My Visit to the Smtihsonian Air and Space Museums – Washington D.C.

Washington D.C., capital of the US, home of the Lincoln Memorial, Jefferson Memorial and the White House but also the location of the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. I was lucky enough to be in Washington D.C. recently and took the opportunity to pay a visit. The museum is actually split into two different locations, one on the National Mall in the city, while the other, the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center is about a 1 hour drive away in nearby Chantilly, Virginia.

The trip started with the location on the National Mall. The building is midway through a 7 year long renovation project. It has been completely closed for six months and reopened in October. Eight of the new galleries were completed as part of phase one and the remaining fifteen are scheduled to be complete by 2026. Given that the museum has only reopened and the large number of people who wish to attend, a timed entry ticket is required.

While I love aviation, what I really wanted to see here was the new, Race to the Moon gallery which documents the US path to the landing the first human on the Moon. In 1957, the Soviet Union launched Sputnik1 into orbit and with this, the space race had begun. NASA was founded in 1958 with the view of putting a human controlled spacecraft into orbit. Project Mercury was the name given to this program and this is where the exhibit starts. There were many unknowns and risks associated with spaceflight and so before sending a human, NASA decided to test everything out with a chimpanzee. The first capsule we saw was Ham the Astrochimp’s capsule which was flown in January 1961.

Following two test flights with a chimp on board, one sub-orbital and one which orbited the Earth, NASA proceeded to launch the first human. On 5th May 1961, Alan Shepard became the first American in space (he had been beaten to being the first human in space by Yuri Gagarin, 3 weeks earlier) He travelled in the Mercury Freedom 7 capsule to an altitude of 187km. I wasn’t aware before the trip that it was here, but on display was not just the capsule but both the capsule, Alan Shepard’s training manual and the spacesuit he wore on that day.

Project Mercury was a technical success but failed to beat the Soviet Union in getting to space first. For this reason, the US turned their attention to the Moon. Before they could attempt something as complex as going to the Moon, they first needed to perfect some skills in Earth orbit and so Project Gemini was born. One of the skills that needed to be mastered before going to the Moon was spacewalking. Spacewalking is where you open the door and get out of the capsule. The first person to do this was Ed White when he travelled to space with James McDivitt in June 1965 aboard Gemini 7. We turned the corner in the gallery and there in front of us was the Gemini 7 capsule with the life support equipment and helmet used by Ed White on the spacewalk displayed in front. The best was yet to come…

After Gemini came Apollo and as we passed by Gemini 7, the star attractions came into view. Standing in front of me was Neil Armstrong’s spacesuit and the burnt rusted command module from the Apollo 11 moon landing. It was just amazing to be able to get so close to it. The Apollo 11 moon landing will forever be one of the biggest events in human spaceflight and probably human history as it was the first time a human stepped foot on another world.

The rest of the museum was overflowing with so many more amazing space related artefacts. It really blew me away. Some of the items we saw were parts of the Saturn V booster that had been salvaged from the sea floor, Alan Bean’s moon art, a lunar rover, rock samples, tools, Gene Kranz’s white vest worn in mission control during the Apollo 13 mission and the glass plate from the discovery of Pluto. It took a while, but eventually I was dragged towards the gift shop and the exit but being honest I could have stayed the night.

As I said earlier, there are two parts to the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum and the following morning we hopped in an Uber for the 1 hour drive to Chantilly. Here, at the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center are two huge hangars where they display probably well over 100 large aircraft, spacecraft and rockets. After arriving, I, of course went straight to the space hangar. The main attraction from me here was the Space Shuttle Discovery. While I loved seeing the hardware from Mercury, Gemini and Apollo, I’m not old enough to remember any of that. I’ve been interested in space and astronomy since primary school and the Space Shuttle was what I grew up with. I have very fond memories of sitting in front of the computer for hours on dial up internet connection (very very slow) with a tiny grainy steam from NASA TV following the launches as they built the International Space Station.

I’d follow the launch with printouts of all the checklists following the launch team through each step. Maybe 2 or 3 minutes before launch the whole thing would get scrubbed and would have to do it all again the next day. Frustrating but it fascinated me and I loved it. During one launch that took place during school summer holidays, I followed the process right through the night and just after 5am, 15 mins after launch I went outside and managed to see the space shuttle and external tank from my garden. This was a rare occasion when the sun was just at the right angle to illuminate the two as they passed over the south coast of Ireland. I can’t understate the excitement I felt to actually get to see Space Shuttle Discovery up close.

It’s the biggest of the shuttles and I was just in awe of being able to stand right beside and even under one of the most complex machines ever built and something I spent so much time watching as a child and teenager.

The shuttle was without doubt the highlight of the trip but there were many other brilliant exhibits on display here including the Apollo 11 floatation collar, John Glen’s Mercury capsule and the mobile quarantine facility that was built for the Apollo astronauts. For anyone with an interest in space, both museums are a must visit if you are in the Washington D.C area. I honestly can’t imagine a better collection of space history anywhere!

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