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Space History in DC -- 11 Hours in the Air and Space Museum

07/13/2011 10:11 pm ET | Updated Sep 12, 2011

While NASA HQ's small size and location don't allow for big visitor exhibits like at the Kennedy Space Center or the Space Camp complex in Alabama at the Marshall Space Flight Center, I am surrounded by my fair share of very cool posters, photographs, and models at work. And obviously, when I'm working, I'm reading or hearing about space exploration, and I hear even more about it at our morning meetings.

So when it's the weekend and I don't have to go to work, naturally, I relax by... going out into the city and surrounding myself with more space things! (You weren't expecting me to say that, were you?)

On my first weekend in DC, I spent roughly 11 hours in the National Air and Space Museum, only leaving to walk to the National Museum of the American Indian and eat lunch. (Sure, Air and Space has a McDonalds, but I didn't want to be boring.)

I'm a little bit stuck on how to describe those 11 hours without making this post too long. I mean, I don't want reading it to take 11 hours, too. I think I'll just describe the galleries in the order I visited them and one or two things I liked in each one. (Sometimes, it's going to be really hard to pick, but nobody said love was easy...)

South Lobby -- The main entrance to the museum, and the location of a mural by one of my favorite artists, the late Robert McCall. If you've seen the original poster for 2001: A Space Odyssey, you've seen some of Mr. McCall's work. This piece "The Space Mural: A Cosmic View", shows the formation of our solar system, the moon landings, and the limitless universe open for us to discover.

Milestones of Flight -- My "one favorite thing" about this gallery is that it exists. In ONE room, you have more record-setting airplanes and spacecraft than I have-pardon the pun-space to list here. (So here's a handy-dandy list from the Smithsonian website) It's absolutely INCREDIBLE to stand under all of that history.

How Things Fly -- As cool as the hands-on demos are, my favorite thing here is Magellan T. Bear, a very special teddy bear who went on various journeys to help kids learn geography. He went around the world, in a submarine, to the South Pole, and even into space! In fact, it makes me a little sad to see him sitting there in a museum case all day instead of out having more adventures. Surely the Smithsonian could arrange something...

Early Flight -- The whole atmosphere of this gallery is designed to simulate a 1910 airshow, right down to giggle-inducing signage stating "We realize that this is the first opportunity many of our visitors had had to see an airplane up close." Yeah, not so much today...

Looking at Earth -- I'll admit, since I want to be an archeologist who uses satellite images to find ruins, I have a bias towards this gallery. They have an actual U-2 spyplane hanging from the ceiling, and a display of the survival gear a U-2 pilot would carry. I find it very amusing that one of those items was lip balm. Because if you get shot down by the Soviets, if your lips are chapped or not is totally going to be your biggest problem...

Pioneers of Flight -- The 1920s and 30s are one of my favorite eras in history, especially the exploration and aviation of that time. (George Lucas didn't invent Indiana Jones out of thin air, you know.) The Douglas World Cruiser Chicago really captures my imagination, because it was one of two US Army planes that successfully completed the first flight around the world in 1924. First flight around the world! Ever! I just find that very exciting.

Space Race -- Oh man, so much to love in here! But the coolest object of all is probably the only surviving piece of Sputnik -- a tiny arming key that was removed before flight. Part of the first human-made object to ever orbit the Earth! That's not just aerospace history, that's world history!

Explore the Universe -- Huge astronomy fan, but I think what I like best is the stained-glass window showing the electromagnetic spectrum and how little of the energy created by stars we really see with our naked eyes. It's always nice to see science and art combined so well.

The Wright Brothers and the Invention of the Aerial Age -- The actual Wright Flyer. If not for that little cloth-and-wood contraption, the rest of the museum would be almost empty. 'Nuff said.

Legend, Memory, and the Great War in the Air -- The contrast throughout the exhibit between what you think you know about World War I flying aces and the reality of aviation in the war. (Manfred von Richthofen, "the Red Baron", however, actually was pretty much just as cool as they make him out to be.)

Exploring the Planets -- I'm a little disappointed that it's been five years since Pluto became a dwarf planet and they still haven't written a new version of "The Family of the Sun", the cute song that used to be in this gallery. The closed-off theater just looks really sad. But my favorite thing is the full-scale model of the Voyager spacecraft and its "Golden Record", carrying information about humanity in case it is ever found by aliens.

Apollo to the Moon -- I know it's mainstream, but the actual lunar spacesuits with traces of moondust still on them give me the chills. And how they're presented in such a dark, quiet case -- you really do feel like you're looking through to watch astronauts walking on the moon.

Jet Aviation -- "Sneaking Thru The Sound Barrier", a very funny Sid Caesar film playing in the gallery. Seriously, if you go, take the time to watch, it's hilarious.

America by Air -- I love all of the new hands-on displays in this area... but I can't say I love seeing how much more comfortable and glamorous air travel was in the 60s! At least it's available to more people now.

The Golden Age of Flight -- ANOTHER gallery about aviation in the 20s and 30s? Count me in! My favorite here is the Polar Star plane used by Lincoln Ellsworth to fly across Antarctica. (There's a cool little gallery about his accomplishments at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, it's kind of hard to find, but worth it.)

Moving Beyond Earth -- The newest gallery at the museum, and there's still not much there, as it's about the space shuttle and they'll be getting more artifacts as time goes on. But my favorite thing is the "Spaceflight Academy" trivia game -- I'm still trying to get a perfect score, I've gotten 90 out of 100 twice, but I kept getting one question wrong.

I'll leave you with a bit of trivia about a certain artifact at the museum. This M2-F2 lifting body made test flights in the 1960s that provided data that contributed to the design of the space shuttle. But it might be more familiar to some people here because it appeared in a certain popular 1970s TV show... If you think you know which one, leave a comment with your guess. The answer will appear in the next blog!