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Air & Space Museum:
8 Great Stops Continued...



   


    Photo
    John Glenn's Mercury Capsule. (By Mark Auino/Courtesy of NASM)
If you opt for autonomy, "Milestones of Flight," just inside the two main entrances, is the place to spend your first 20-30 minutes. Among the aircraft hanging overhead are the original Wright Flyer, Charles Lindbergh's "Spirit of St. Louis," and "Glamorous Glennis," the Bell X-1 in which test pilot Chuck Yeager broke the sound barrier. Among the space craft arrayed on the floor around you are the Mercury capsule in which John Glenn became the first American to orbit the earth and the Apollo 11 capsule which ferried Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins and Buzz Aldrin to the moon and back. Viewports are built into the hatches, so you can see how unbelievably cramped John Glenn must have been for his ride, and the three extra spaces that a thoughtful NASA built into its Apollo capsules in case one mission had to go rescue another mission's astronauts.

Photo    
Interior of the Skylab Space Station. (Courtesy of NASM)    
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The next logical stop on the evolutionary timeline is the "Air Transportation" hall. But unless you are deeply interested in commercial aviation, the airplanes here (which include a Ford TriMotor, a DC-3, and part of a DC-7) need not take up more than a few minutes (the view from the second floor balcony is best). Fast-forward, instead, to the rockets and space capsules of the "Space Race" hall, which are worth a good twenty minutes. The displays on the floor tell the interesting tale of a high-tech cold war competition. And you can compare the flight suits of John Glenn and Yuri Gagarin, the Soviet cosmonaut who beat him into orbit (no points for guessing whose suit is shiny silver and looks really cool). The one display that no one should miss in this hall is the Skylab space station. Visitors can pass through it and get a decent glimpse of space station life, NASA-style--from the stationary bicycle ("ergometer" in NASA-speak), to the funky articulating shower, the wardroom and the complex trash airlock.

After the open halls, you can spend about an hour cherry-picking the subject galleries that interest you most -- spending 10 to 20 minutes in each depending on your level of interest and whether you stop to watch a video. Everyone has their personal favorites. "I enjoy the World War II exhibit, because I fought in it," says Yeager, who lectures at the museum most years and flew a P-51 Mustang before he took on the sound barrier. In addition to all the important Allied planes, there is a world-class collection of Axis aircraft, which were captured by U.S. forces during the war and eventually turned over to the Smithsonian after they were evaluated by the U.S. military. And if you ever wondered what it would be like to be in a B-17 bomber on a bombing run over Nazi Germany, the 18-minute excerpt of William Wyler's famous documentary on the Memphis Belle will take you on a remarkable ride.

   
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