Archive for Sunday, May 4, 2003

Finding flights of fancy

Visitors can let their imaginations soar at National Air and Space Museum

May 4, 2003


— Kids of all ages are fascinated with flight. We marvel at men landing on the Moon and exploring space. We imagine what it would be like to fly around the world in a hot-air balloon. We are amazed that two brothers built the first airplane out of spruce and ash and covered the frame with muslin. And we are dazzled with the skill of pilots who can land a jet on an aircraft carrier.

Thankfully, there is a place where we can experience all of the above, plus much more. The National Air and Space Museum, part of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., offers 23 galleries packed with hundreds of exhibits "depicting everything from the first balloon flight to current space endeavors" to make our imaginations soar.

In April, I visited the National Air and Space Museum with my wife, Susan, and our 11-year-old son, Marco. The fun and learning experiences were nonstop. Here are a few of the highlights from our visit, highlights that are a "must see" on most visitors' lists.


Suspended from the ceiling of the football-field-sized, two-story building are the Spirit of St. Louis, the plane Charles Lindbergh flew from New York to Paris in 1927; the Wright Brother's 1903 Wright Flyer; a Douglas DC-3; the Voyager, a lightweight aircraft that flew around the world without refueling in 1986; the X-15, the first winged aircraft to achieve Mach 4; and the Bell X-1, the rocket-powered airplane that Chuck Yeager flew faster than the speed of sound in 1947.


My son was especially interested in the spacecraft on display. They gave him, and us, an up-close-and-personal look at the marvels of ingenuity that have taken man into space. His favorites were the Apollo 11 command module Columbia, which went to the moon and back in 1969; the Mercury Friendship 7, which put the first American, John Glenn Jr., in orbit; the Mariner 2, which, in 1962, passed within 26,500 miles of Venus; and the Gemini IV, the spacecraft used for America's first space walk in 1965.

Interactive exhibits

The dozens of hands-on, interactive exhibits at the museum are educational and entertaining. One of the most popular is At the Controls. Here you can climb aboard a MaxFlight FS2000 simulator and fly through a 360-degree barrel roll, or do an upside-down loop. You can also experience what it was like to be a barnstormer or a "Top Gun" during a five-minute adventure. Many of the simulation programs allow you to "fly" aircraft on display, including the Spirit of St. Louis and the Mitsubishi Zero.

Want to know what it's like to land on an aircraft carrier in a combat jet during the light of day or the darkness of night? You can do that, too, during your visit. Great fun.

Getting there: The National Air and Space Museum is on Independence Avenue at Sixth Street N.W., just west of the Capitol. Nearby parking is available. You can also take the Metro to the Smithsonian Institution.Hours and admission: The museum is free to the public and is open every day of the year except Christmas. Hours are 10 a.m.-5:30 p.m.Admission to IMAX films and the planetarium shows varies according to age and the number and combinations of shows. For example, a double IMAX feature for an adult cost $13, and a planetarium double feature costs $11. Children and seniors get a discount.As long as you are in the area, check out the other Smithsonian museums, which include the National Museum of Natural History, National Museum of American History and the National Postal Museum.Information: The Smithsonian Web site is Phone (202) 367-2700.On site, pick up a copy of My Smithsonian, a booklet on the institution's museums.

How things fly

In this gallery you'll find more than 50 interactive exhibits that teach the principles of flight: lift, drag, weight and thrust.

My son was interested to learn that air is actually heavy at sea level, a cubic yard weighing 2 pounds. He was also interested to learn that a 100-pound person would weigh only 17 pounds on the Moon, and 250 pounds on Saturn.

IMAX theater

Three breathtaking movies are currently being shown on the five-story-high IMAX screen:

l "Space Station 3-D," film shot by astronauts that shows the partnership between 16 nations building a laboratory in space,

l "To Fly!" which begins with a ride in an 1800s balloon and ends with a blastoff into space on a Saturn rocket, and

l "Straight Up!" a film that shows how helicopters are used to carry out sea and mountain rescues, apprehend drug smugglers and save endangered animals.

The IMAX films are so realistic that some folks get motion sickness when viewing them. If that happens, close your eyes and the sensation will quickly pass.

Einstein Planetarium

While I was photographing the airplanes and spaceships, my wife and son took in the "Infinity Express" show at the Einstein Planetarium, which simulates a voyage through the solar system, past the Milky Way, to the very edge of the known universe and back. "Way-cool," is how my son described the "journey."

Other interests

We explored several of the realistic themed galleries throughout the museum. As we have a nephew serving in the Navy, we found the Sea-Air Operations gallery, complete with a fighter with folding wings, interesting. Marco was fascinated with the spacesuits on display in the Rocketry and Space flight gallery.

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