It was August 1961 in the hot California desert. Jacqueline Cochran was strapped into her Northrop T-38A Talon, flying a nine mile closed loop aeronautical course. She was followed by Chuck Yeager, flying an F-100. Cochran kept the aircraft in perfect alignment around the course and topped out at 844 miles per hour, setting a new speed record for that distance. That was only one of the eight speed records the fifty-five year old Cochran would set that summer.
Cochran was no stranger to flying records. She set her first speed record in 1937 and won a number of airplane races prior to World War II. In 1943, General of the Air Force Harold “Hap” Arnold appointed Cochran the first director of the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASPs). In 1953, she was the first woman to break the sound barrier. The T-38A she flew now hangs in the Smithsonian Institute’s “new” National Air and Space Museum (NASM).
The Northrop T-38A Talon flown by Jacqueline Cochran.
Since its opening on the National Mall in 1976, the NASM has been a stop for many visitors to Washington, DC. It is easy to understand why. Even for those only marginally interested in space or aviation, the museum is full of interesting artifacts and displays. The original Wright Flyer, the Spirit of St. Louis, and Neil Armstrong’s spacesuit are but a few of the items that provide not only a sense of pride in American innovation, but also in humanity’s ongoing exploration of the heavens.
In 2018, the NASM began an historic seven-year, $250 million renovation focusing on creating a more immersive and enjoyable experience. The Smithsonian holds the world’s largest collection of artifacts related to aviation and space exploration, and the renovation includes over 1,400 new items for public display. Through this process, all the museum’s galleries are due for renovation, redesign or complete replacement.
The NASM reopened to the public on October 14, 2022 with eight new or redesigned galleries on the west end of the museum’s building. While there are certainly some interesting exhibits and displays, the museum is still a work in progress.
What Galleries Are Now Open?
The Wright Brothers – The centerpiece of the gallery devoted to Orville and Wilbur Wright remains the Wright Flyer, the brothers’ heavier than air machine which first took flight on December 17, 1903 in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. The redesigned gallery adds further details to their lives before and after they achieved fame as inventors of the airplane. There are leaflets from their printing business, tools from their bicycle shop, early models, experimental aircraft parts and furnishings from their cabin in North Carolina.
Early Flight – Following their successful flight, the Wright Brothers led many others in continued experimentation on early aircraft. A budding aviation community took hold around the world as the human passion for flying grew. The gallery highlights this earliest period of aviation innovation.
America by Air – In 1918, the U.S. Government formally initiated airmail service, a decision that led to the commercial passenger aviation industry. The America by Air gallery tracks air travel in the United States from the early days of open cockpits to the deregulated, post-9/11 era we know today.
A smokejumper’s protective suit and other gear on display in the Why We Fly gallery.
Why We Fly – About 80% of aircraft in the United States are considered General Aviation, meaning they are not connected to scheduled passenger service, the military or the Federal government. Why We Fly exhibits reflect the great diversity of this sector. Medical flights, crop dusting, aerial firefighting and humanitarian response are all included.
Nation of Speed – A collaborative effort with the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, Nation of Speed presents the American experience of the desire to move faster in the air, on the water and over land with the technology and machines that made it possible.
Destination Moon – Some of the Smithsonian Institute’s most iconic artifacts are found in Destination Moon, which traces the history of the US lunar programs and missions.
Exploring the Planets – Beyond the moonshots of the 1960s and 1970s, this gallery explores current space exploration programs and future plans for exploring our solar system.
The Apollo 11 Command Module Columbia. The command module was the living quarters and return vehicle for Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins.
One World Connected – Explores how the advancements of aircraft, satellites and technology have revolutionized communications, navigation, weather forecasting and other aspects of life on earth.
It is quite evident tremendous effort went into the design (or redesign) of these galleries, but the results seem mixed. On the positive side, the new features in the Wright Brothers gallery fill in more details on the lives of the two brothers, making them seem more human, while still maintaining their iconic stature. America by Air provides ample details and activities telling the story of commercial passenger aviation in America. The shiny and brightly painted early airliners suspended above the displays add a sense of majesty to the storytelling below.
Within Destination Moon, the artifacts and displays are now neatly and chronologically arranged allowing visitors to walk through the decades of manned lunar exploration. Along the way, they get a sense of the dedication of the people involved, the power of the rocket engines, and at the same time, reckoning how all this was accomplished with less technology than the cellphones in our pockets today.
However, the Nation of Speed gallery is much more suited to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. For some reason, profiles of early pilots and aviation record holders are notably absent with most of the artifacts related to auto or motorcycle racing.
