The Smithsonian Institution: Highlights of the National Air and Space Museum
Milestones of Flight
When you walk inside the National Air and Space Museum through the National Mall entrance, you can't help but look up. For anyone who loves flying on planes and find space exploration a source of wonder and amazement, this museum feeds the mind and soul. Everywhere you look as you take your first steps inside, you'll see planes, missiles, and spacecraft hanging in mid-air or resting on the ground waiting for you to check them out. The National Air and Space Museum is vast with an array of displays and galleries that ask for your engagement. Prepare to be fascinated.
Immediately upon entry, you are introduced to America's Milestones of Flight. These are the aircraft and spacecraft that have propelled mankind to the next uncharted territory.
For me, the era of flight and man's ability to be one with sky and space started with The Spirit of St. Louis, the first aircraft to connect two continents together by successfully flying over the vast Atlantic nonstop and flown by just one lone pilot. Charles Lindbergh was the ambitious man to make that crossing on May 20, 1927 at 7:52 AM and I could not imagine what he must have been thinking when he started that dangerous and noble attempt. The elation at his completion of the flight when he landed at Le Bourget Field near Paris on May 21, 1927 must have been indescribable and to be met by thousands of joyous French people celebrating his accomplishment was sensational. It took him 33 hours and 30 minutes to fly over 3500 miles and complete that crossing; he only carried four sandwiches, two canteens of water, and 451 gallons of gas.
By completing that nonstop transtatlantic flight solo, Lindbergh won $25,000 Orteig Prize. The prize was offered by St. Louis businessman Raymond Orteig, a successful French immigrant, to anyone who was the first to make a nonstop aircraft flight between New York and Paris. Lindbergh called his plane The Spirit of St. Louis, after the group of people who helped him fund his efforts. This was clearly a private enterprise and not influenced by government or military need. The successful crossing made it plain that flying commercially would not be far behind and Lindbergh's flight spurred a huge interest in people over the world to have a chance to be able to fly.
A Poignant Time of Mutally Assured Destruction in History
As a child growing up amidst the Cold War between the United States and the USSR, the possibility that nuclear hostilities could be set off due to some irreconcilable event was always in the background. Looking at the Soviet SS-20 Saber missile capable of carrying a 1.6 ton nuclear warhead, it seemed impossible that something so unimposing can have the effect, if unleashed on civilization, of thousands of Hiroshimas bombs being dropped at once. Looking at the slimmer and smaller, American-made Pershing II which was equally capable, I was very glad that the two countries had the sense to sign the INF treaty that eliminated not only nuclear but also conventional ground launched ballistic and cruise missiles with intermediate ranges of up to 5500 miles. The treaty was signed in 1987 by President Ronald Reagan and Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev.
These two missiles were the linchpin of a Cold War strategy of mutually assured destruction between the two countries. If the Soviets ever thought to set one off at the United States, they could be assured that the US would make sure that Soviets get the same, if not more. These two missiles seem such an anachronism but I am enough of a cynic to know that the dangerous game of brinksmanship can rear its ugly head at any time. It may not be the same two countries involved.
The complicated relationship between the United States and The Soviet Union was not always one of conflict, they had collaborations in space exploration. The museum has a recreation of the first collaboration between the two countries: the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project in 1975. It was the first time that the two countries met in space; the last Apollo spacecraft was docked with the Soviet Soyuz and the astronauts from the two countries were able to visit with the other. The docking station had to be built to accommodate the linking because the specifications of the Apollo and the Soyuz were so different - even the cabin pressure of each was different. The successful project was a harbinger of future collaborations such as the Shuttle-Mir program and the International Space Station.
Breaking Barriers and Launching into Space in Small Steps
Before man could launch the first spaceship, it had to be able to create a plane that was fast enough and fly high enough to break barriers. The Bell X-1 was the first airplane to do just that on October 14, 1947; it flew faster than the speed of sound and reached an altitude of 43,000 feet using a rocket engine. US Air Force Captain Charles "Chuck" Yeager proved that man was ready to break out of its planetary home and was able to fly into space. I just had no idea that he flew such an orange plane!
Once you break the sound barrier, the next step was to be able to create a spacecraft that could explore space; the Mercury Friendship 7 and the Gemini IV were the spaceships to do just that. Astronaut John H Glenn Jr. was the first American to orbit the earth three times and successfully re-enter our atmosphere and spash down on February 20, 1962. America now knew how to build spaceships not only suitable for flying in space but could also bring the astronauts back safely home. The astronauts of the Gemini IV, James McDivitt and Edward White II proved that American astronauts can adquately deal with weightlessness and were capable of walking in space. Edward White's spacewalk lasted 20 minutes and was the first space walk by an American. The flight also proved that the National Aeronautics of Space Administration can now take on the project of landing on the moon. These space modules on display show the cramped conditions that the astronauts were under in order to re-enter our atmosphere.
The Apollo 11 was the spaceship that made the successful landing on the Moon and consisted of two important parts: the Lunar Module which landed on the moon and the Command Module Columbia which came back and were flown by the three astronauts, Neil Armstrong, Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin Jr, and Michael Collins. From the second floor, you can see the top of the Columbia and how the front of its metal skin was melted from the extreme heat of its re-entry. The Apollo command module Columbia is in the Milestones of Flight gallery, the very first gallery on entry of the museum while the recreation of the Apollo moon landing is a gallery of its own inside the museum.
I never realized until looking at all the early spacecraft, how NASA made space flight possible by building one huge rocket to launch a spaceship with various sections that had to be shed off at particular times of the flight to enable the pilots to come back home. I am curious as to all the debris that was left in space and whether we would ever be able to get them back. What condition would they be in? Are there outer space astronauts that will discover them? For all the space explorations we have done, we are still at the dawn of space exploration.
Opening Hours, guided tours, no entrance fees
Open hours are 10AM-5:30PM seven days a week and the museum is only closed on December 25th. The closest metro station is L'Enfant Plaza. Remember, the National Air and Space Museum is part of the Smithsonian Institution and is therefore federally funded via your income taxes so there is no entry fee into this wonderful museum. The museum does show IMAX films and planetarium shows and they have a fee. Check at the Welcome Center for a schedules and additional information.
There is security screening so don't bring a lot of stuff. Ninety-minute guided tours are at 10:30 AM and 1:00PM, just show up at the Welcome Center since these tours are free and tickets aren't required.
National Air and space Museum
One of the Smithsonian Institution's great museums to help you explore the wonders of flight and space travel.
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