INTERACTIVE IS the buzz word for museums. Yet all too often museums tout themselves as hands-on but don't hold kids' attentions, particularly if they try to teach them anything. The Virginia Air and Space Center in Hampton, Va., however, delivers the goods. Using state-of-the-art technology, this museum goes after all your senses.
At nine stories high, the museum is spacious and airy, an ideal setting to let your mind soar. The official visitors center for NASA Langley Research Center and Langley Air Force Base (both in Hampton), the museum recently added the Adventures in Flight gallery, a $6.4 million expansion. It was money well spent. The center is packed with all manner of aircraft, including a replica Wright Flyer and the Apollo 12 command module, but visitors get to do much more than look. What makes this gallery a standout is that the curators really want visitors to know what it's like to fly. From standing on the vibrating wing of a "jenny" biplane with the wind in your face to sitting in the glass cockpit simulator of a DC-9, you'll experience virtual flying.
When we stepped into the museum, my three kids headed in three different directions, but I reined them in to follow the chronological history of flight in the new gallery. Samantha, 5, stepped inside a gondola and pushed a button to fill a brightly striped balloon with hot air, re-creating one of the first successful attempts at flying. We watched the balloon rise to the floor above us and fall as the air cooled. Overall, the museum does a great job of distilling complex information and letting visitors learn by playing with the information. For example, the exhibit on the Wright brothers focuses on three key problems they had to overcome to fly and how they solved them. Kids can pedal a bike to generate wind and re-create an experiment on lift that Orville and Wilbur did in their own bicycle shop. Visitors can also examine a toy flier that inspired the brothers when they were little.
The Curtiss Jenny Century of Flight Theater, a re-created barn, lets you sit (or stand) on the wings of a jenny biplane. The film "flew" us back through time to the days of barnstorming and then forward to futuristic aircraft. My kids grabbed their seats and insisted on watching the film twice. Afterward we moved forward again in the gallery. Ian, 11, and David, 9, were eager to see if they were "fast enough to fly" fighter jets. Watching a series of lights, they lunged to touch the last spot lit and then checked their reaction time in milliseconds. With practice, they were pronounced "possible candidates" to fly fighter jets. Eyes glued to a simulation screen, David then spent the next half-hour in the pilot's seat of an F/A-22 Raptor, the Air Force's newest fighter, figuring out its controls. Samantha was drawn to the Little Wings play area, where younger kids can climb into the cockpit of a miniature plane, bounce in a hot-air balloon or assemble their own aircraft. Nearby, Ian and I read panels and watched video clips about World War II fliers and the history of aviation in the Hampton area.
We were a little disappointed that the B-24 simulator, which gives visitors the experience of flying in the belly of that plane on a World War II mission complete with sound, images and vibrations, was closed for updates. Still, I was impressed with how smoothly the high-tech exhibits worked. All of us loved taking a turn as a "shooter" -- the person who stands on the deck of the aircraft carrier and signals jets to take off. This cool "green screen" exhibit lets visitors pick up batons and launch a Navy fighter as a real shooter would. The voice commands react to the kids' movements and direct them accordingly. (An upstairs exhibit on severe weather lets kids dodge tornadoes using similar technology.) The second floor of the museum was no less entertaining. Samantha gleefully hopped aboard a huge Air-Tran and strapped herself in while her brothers headed for the DC-9 flight simulator. In the exhibit on space travel, we took turns stepping on a scale and pushing a button to see how our weight would vary on the nine planets, while David honed his skills at making a space shuttle's final approach. In the weather exhibit, we "touched" a tornado and learned why thunder follows lightning by several seconds.
It's worth visiting the museum soon to see the "Strange Matter" traveling exhibit, which focuses on the wide and weird behaviors of matter. My kids eagerly cranked a lever to raise and drop a bowling ball against tempered glass for the 64,576th time. Still no cracks. From a nearby display panel, we learned that tempered glass is five times stronger than regular glass and how it's made. We watched crystals grow and saw matter with "memory" return to its original position when heated. On a video monitor, we listened to five experts discuss whether or not you can see an atom.
After the museum, visitors can take a spin back in time on the historic carousel right outside. The nearby Radisson hotel offers kid-friendly outdoor dining on the picturesque Hampton harbor. The whole experience is an excellent addition to any Williamsburg or Virginia Beach outing. My kids usually fade after two hours in any museum; however, we spent nearly five hours (including lunch at the cafe and a large-format Imax movie about space shuttles) with nary a complaint of boredom. It's worth the drive.
VIRGINIA AIR AND SPACE CENTER -- 600 Settlers Landing Rd., Hampton, Va. 800-296-0800. www.vasc.org. Driving time from Washington is three hours. Admission (including a 45-minute Imax film) is $9.50 for ages 3-11 and $12 for adults. ($6.50 for kids and $8.50 for adults without a movie.)
"Strange Matter" runs through Sept. 5.
"Robotics" runs Sept. 25 to Jan. 2. See how a wide variety of robots -- from assembly-line robots to volcano-exploring robots -- affect our lives and our future.