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Looking for Mr. Wright

The four flight simulators are among the most popular exhibits at the museum. But hands-on exhibits mean that, well, they get handled. And sometimes things go wrong.

"I guess we're still getting used to how high-maintenance interactive exhibits are," says Clark, walking through the airy, two-floor building. "Every day I get a report of what needs to be fixed."

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As if on cue, a high-tech exhibit in which a visitor uses batons to guide simulated planes to a safe landing fails to recognize the batons.

"Why don't you try again?" says the video image of a flight-suited instructor, nodding sympathetically.

The visitor does. "Hmm. Watch me. Now try again," says the instructor, still nodding his looped nod.

She does, to no avail.

"It must be the batons," says Clark, taking and waving the foam sticks. "We had to get new ones because the old ones were too hard. Kids were hitting each other with them."

Inside the center, an Imax theater that once showed science documentaries now screens "The Matrix Revolutions" and "Santa vs. the Snowman," neither of which have any obvious tie to either air or space. But, says Clark, they make money for the museum and bring in people who would not visit otherwise. On a recent weekday, the theater offered a single showing of "Space Station," wedged between a full morning of "Santa" and two evening shows of "The Matrix Revolutions."

"Space Station" was filmed by NASA astronauts, narrated by Tom Cruise and produced by Lockheed Martin. The movie is an enthralling look at everyday life aboard the International Space Station. Shaving, eating popcorn, drinking water -- mundane activities that look like the world's most expensive special effects when done in zero gravity. Which, in a way, they are; the space station is expected to cost more than $25 billion.

Other than the movie and the restroom signs (an astronaut silhouette for the men's; an astronaut in a skirt for the women's), the Air & Space Center is a little light on the space. That's something the directors plan to fix over the next couple of years with another round of fundraising. For now, the space wing has replicas of space gear, a moon rock and a display on the evolution of popular science fiction that features a 1930s drawing of a theoretical Martian ("Erectable natural telepathic antenna for extra sensory perception").

A century ago, seafood ruled the local economy. Before that, the port shipped tobacco to Europe. But Hampton is now dominated by aeronautics -- the Air Force and NASA are the town's biggest employers, and the museum is its primary draw. It's a worthy stop on a trip to the history-rich region that might also include Colonial Williamsburg and the battleship USS Wisconsin in Norfolk.

Within walking distance of the museums and downtown Hampton is Victoria Boulevard, a strip of well-maintained houses built around the time the Wrights were starting their trials at Kitty Hawk. Two of these houses -- Victoria House and Little England Inn -- are bed-and-breakfasts.

So visitors, swathed in cozy comforters and aeronautical history, can dream of early flight. And why not? There's yet another local angle to the story of aviation: The Wright brothers took a ferry from Hampton on their way to North Carolina in 1903.

"The Ferry Terminal to Eventual Aviation." How's that for a license plate?


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