Air and Space Museum, Washington DC
The National Air and Space Museum in Washington D.C. is one of the free Smithsonian Museums located just off the Washington Mall. Founded in 1946, it holds the largest collection of aircraft and spacecraft in the world. With over 6 million visitors a year, it is the most popular of the Smithsonian's in Washington which isn't surprising as almost every artefact on display is either the original or a backup of the original item. With its central location close to the other major Smithsonians, it is easily accessed from most parts of the city and is completely free of charge, though donations are welcome.
I am a self confessed space tragic, so to see any artefacts that had gone to space was something I was really looking forward to. I was not to be disappointed. After passing through the obligatory security check, within the large main foyer that serves as the museum's entrance, was Gemini V, which was the first module from which a human conducted a space walk and Mercury VII, the first manned US spaceship and The Apollo 11 Command Module. Not a bad entrance! Also included in the main foyer were several American and Soviet rockets, a prototype of the Mars rover, a recent "Around the World" hot air balloon capsule and the Bell X-1, the legendary jet that Chuck Jager flew to become the first man to break the speed of sound.
The beauty of this museum is that due to the size of many of the artefacts on display and the vast space which they are shown, the building can absorb large crowds without it feeling like you are missing out on viewing the main attractions. The museum breaks down roughly into having half of its exhibitions on flight, with the other half focusing on space and space exploration, with an interactive science museum for children and an Imax theatre showcasing science documentaries rounding out its offerings. The exhibitions on flight show the history of human flight, from gliders, through the Wright Brothers, World War 1 and 2, the invention of the jet engine and then more modern planes. There is another large 2 storey foyer where planes from different eras hang, with the ability to walk into the cockpit of a 747. The highlight of the flight area to my mind was the original Wright Brothers plane, the forefather of all further planes and then space shuttles to come. It was significantly larger then I was expecting but to see this iconic item was just by itself worth visiting the museum.
The flight section was interesting but it was really the space section that I had come to see. Within its exhibitions was housed the rover that Apollo 17 took to the moon, the backup mirror for the Hubble Space Telescope, the Apollo Lunar Module, various rockets and a working prototype of the Mars Rovers. Significant space was granted to artefacts from the Apollo missions, including uniforms, badges, moon rocks and golf clubs. This display also goes into terrific detail about the history of the missions and the various people involved. Other exhibits explore the planets within our solar system and other items in the universe. Although of some interest, it is really the items that have been into space that are of interest and what most people are coming to the museum to see.
The Air and Space Museum is a must see item for anyone with an interest in flight or space exploration. There are few places in the world where you could go and see so many iconic items on display in one building and I believe nowhere else you could go and see so many iconic objects from the 20th century located together. The building wonderfully showcases these wonderful items and it will continue to preserve them for generations to come.