The weekend before last we went down to Washington, D.C. to check out the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. My kids have been really interested in outer space so this was a fantastic field trip!
The Air and Space Museum is the second most visited museum in the world after the Louvre. It’s collection of real deal artifacts is incredible. Almost everything on display is the actual air or space craft, tool or record. There are meteorites, touchable moon rocks and space suits still dusty from their use on the moon. (Below: The Apollo II Command Module Columbia)
The best time to visit is in the off-season as it can be very crowded during summer and other peak tourist times. More than 8 million people visit each year and I can definitely see why.
We first went to the How Things Fly gallery, which explains the four forces of flight (lift, thrust, drag, weight) because the kids didn’t have any prior knowledge about this concept, it was a little over their head. But it was a great introduction and I think we could get interested in this in the future. There’s also a Cessna that kids can climb in and pretend to fly.
Other galleries on the ground floor include some spectacular artifacts like the (scary) towering missiles or Apollo-Soyuz test project- see top photo. The building’s windowed galleries bring in perfect natural light and help visitors to imagine how these vessels have soared above the clouds.
There are so many details on exhibit that really bring the story of flight and space exploration to life. (Below: The one on the left is for female astronauts and the one on the right is for male astronauts. I know you’ve always wondered about it, don’t pretend.)
We had a good discussion about the Geocentric and Heliocentric models of the solar system. My son knew which one was right and was surprised that people were once wrong. It lead us to talk about how science isn’t always absolute. We know as much as we can know at our place in time.
I was really excited to see the Wright Brothers’ gallery. Having lived in North Carolina and visited windy, windy Kitty Hawk, I could really visualize how they experimented with flight. The first people to attempt to fly were straight-up crazy. What must people have thought about them?
The Barron Hilton Pioneers of Flight gallery contains the planes of some famous aviators like Amelia Earhart’s ruby-red Lockheed Vega. There’s also a small display on one wall of the Tuskeegee Airmen. At the back of the gallery is a family-friendly area with benches to take a break. There’s space to run around, climb a few stairs, and touch some flight-related machines.
The Mars exhibit in the Exploring the Planets galleys was one of our favorites. My husband is really interested in space and has shown the kids images and video about the rovers and the recent discoveries about Mars. The rover was larger than we had imagined! (This wasn’t one that had actually been on Mars, obviously, but it is the same.) Also, I need a Mars watch.
Looking at all of these small planes and space capsules made me really admire the courage and ability to overcome claustrophobia of the pilots and astronauts. I’ve always taken airplanes and satellites for granted, but there were incredibly brave, creative, and crazy people who made it happen.
Here are a few details about visiting:
- Parking- There is free/cheap street parking on weekends. We parked less than a block away. There’s also a convenient parking garage on 6th St. SW near the Holiday Inn. If you are riding the Metro, it’s close to L’Enfant Plaza. Here’s a map.
- Admission and tour- Fantastically free!
- Security- Pass through metal detectors and bags through x-ray machine.
- Bathrooms- There is one family bathroom and an infant care room on the ground floor. Get a map at the information desk and they will be easy to find.
- Eating- The cafeteria is a little different. They have McDonald’s, Donato’s Pizza, and Boston Market. There is a large, glass-top room to eat in. (I imagine it gets hot and crowded during the summer.)
- Lactating- There are many benches in the center of the walkway. The kid area at the back of the Pioneers of Flight gallery on the second floor is also a good nursing spot.
- Gift Shop- There’s a three-floor store with a huge range of toys and gifts. If you go in, you’ll probably come out with something.
- IMAX, Planetarium, and Flight Simulators- The IMAX is currently closed for renovation but will reopen next month. Planetarium shows at 10:30 on Friday and Sunday are free.
- More information for families can be found on the Air and Space website here.
The Smithsonian Air and Space Museum was definitely a memorable trip. We will probably visit again after studying more about flight. I’m also thinking we should visit Space Center Houston next time we are down there.