Exploring the Planets is understandably lighter on artifacts (many are still in use or irretrievable) and there are indeed some interesting examples of the Mars rovers. However, other displays simply describe the current scientific understanding of the other planets seeming more akin to a science fair rather than the immersive experience NASM’s renovation was to bring about.
The One World Connected gallery celebrates the interconnected life on planet Earth in this 21st Century. Yet the exhibits do not mention much about the the limits nor downsides of the technology that brought us this interconnectivity, such as cyber crime, disinformation or political polarization, and how we can overcome them.
An early Global Positioning System (GPS) unit circa 1993 from the Magellan Corporation on display in the One World Connected gallery.
Notably absent from the eight renovated galleries are newly restored and presented aircraft, which is rather confounding as the Smithsonian prides itself on its collection of historically significant aircraft. My 11-year-old son summed it up best when he said: “There aren’t any cool planes to look at.”
Most of the aircraft on display were previously viewable before NASM started the renovations. Military aircraft are especially lacking. Aside from Jacqueline Cochran’s T-38A, the only other prominent military aircraft is the Wright Military Flyer, a two-seat observation aircraft built by the Wright Brothers and purchased by the US Army in 1909.
Closed are galleries that previously included aircraft from both world wars, Legend, Memory and the Great War in the Air and WWII: Sea-Air Operations (featuring a reproduction of a carrier hanger deck from WWII). In their absence, a lone Rebel Alliance X-wing Starfighter from the movie Star Wars hangs suspended from the ceiling over one of the walkways, with little accompanying information.
Jacqueline Cochran (circa 1943) in her Women Airforce Service Pilots uniform. When she died in 1980, Cochran held more speed, distance and altitude flying records than any other pilot.
What is also missing, with the exception of the Wright Brothers, Jacqueline Cochran and the astronauts, are the profiles of humans who took to the skies and to space, pushing themselves and their equipment to the limits to accomplish something for us all. Indeed, the redesign seems to remove the human element in aviation and space exploration, replacing it with technology and process. One leaves NASM better informed, but not inspired.
These are hopefully just temporary drawbacks. NASM’s renovation is set for completion in 2025. Approximately fifteen more galleries are still under renovation. Publicly available information on the new galleries seems scarce, but one new gallery entitled Pioneers of Aviation will feature the iconic Spirt of St. Louis. Another will depict aerial combat and tactics during World War II with the North American P-51, Grumman Wildcat and Messerschmitt 109 on display. Perhaps the X-wing Starfighter suggests a Star Wars or space fantasy gallery is in the works?
In the meantime, those with a serious interest in military aircraft should visit the Smithsonian Institute’s Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, VA near Washington Dulles International Airport instead. At this 17-acre facility, military and civilian aircraft from World War I until today, as well as space equipment, are on display.
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The Smithsonian Institute’s National Air and Space Museum is located on the National Mall bordered by Independence Avenue, Jefferson Drive, and 4th and 7th Streets, SW. The entrance is on the south side of the building along Independence Avenue. You cannot access the museum from the north side along the National Mall.
Parking – Very limited metered street parking is available around the museum. Parking is available in several commercial parking lots in the neighborhood.
Metrorail – The closest Metro station is L’Enfant Plaza, along the blue, orange, silver, and green lines. From the L’Enfant Plaza Station, take the exit for Maryland Avenue and 7th Street.
Metrobus – Bus stops are located on Independence Avenue, SW, and along 7th Street, SW. Visit the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority for more information.
Circulator Bus – The National Mall Circulator Loop bus provides easy access around the National Mall and convenient connections to other Circulator buses for visits to uptown sites. The NASM is a short walk from the Jefferson Drive and 7th Street SW stop on the National Mall route, or the D Street SW and 7th Street SW stop on the Eastern Market – L’Enfant Plaza route.
Bicycle Sharing – Capital Bikeshare is metro DC’s bicycle sharing service. There are Bikeshare stations around the National Mall. There is Bikeshare station on 4th Street, just south of the intersection with Independence Avenue.
Free timed tickets are required for entry into NASM. Tickets can be acquired through the NASM website. Ticket holders will line up near the Independence Avenue entrance prior to their entrance time. The line can become quite long, but it moves quickly once ticket holders are allowed to enter the building.
NASM is not currently offering guided tours for individual parties. Tours are available for school groups of 10 or more and adult groups of 20 or more. Tours should be requested 3 weeks in advance. Reservation and group visit information is available at NASMs Group Tours webpage.
The Mars Café is located on the “Launch Pad” (lower level) It is open daily from 10:00 am to 5:00 pm. The café has a coffee bar and sells sandwiches, salads, and pastries. There are only twenty five tables currently available so seating is challenging at mid-day.