|Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum (DC)|
|Address||600 Independence Ave SW, Washington, DC 20560|
|Time Required||A day|
|Photography||No tripods or monopods. Side galleries are quite dark.|
|Nearest Airport||Dulles (IAD), Reagan National (DCA)|
Coming from the Air Mobility Command Museum, I arrived in Washington, DC by rental car and was supposed to drop off the vehicle at Union Station, DC’s main railroad terminal. The address AVIS gives is just that of the station, no further help.
It’d be nice if they’d tell out-of-towners anywhere that the way you get to the drop-off is actually on Avenue H in the main car park. And then at least have legible signage. See that sign below “ENTER”? No? See!
The center of Washington is quite green and “flat” (The building code doesn’t allow overly tall buildings) with lots of sights to see within short distance. The National Mall is home to several world-class museums, of which the Air and Space Museum is one. Also very noteworthy for technology geeks is the National Museum of American History, which has a collection of technology artifacts from machines to cars to trains ot ships.
I’ve been staying at the Washington Plaza Hotel, which was a great price-for-value choice and draws quite a few local visitors because it features a rarity in the city: a decent outdoor swimming pool. There’s a bus stop just across the street from the hotel from where the National Mall is a short 10 minute ride away.
For anyone interested in flying things, the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum is likely the world’s best museum. The museum’s exhibition is spread across two sites, one in the National Mall that I am discussing here and one at the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly (VA) just by the Dulles Airport that I write about separately.
The Smithsonian Institution is a U.S. government entity and manages what the government deems worthy of keeping, and the main collection of the Smithsonian gets the nicest bits. In addition, private enterprises, even from outside the United States, donate significant aviation milestone artifacts to the collection; Deutsche Lufthansa donated a Junkers Ju-52/3m that is on display at the Udvar-Hazy Center.
The exhibition building in the National Mall has three large main galleries and several smaller side galleries. The “Boeing Milestones of Flight Hall”, which also doubles as the main entrance lobby from the National Mall side, holds one of the two remaining North American X-15 rocket planes, the Bell X-1 with which Chuck Yeager first broke the sound barrier, the first U.S. jet fighter Bell P-59 Airacomet, and the Ryan NYP “Spirit of St. Louis” which Charles Lindbergh took from New York to Paris, after a 33 hour and 30 minute solo flight.
The same gallery also features numerous spaceflight artifacts. Alan Shepard’s Mercury Friendship 7 capsule, and the Lovell/Borman Gemini IV capsule are shown, the first private spacecraft SpaceShip One hangs from the ceiling, and there are several flight spares of significant robotic spacecraft and a ground-test Apollo Lunar Module (LM-2). The gallery also hosts two towering reminders of the 1980s Cold War: a Pershing II and the only Soviet SS-20 anywhere in the west.
The “America by Air” gallery showcases great milestones of civil aviation. A Douglas DC-3, a Boeing 247, and a Ford Trimotor are suspended from the ceiling, the nose-section of a Boeing 747 is mounted on one of the walls, and the floor space exhibition features many commercial aviation history artifacts.
Further civil aviation milestones such as the first around-the-world flight are celebrated in an extra gallery on the second floor above the Milestones of Flight gallery.
The Space Race gallery features the Apollo 11 Command Module, a mockup of the Apollo-Soyuz project rendezvous configuration, full size models of the Hubble Space Telescope and Spacelab, and a collection of rocket boosters, including a German A-4/V-2 and a Fieseler Fi-103/V-1.
The side galleries are organized around specific topics, such as early flight, World War I, and World War II, the Apollo Program, Naval Aviation, and other topics. The original Wright Flyer that took the first powered hop in history has its own gallery as well.
The museum has amazing depth and a full day passes by very easily, even without the movie theater and planetarium shows. The aircraft and spaceships and drones shown in the museum are impressive and seem quite large as presented, but the real big aircraft of the museum’s collection are not at this site, but at the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy center (coming up).