8 great American air and space museums
Monday, August 27, 2018
As the very birthplace of flight — and as the world leader in aviation development and space exploration — the United States is quite naturally home to the world’s biggest and best aviation and aerospace museums.
These museums showcase everything from the Wright Brothers’ 1903 Flyer to NASA’s recently retired space shuttles. Those famous shuttles — Atlantis, Discovery, Endeavour and Enterprise — are on display, or soon will be, at museums across the country.
Read on to learn more about eight of America’s finest aviation and aerospace museums.
National Air and Space Museum, Washington, D.C.
America’s best-known and most visited aero museum occupies a prominent spot on the National Mall in the heart of the nation’s capital.
Operated by the Smithsonian Institution, NASM maintains the largest collection of aircraft and spacecraft in the world, including such national treasures as the original Wright Flyer and Charles Lindberg’s Spirit of St. Louis — plus dozens of other historic planes, space capsules and unmanned aerial vehicles.
Udvar-Hazy Center, Chantilly, Virginia
Although it’s a branch of the NASM, located at Dulles International Airport and named for its largest donor, Hungarian immigrant Steven Udvar-Hazy, we think it is important enough to merit separate coverage.
The sprawling 760,000-square-foot facility has ample space to display thousands of artifacts that might never be seen at the main NASM building. The collection here includes Space Shuttle Discovery, a Concorde supersonic airliner, the famous (some would say infamous) World War II Bomber Enola Gay that dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan, and an SR-71 Blackbird spy plane.
A glassed-in mezzanine above the Mary Baker Engen Restoration Hangar allows visitors to watch restoration work in progress. Admission is free a both Smithsonian museums.
Space Shuttle Atlantis is the main attraction at Kennedy Space Center’s Visitor Complex, but there’s a lot more to check out.
Kennedy Space Center, Merritt Island, Florida
One of the premier museums in the nation dedicated to space exploration, Kennedy Space Center’s Visitor Complex is the new home of Space Shuttle Atlantis. But there’s much more at this Disneyesque space exhibit, including a shuttle launch simulator, the U.S. Astronaut Hall of Fame and the Rocket Garden — an outdoor display of historic rockets, ranging from an early Juno II to a powerful Saturn IB, which propelled astronauts and critical satellites into space.
Accessible by way of a bus tour from the Visitor Complex, the Apollo/Saturn Center offers jaw-dropping views of a massive Saturn V launch vehicle and the Apollo 14 command module.
U.S. Space and Rocket Center, Huntsville, Alabama
Somewhat overshadowed by NASA’s Kennedy Space Center and the Johnson Space Center in Houston, USSRC is every bit as impressive, boasting one of the largest collection of rockets and space memorabilia in the world.
It was here at Huntsville’s Redstone Arsenal that Wernher von Braun, a former German rocket scientist, led America to prominence in the fields of rocket technology and space science in the 1950s and ‘60s.
At USSRC’s Davidson Center for Space Exploration, visitors get a rare up-close view of an authentic Saturn V rocket – one of only three in the world. The center also houses the original Mercury and Gemini capsule trainers, a lunar lander and the Apollo 16 command module.
Guests also can take in one of the daily features at the center’s full-dome IMAX theater and stroll through Rocket Park to survey what NASA astronaut John Glenn described as the “finest rocket collection in the world” – a display of 27 missiles and rockets that tell the story of the development of America’s space program.
National Museum of the United States Air Force, Dayton, Ohio
The world’s oldest and largest military aviation museum, this one resides at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, where it was founded in 1923. Housed both outside and inside four giant hangars, the museum displays more than 360 aircraft and missiles.
The facility is renowned for its collection of one-of-a-kind experimental aircraft, including a swept-wing Grumman X-29, an X-3 Stiletto, a Bell X-1 and an XB-70A Valkyrie bomber. The museum also features the only permanent public display of a B-2 Stealth bomber.
The newest addition here – fresh from a lengthy restoration – is the famous WWII B-17F Flying Fortress Memphis Belle, the venerable veteran of 25 combat missions over France and Germany, and the subject of several movies.
A computer-controlled flight simulator ride (bring Dramamine) and a new state-of-the-art D3D cinema round out the museum’s attractions. Free admission is a plus.
Space Center Houston, Houston, Texas
Most older adults can recall the gripping scenes televised from Mission Control at Johnson Space Center as flight directors coordinated a string of space flights – the most famous being the first manned mission to the moon aboard Apollo 11 in 1969.
Ever since the Apollo era, Houston has been synonymous with space travel — and there’s no better place to gain an understanding of the nation’s space history than Space Center Houston — the visitor center for NASA’s Johnson Space Center.
The landmark attraction here is the Independence Plaza exhibit complex, unveiled in 2016, featuring the world’s only shuttle replica mounted on the original 747 shuttle carrier aircraft. The Starship Gallery tells the story of American spaceflight with artifacts that include three flown spacecraft (Mercury 9, Gemini 5 and Apollo 17), moon rocks and a full-scale Skylab Trainer.
The Astronaut Gallery contains the world’s largest collection of space suits, including the Pete Conrad Apollo 12 moonwalk suit.
New in 2017 is the Mission Mars exhibit that focuses on the work NASA is doing to plan for future travel to Mars. Popular, too, is a tram tour that transports visitors through the Johnson Space Center where the top attraction is the historic Mission Operations Control Room 2.
This is a very small portion of the boneyard at Davis-Monthan.
Pima Air and Space Museum, Tucson, Arizona
America’s largest nongovernment-funded aviation museum sprawls over 80 acres adjacent to Tucson’s Davis-Monthan Air Force Base.
On display here — both outdoors and inside a complex of six hangars — are 350 military and commercial aircraft ranging from a Wright Flyer to a 787 Dreamliner. An hour-long tram tour takes in an outdoor collection of more than 150 planes.
Highlighting the museum’s trove are President Kennedy’s Air Force One aircraft; a B-17 “Flying Fortress;” a Northrup F5-B Freedom Fighter; a Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird, the fastest and highest-flying aircraft ever built; and a rare captured German V-1 Buzz Bomb, a forerunner of the cruise missile.
Those really into aviation can sign on in advance for an optional coach tour of Davis-Monthan’s enormous 2,600-acre aircraft “boneyard” where retired military and government planes are stored/salvaged.
Museum of Flight, Seattle, Washington
As home to The Boeing Company, America’s largest aircraft manufacturer, it is no surprise that Seattle is a magnet for aviation enthusiasts. Nearly a half-million of them visit the Museum of Flight each year — the largest independent, nonprofit air and space museum in the world.
It is home to more than 175 aircraft and spacecraft, tens of thousands of artifacts, and dozens of exhibits. The museum’s original structure in 1983 was the restored William E. Boeing Red Barn, birthplace of The Boeing Company.
The old two-story barn has since been joined by a network of contemporary galleries, a 3-D movie theater, a gift shop and restaurant. There’s a standout collection of 28 beautifully restored WWI and WWII fighter planes, along with more recent and rarely seen military aircraft such as a massive B-52G Stratofortress and a series of Soviet MiGs.
The Cockpit Exhibit invites visitors to climb into the cockpit of a real SR-71A Blackbird reconnaissance plane and a full-scale mock-up of an F/A-18 Hornet fighter. Also of note is the optional Shuttle Trainer Tour that allows visitors to explore the inside of an authentic Space Shuttle crew compartment.
Except where noted, all of the above museums charge admission fees.
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