the center’s most notable artifact is the space shuttle Discovery. The observation tower gives a bird’s-eye view of planes landing and departing at Dulles Airport. Simulator rides are also options.