National Air and Space Museum (NASM)

An estimated nine million people visit the National Air and Space Museum (NASM) on the National Mall in our nation’s capital. The Museum houses the largest collection of air and spacecraft in the world, and serves as a research and education Center for Earth and Planetary Studies in the fields of aviation, planetary science, geophysics, and space flight technology. Originally named the National Air Museum by a 1946 Congressional Act, the main facility between 4th and 7th Street was renamed the National Air and Space Museum when it opened July 4, 1976. Designed by architect Gyo Obata, the facility consists of four large stone cubes connected by three spacious steel and glass atriums. Smaller exhibits such as space helmets and suits, microchips, lunar rocks, and other items of interest are on display in galleries within the four cubes, while missiles, rockets, jetliners, and other aircraft are housed within the atriums.

There are 23 galleries within the Museum that follow the history of aviation from the Wright Brothers to space exploration, highlighting the major advancements in technology and the exciting discoveries along the way. The Welcome Center gallery features the Voyager, the first airplane to fly non-stop without refueling around the world in 1986. Two large murals, the Space Mural: A Cosmic View by Robert McCall and Earth Flight Environment by Eric Sloane, cover the east and west walls of the two-level gallery.

The Museum collection consists of over 50,000 aviation and space related items, as well as NASA commissioned artwork of the early years in space. Some of the original collection remains, which includes the Stringfellow steam engine and the Chinese kites which were donated to the Smithsonian at the closing of the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia. Noteworthy artifacts include the Wright 1903 flyer, Lindbergh’s Spirit of St. Louis, the Apollo 11 Columbia space module, Amelia Earhart’s Lockheed Vega 5B, an 11-foot model of the USS Enterprise aircraft carrier, and Perot’s Spirit of Texas helicopter, the first to fly around the world. Numerous ongoing exhibits at the NASM include Treasures of American History, Milestones of Flight in the main entry hall, Explore the Universe, and Jet Aviation, as well as a new exhibition America by Air, which is scheduled to open in November 2007.

Other attractions at the NASM include the Lockheed Martin IMAX Theater and the 230-seat Albert Einstein Planetarium. The Planetarium received the Carl Zeiss VI planetarium instrument from Germany, giving it the unique distinction of the only automated spacequarium in the world. In addition, the NASM houses the National Aviation and Space Exploration Wall of Honor, a permanent memorial to the many people who have contributed to the nation’s history. Daily activities at the NASM include lectures by curators, discovery and explore stations, flight simulators and demonstrations. Detailed information and past exhibitions can be viewed online at the Museum’s website.

Further space exploration and innovations in aviation brought more items to the collection, far too many to be housed in one exhibit facility. Established by legislation in 1993 under former president Clinton, the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center opened near the Dulles Airport on December 15, 2003 as an annex to the NASM. Named after its largest donor, construction of the facility was made possible by a $65 million gift from this Hungarian immigrant and co-founder of the International Lease Finance Corporation, world’s largest lessor of aircraft. Over a million people visit the facility each year where an estimated 100 aircraft and 122 space items of interest are on display in the McDonnell Space Hangar and on three levels in the Boeing Aviation Hangar. Visitors can trace aviation history through the exhibit stations of Korea and Vietnam, the Cold War, World War II, and present day technology. Boeing Aviation displays include the Enola Gay Super Fortress, Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird, and the deHavilland Chipmunk acrobatic plane. Other historical aircraft include the Piper Cub J-3, the Concorde, Northrop Black Widow, and the Goodyear blimp, Pilgrim. Display stations in the Space Hangar exhibit rockets and missiles, human space flight, and science in space, with featured attractions including the Gemini VII space capsule, Explorer and Pioneer satellites, a Redstone rocket, and the Mobile Quarantine Unit used on the return of the Apollo 11 crew.

A special year-long exhibit at the Udvar-Hazy Center highlights Pan Am’s opening of Pacific routes, the pioneers, and the Japanese-American stewardesses of the Jet Age, with memorabilia from the recently closed Airborne Dreams exhibit in Hawaii. In addition, volunteers from the NASM operate the Donald D. Engen observation tower at the Center, where visitors can view airplane departures and arrivals at Washington Dulles International Airport. The tower is accessible by elevator, with entrance on the ground floor adjacent to the IMAX Theater. Major improvements and an additional wing are being planned to accommodate the increased attendance and growth of the collections in the Center. Phase Two will include a Restoration Hangar, a 30,000 square foot Archives facility, housing two million photographs and 20,000 film and video titles, a Collection Processing and Storage Unit, and the Emil Buehler Conservation Laboratory.

Space and aviation films are scheduled year round at both IMAX theaters, with the calendar for 2007 including Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, Magnificent Desolation at the Hazy Center, and Space Station 3D at the National Mall. Cosmic Collision, the Stars Tonight, and Infinity Express are offered daily at various show times in the Einstein Planetarium. Tickets can be purchased online.

Hours: Daily (except December 25), 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., National Mall Building, Independence Ave & 4th Street, and the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center, 14390 Air and Space Museum, Chantilly, Virginia. Admission: Free.
Smithsonian Info: 202-633-1000, Monday through Saturday, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Tours: Docent guided, daily at 10:30 and 1 p.m., both locations. Group reservations: 202-633-2563
Parking: public lots nearby (none at museum), $12.00 public parking at the Hazy Center, annual parking passes available.
Handicap accessible. Museum stores and concessions at both locations.

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