Image courtesy of Jim Preston
By Katherine Plunkett
Take a walk among the Wright brothers’ first flyer, early spaceships, and unique artifacts from aviation and space history at the National Air and Space Museum. Located at the National Mall just off the L’Enfant Plaza metro stop, the museum explores the history of humanity’s voyages into the sky. Established in 1976, the museum has long served as the national center for the public to learn more about America’s pilots and astronauts—and all for free. Whether you are fascinated by science and technology, love to explore history and human development, or simply enjoy a well-curated exhibit, this is the perfect activity for you.
The exhibits in the National Air and Space Museum span every topic, from the interactive to the informative. You can stroll through the “How Things Fly Exhibit,” enter a spaceship recreation, find your weight on the moon, and test whether you have what it takes to be an astronaut with flight simulators. All these activities create an entertaining yet still informative experience, particularly if a slow museum pace isn’t suited to your own.
Most notable of the exhibits, however, are the ones brimming with history on flight and space. Step into the must-see Wright Brothers exhibit and you will feel as if you are watching them develop the first airplane before your very eyes. The focal point of the exhibit is their first flyer, a simplistic machine that inspires wonder at how a human flew in it and how we arrived at the technology we have today. Balancing the technological innovation with the social impact excellently, there is something to fascinate everyone.
Take a trip through time on your next stop at the “Time and Navigation” exhibit, a chronology of the history of how humans have navigated, from the stars to GPS. You begin by entering an exhibit arranged in a mock-ship cabin to witness the development of early navigational instruments and learn how they changed the world through trade and discovery. As you continue to air and space navigation, you have the option to watch videos on the technical side of things, or step into a WWII bunker that served as a navigation hub in the Pacific. You can finish off your experience with GPS and the challenges we still face today, this exhibit placed next to the first on star navigation to drive home the immense feat of achievement that is our modern technology.
After exploring those two exhibits first, head back down to the bottom floor where you can walk among early spacecrafts while learning about the space race. It is here that your experiences in the previous exhibits will build on each other to demonstrate the enormity of the task of space flight and the significance of that achievement.
“The technical aspect of the space race and the progression of technology is really interesting,” said Katherine Mackenzie (’25, Opera Major).
This is arguably the most impressive part of the museum: witnessing the pinnacle of human development in space.
While these incredible exhibits were worth the trip, there was little else to see in the museum. During COVID-19, the museum closed and began large-scale renovations that, despite now being reopened for two months, leave a significant portion of the museum still inaccessible. But not to worry— many renovations are scheduled to be completed in 2022, including a new Wright Brothers exhibit that will make it a perfect excursion for the new year.
Despite the closures, the museum is still a tribute to human innovation and curiosity. While individual exhibits present impressive historical endeavors, the most impressive phenomenon housed in the museum is the witness to the growth of achievement reached by humanity in less than a century, from the Wright Brothers to the first man on the moon. It is this that is inspiring, whether you love science or not, because it is the essence of the human spirit realized.