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National Air and Space Museum (Washington DC, USA)

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      13.02.2001 08:12
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      I honestly don't think I was alone in having made the assumption that the Smithsonian Museum in the United States was just a single museum, before actually going there. In fact, the Smithsonian Institution consists of some sixteen museums and galleries, and a zoological park, most of which are located in Washington D.C. (though two of the museums are actually in New York City). Probably the best known of the Smithsonian museums is the National Air and Space Museum, and certainly, it's the one that attracts the most visitors – approaching 10 million per year. It's located to the on the south side of Washington's Mall, between 4th and 7th Street, and can be entered either from the Mall, or from Independence Avenue on the other side. RENOVATIONS Of the years you could choose to visit the museum, 2001 would probably be the worst, as the museum is currently undergoing extensive renovation, which is expected to continue until July. The renovation work is being carried out to replace the large windows and skylights on the National Mall side of the museum, both to restore their insulative properties, and to replace the glass with new ultraviolet-reflective panels so that there will be less damage to the museum's collection. When I visited in early January 2001, the "Milestones of Flight" and "Pioneers of Flight" galleries were temporarily closed, although the main highlights of the galleries had been transferred elsewhere in the museum. However, despite this, there's still a great deal to see in the museum, and this didn't really affect my enjoyment of the exhibitions. HIGHLIGHTS If you're pressed for time, the highlights of the National Air and Space Museum are the following; - The Wright Brothers' 1903 flyer - Charles Lindburgh's 'Spirit of St. Louis' - John Glenn's 'Friendship 7' - the Apollo 11 command module - the S
      kylab orbital workshop When the museum isn't undergoing extensive renovations, the main entrance from the Mall leads directly into the "Milestones of Flight" gallery, and it is here that you can see many of the museum's main attractions. The Mercury 'Friendship 7', as flown by John Glenn is here, and was the first craft used for a U.S. manned orbital flight, in 1962. The 'Gemini IV' spacecraft, the craft from which the first U.S. space walk was made in 1965, is on display along with the space suits worn by the two astronauts. The Apollo 11 command module, from the first moon landing, 1969, is on display along with Michael Collins's space suit. The Wright Brothers' 1903 Flyer, the first powered, controlled, heavier-than-air craft to allow man to fly, is here, as is Charles Lindburgh's 'Spirit of St. Louis', the first plane to make a non-stop transatlantic flight, in 1927. The X-1, the first plane to exceed Mach 1, and the X-15, the first winged, piloted aircraft to exceed Mach 6, are also on display. The most recent addition to the gallery, in 1999, is the Breitling Orbiter 3 Gondola – the gondola from the first balloon to make a non-stop flight around the world. As you can tell, there's an impressive range of exhibits on display here. However, many of the exhibits are replicas or prototypes of the actual craft used in the major milestones. Those listed above are the genuine article, however, also on display in the "Milestones of Flight" gallery are a proof-test version of the Viking Lander, the first spacecraft to operate on Mars; a backup of Explorer 1, the first U.S. satellite to orbit Earth; and a Soviet replica of Sputnik, the first satellite to orbit Earth. There's also a prototype version of Pioneer 10 and a backup model of Mariner 2. Also, you can queue for the opportunity to touch a piece of (heavily guarded) moon rock. When I visited, there was no queue,
      and I could spend as much time as I wanted touching the rock. Why I'd want to, I'm not sure. As far as I'm concerned, it was a greasy little lump of rock, that has quite evidently been touched by a goodly number of overly enthusiastic school children. Either that, or the moon is a potential source of tons of grease. I think I know which is most likely. When I visited the majority of these exhibits weren't on display, because the "Milestones of Flight" gallery was closed for renovation. Nonetheless, the 'Spirit of St. Louis' and the Wright Brothers' Flyer had been moved into other parts of the museum and were still on show. The back section of the ground floor of the museum, and the upper floor, consist of a series of exhibitions devoted to different aspects of flight, and different periods in the history of flight. The front section of the ground floor of the museum consists of three large exhibition areas, separated by an IMAX theatre on one side, and the Museum Shop on the other. The central one is the "Milestones of Flight" gallery, and on either side of it are the "Air Transportation" and "Space Race" galleries. The "Air Transportation" gallery, which is where you'll find the main entrance to the museum while the renovation work is carried out, allows you to see the evolution of air transport for carrying people, mail and cargo. Essentially, the planes on display are all from the so called Golden Age of flight, from the 1926 Ford Tri-Motor and Douglas M-2, through to the 1937 Grumman G-21 Amphibian, via the 1933 Boeing 247D, the first modern airliner, and the 1935 Douglas DC-3. The "Space Race" gallery is a little more interesting, even though most of the exhibits are backups or prototypes of the famous spacecraft. There's a backup of the Skylab orbital workshop, the first U.S. space station, which operated between 1973 and 1974.
