08/23/2011 01:41 pm ET | Updated Oct 24, 2011

Space History in DC -- Science in American Life

Events of July 10, 2011

So, there it was, my last full weekend in Washington, DC, and I still hadn't visited every site I planned on seeing before leaving. So I decided to spend this Sunday visiting the National Museum of American History, and then, later in the day when it would be cooler, walking to the Lincoln Memorial.

The most famous object on display at the Museum of American History is the original "Star-Spangled Banner"- the flag that flew over Fort McHenry during the War of 1812 and inspired Francis Scott Key to write the poem that became the national anthem. It's kept in a special controlled environment under low light, and, even though it's tattered and missing some pieces, it's still much bigger than I imagined! (The "rockets' red glare" that Key wrote about was the explosion of primitive gunpowder missiles designed by Sir William Congreve which the British were firing at the fort.)

A lot of art and architecture in DC is neoclassical, or influenced by the styles of ancient Greece and Rome, but the statue of George Washington in a toga near the escalators at the museum might be the most extreme example. Also on the same level, I found a very cute stuffed (as in taxidermy) bison, and the exhibition of selected inaugural gowns worn by first ladies. (I think Betty Ford's was my favorite.)

As cool as all of that was, the exhibit I was most excited to see was "Science in American Life" on the lower level. Right near the escalators, they had a telescope used by one of my favorite Science Heroines, Maria Mitchell, an astronomer who discovered a comet in 1847 and taught science to women at Vassar College.

It was really cool to see vintage souvenirs from the 1939 World's Fair and photographs of the scientific displays that had been there- it's kind of funny to think multi-lane highways were considered super-futuristic! On a much less humorous note, the exhibit also had pieces of sand fused into glass by atomic bomb tests and a "Radiation Danger Zone: Keep Out" sign. Seeing those was sort of creepy.

I felt a lot happier when I got to the displays about the environmental movement and another one of my Science Heroines, Rachel Carson. Since the various Smithsonian museums don't want to impinge on each other's territory, there wasn't much about the space program beyond a few blown-up newspaper articles about the moon landings, but the headline "Earthlings Turn Into Lunatics" was pretty amusing anyway. And they had a picture of one of my other heroes, Carl Sagan, in the "Science as Entertainment" section!

Outside of the main exhibit, there were display cases showing various artifacts from the museum's collections, including some cool vintage political buttons. (As an X-Men fan, I think I'd like a copy of the one that said "Mutants For Nuclear Power".) A display about the history of lasers had one of the original Star Trek phaser props, as well as a LaserDisk player like my 7th science teacher used to have. And not too far away was one of the artifacts I'd most hoped to see on my visit- Anthony Daniels' original C-3PO costume from Star Wars! (I heard R2-D2 was at the museum, too, but I didn't see him.)

Since I enjoy trivia about the presidents, the third-floor exhibit on the history of the Presidency was a lot of fun to poke around in. They had one of Lincoln's top hats, an original teddy bear from Theodore Roosevelt's first term, and Bill Clinton's saxophone! But I certainly wasn't expecting to find Alan Shepard's spacesuit next to pictures of him with President Kennedy! But there it was, the silver suit worn by NASA's first man in space. (In addition to looking really cool, the silver color helped reflect heat.)

So, even though I wasn't planning on it, I ended up finding a major piece of space history in a most unexpected place.