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Higher! Faster! Smithsonian Air And Space Museum

Aug 24, 2023 01:25PM ● By Story and Photography By Lisa Ballard

When I was around 10, my parents took me to the Smithsonian in Washington, DC. The experience is a hazy moment from my childhood, mixed up with glimpses of an oversized, seated Abraham Lincoln, the dome of the Capitol building, and the towering Washington Monument. I recall a dinosaur and a rocket ship. The place seemed grand and important in a vague way.

Now 60-ish, the Smithsonian was on my bucket list of places to visit, or revisit in this case. I’m not a big museum-goer, but the iconic Smithsonian was an exception, in the same category as the Louvre in Paris and the Hermitage in St. Petersburg. Last May, I planned to pass through Washington, DC. Visiting the Smithsonian seemed like a good way to spend a morning. Little did I know!

For starters, the Smithsonian is not one museum but many under one organizational umbrella. It’s the world’s largest museum complex with more than 157 million artifacts and specimens spread among 21 sprawling buildings, a sculpture garden, the National Zoo, and seven research facilities, and not all in Washington, DC. The Cooper Hewitt and American Indian Museums in New York City are part of it.

Its formal name is the Smithsonian Institution. It was established in 1846 by the United States Senate and signed into law by President James K. Polk for “the increase and diffusion of knowledge.” It took another 10 years to actually open, at which time Jeremiah Black, US Attorney General at the time, declared it our national museum.

The Smithsonian is named for James Smithson (1765–1829), a British scientist and the illegitimate child of the Duke of Northumberland. Smithson bequeathed the original funds for the
institute, $500,000 at the time or about $16.5 million in today’s dollars. Smithson never married and had no children. Today, a board of regents oversees the Smithsonian’s trust and other funding sources, which includes federal appropriations, donations, and fundraising activities.

No one knows why Smithson donated his enormous estate to the fledgling United States government, though some think it was in protest to his not being allowed to inherit his father’s dukedom. Others theorize he simply believed in the American experiment with democracy. A third theory is that he believed scientific study was the key to improving the living standards of humans, explaining why the condition of his bequest was to support scientific discovery and learning. You can visit his crypt on the first floor of the Smithsonian Castle, the museum’s first building on the Mall in Washington, DC. I didn’t go there.


The first challenge when planning a visit to the massive Smithsonian is where to start. You could spend two weeks exploring its endless exhibits. If you’re interested in art or history, there isn’t just one museum dedicated to these genres, but several just on the Mall in Washington, DC. Luckily, there’s just one Air and Space Museum. I’ve always loved flying and spent some of my early 20s flying gliders at Post Mills Airport. What’s more, space has always captured my imagination. With only a morning to look around, I chose the Air and Space Museum.

The problem of where to start arose again as soon as I walked into the building. There was so much to see! Unlike other museums that have an orderly system to their exhibits with a sensible flow, this one was an air traffic jam of planes and spacecraft suspended from the ceilings and all around me, and it was all fascinating.

I decided to start at the top—up in the sky. The uppermost walkway allowed an eye-to-eye view of historic aircraft suspended from the ceiling as if they were still flying. Most were classics that belonged to now-defunct airlines like Eastern and TWA. As I perused the many planes, I was able to check out the cockpit of a giant 747 and then learned that Delta began as a private crop-dusting service.


The next level down was all about the Mercury and Apollo space missions. The last moon boots to leave footprints on the moon, a mold of the footprint itself, and a lunar land rover were among the displays. I particularly enjoyed seeing the first manned Mercury space capsule, which looked tiny. The Mercury capsule that held a chimpanzee was even smaller, only about three feet tall. Early spaceflight was not for the claustrophobic!

A little further, two docents manned a table with several moon rocks on it. “You can hold it,” one said as I examined a sample of braccia, a dark stone about half the size of my palm, with little pinhead-sized pebbles stuck to it. The docent explained that braccia is common on the surface of the moon, formed by the constant bombardment of meteorites. I touched a moon rock!


Eventually, I made it to the lowest level, which was a cathedral to speed, starting with the first V8-powered motorcycle. Built in 1907, the motorcycle looked ridiculously long by today’s standards. It set a motorcycle speed record back then at 136 miles per hour. By comparison, nowadays street-legal motorcycles can go up to 250 miles per hour and the speed record is 376 miles per hour. We’ve come a long way in a short time.

Remember John Stapp, the guy with the white lips who set a human speed record on land of 632 miles per hour? In 1954 in New Mexico, Stapp withstood 20 G-forces atop his sonic speed-sled, which he likened to having a molar extracted without anesthetic. He walked away from the ride with only bruises. The sonic sled is against a wall just before Mario Andretti’s Ferrari.

Andretti is considered one of the most successful and famous race car drivers of all time. He is the only driver in history to win at Indy, NASCAR, and Formula One. Part of the Andretti exhibit includes some of the original paving bricks from Indianapolis Speedway, which is nicknamed the Brickyard. The original speedway was paved with over 3 million of these bricks.

Then I saw something much slower, with a top speed of 31 miles per hour, but it’s what inspired so much of the other accomplishments honored in the museum—a life-size model of the Wright Brothers’ original motorized aircraft, the Wright Flyer.

Above the Wright Flyer, a quote by Wilbur Wright appeared: “For some years, I have been afflicted with the belief that flight is possible to man. My disease has increased in severity, and I feel that it will soon cost me an increased amount of money, if not my life.”

Wilbur Wright survived his experiments with flying and paved the way for Neil Armstrong to walk on the moon just 66 years later. Many others did not survive this incredible journey of invention and experimentation. But what a ride, or perhaps I should say flight, to achieve what man has mastered in the world of transportation in such a short time.

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