      A full-size test model of the Hubble Space Telescope is on display, as well as a model of the Columbia Space Shuttle, along with shuttle flight clothing and a model of Spacelab. Several rockets are also on show, including a 1944 V-2, and a U.S. Viking rocket. There's even a full-size Minuteman III Inter-Continental Ballistic Missile, for which they've had to cut a hole in the floor to fit it into the gallery space! Also, at one end of the museum, several Lunar Exploration Modules are on display, including test versions of the Surveyor and Orbiter probes, sent to photograph the Moon in order to assess the ease with which future missions might land there. There's also a genuine Lunar Lander, one of the 12 built for the Apollo programme, but which wasn't actually used. If you enter the Museum from Independence Avenue, you enter exactly opposite the "Milestones of Flight" gallery and enter an exhibition space given over to "Voyager", the first craft to carry out a non-stop, non-refuelled flight around the Earth, back in 1986. I was particularly impressed by the fact that the tips of the plane's wings showed evidence of having scraped along the ground. This was because the plane's fuel was carried in its wings, and so prior to take-off, they drooped severely, scraping along the ground as the plane achieved take-off velocity. The smaller galleries on the ground floor include galleries devoted to "Early Flight" and "the Golden Age of Flight". There's also a gallery, entitled "How Things Fly", with loads of hands-on exhibits to demonstrate the scientific principles behind flight – lots of fun for little 'uns. Another interesting gallery is entitled "Looking at Earth", chronicling the different ways in which man has looked down at his home planet, from taking photographs from a 1920s de Havilland DH-4, through to prototypes of modern weather and geosta
      tionary satellites. The small galleries on the upper floor are generally based around more recent history, including exhibitions about "The Great War in the Air" (World War I) (including a Fokker, a SPAD and a Sopwith Snipe) and "World War II Aviation" (including a Mustang, a Mitsubishi Zero, a Spitfire and a Messerschmitt). In an exhibition on the "Pioneers of Flight" can be found the Lockheed Vega flown by Amelia Earhart across the Atlantic in 1932, and the Gossamer Condor, the first successful human-powered aircraft. However, probably the most interesting gallery on the upper floor of the Museum is entitled "Apollo to the Moon", detailing the triumphs and disasters associated with NASA's attempts to get a man on the moon. Admittedly, this being America, the gallery does highlight the triumphs, and cover up the disasters as much as possible. Nonetheless, there's an impressive collection of items on display here, including a full-size F-1 engine, as used on the Saturn V rocket, and genuine space suits from moon landing missions. RESTAURANTS The National Air and Space Museum has an overpriced restaurant and an overpriced cafeteria, located at the east end of the Museum, just past the Lunar Exploration Modules. I seem to recall a tiny pizza and a small coke set me back about $7, but when you take into account that admission to the museum was free, it doesn't seem so bad. MUSEUM SHOP Now this was cool. I remember when I was about seven that the best thing about museums was the shop. Well, here, it was still true. You could buy all sorts of neat junk here, from Star Wars Pez dispensers to books on flight and aeronautics, from astronaut food to space pens. You name it, if it's cool, vaguely connected with air or space, or just a neat gizmo, you could probably buy it here. Oh, and for the Trekkies out there, the original Starship Enterprise from the original seri
      es is on display in a glass case on the lower floor of the shop. CONCLUSIONS Admission to the National Air and Space Museum, like admission to all Washington museums was absolutely free. There's some great stuff on display, and although the renovation meant I didn't get to see all of the Museum's major highlights, there were still loads of fascinating exhibits on display here, and touring the Museum still took about three hours. I was impressed by how many of the exhibits that involved pressing buttons actually worked too, there were considerably fewer "Out of Order" signs than I've found in similar museums in this country! If there is one criticism, it's that sometimes there wasn't as much information about the exhibits as I would have liked, but this is really only a minor criticism. The Museum is open from 9.30am to 5.30pm every day, and definitely an essential visit on a trip to Washington D.C. If you're going in the near future, however, I recommend checking out the Museum's website (http://www.nasm.si.edu) to find out how the renovation work is going!

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