One aspect of air and space museums is clear: They are big. Really big.
That size, of course, lets you see the scale of history: Grasp the massiveness of a Saturn V rocket, admire a sleek Concorde supersonic jetliner, and understand, at least a bit, about a Blackbird spy plane’s speed. You also can imagine being cramped inside a Mercury space capsule, soaring over a World War I battlefield in a De Havilland biplane or luxuriating in a Lear jet.
Here are five spacious, ambitious and inviting destinations that can take your group up, up and away — at least figuratively.
Don’t let the humble beginnings of the Cosmosphere at Hutchinson Community College in Hutchinson, Kansas, fool you. This is a top-notch science center that is a Smithsonian Affiliate with a long-term connection to the National Air and Space Museum.
Its story began in 1962 when space enthusiast Patty Carey, a layperson rather than a scientist, set up a used planetarium projector in the Poultry Building of the Kansas State Fairgrounds. A move to the college and multiple expansions produced today’s multifaceted Cosmosphere.
There’s a better planetarium now, plus an Imax dome theater, galleries exploring many aspects of rocketry and space travel, simulators visitors can experience and plenty of hardware. Among the hardware are Mercury, Gemini and Apollo program vehicles, including the famous command module from the Apollo 13 mission — yes, the aborted mission that captivated the world and led to a movie that won two Academy Awards.
Other artifacts include a lunar rover replica, World War II V-1 and V-2 rockets, spacesuits worn by Gemini astronauts, an authentic Sonic Wind rocket sled and more Russian space artifacts than anywhere outside of Moscow. Among the programs is a peek inside the 1930s lab of Robert Goddard, the father of modern rocketry, which the Cosmosphere teases is an interactive show “packed with some explosive surprises.”
U.S. Space and Rocket Center
The Cosmosphere has a one-tenth scale Saturn V rocket, which is rather impressive, but the real deal, a 363-foot-long Saturn V, is a star attraction at the U.S. Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville, Alabama.
The U.S. Space and Rocket Center is Alabama’s most-visited attraction, and it also is the gateway to another destination, the Marshall Space Flight Center, which doesn’t get as much attention but is also a solid group tour target.
In addition to the Saturn V, a National Historic Landmark and one of only three in the world, attractions include stunning astronomy shows and live performances at the full-dome Intuitive Planetarium, an explanation of the space race and America’s eventual lunar landing; a mock-up of the Apollo 11 lunar landing site; a close look at the International Space Station’s design — the real one is 248 miles overhead — and Shuttle Park, showcasing America’s most complete chronology of launch vehicles. Savvy tour organizers should book a docent to deliver extra explanations of all you can see.
The internationally famous Space Camp turns 40 this year, and the pandemic has opened the door to experience some of the Space Camp’s facilities not usually available to groups. Inquire about opportunities, and enjoy the total attraction, now in its second half-century: It turned 50 in 2020.
Strategic Air Command and Aerospace Museum
In America’s heartland between Omaha and Lincoln, Nebraska, is a massive attraction that preserves and interprets one of the tensest periods in American history. It is the Strategic Air Command and Aerospace Museum, and its story is of the Cold War, the fraught time between the end of World War II and the dissolution of the Soviet Union.
“The fact we are totally indoors is important,” said deputy director John Lefler, noting that the 300,000-square-foot facility is brimming with massive, important and approachable aircraft. “The way we display airplanes allows visitors to go right up to them.”
It’s quite a collection: A B-17 is only 150 feet from an SR-71 spy plane. Change your perspective to see a B-29, a U-2 and a B-36. The B-36 alone is worth the visit. It was the largest piston-engine aircraft ever built with a wingspan of 230 feet, could stay aloft for 40 hours, could reach targets 3,400 miles away and even carried a retrievable fighter plane for defense. Late models had six propeller engines and four jet engines; “six turnin’ and four burnin’” was its slogan.
Another favorite experience for many museum visitors is watching restoration work inside a gigantic hangar, Lefler said. Getting attention now are an F-117 stealth attack aircraft, a Vulcan bomber and a T-29 “Flying Classroom.”
Groups benefit from a quartet of short films in a 108-seat theater and daily tours led by docents, most of whom are veterans with personal insight into the museum’s stories.
The Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum has two locations: the rock star facility on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., and the Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Virginia, near Dulles International Airport. Both will knock your socks off.
The Udvar-Hazy Center — a complex of two gigantic hangars, an Imax theater and much more — opened in 2003, and an average of 1.3 million visitors a year wander right up to touchstones of aviation history.
“We tell the story of flight from early ballooning to space travel,” said Holly Williamson, public affairs specialist. “We’re large enough to house the Discovery Space Shuttle — 39 missions covering 365 days — and not be crowded.”
Indeed, it’s not crowded by the Discovery, the Enola Gay B-29 Superfortress bomber, an Air France Concorde, a Boeing 367-80 transport jet, planes from the German Luftwaffe, aerobatic biplanes, helicopters, sailplanes, ultralights and even a Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird. The Blackbird’s top speed is classified, but it is more than 2,100 miles per hour: coast to coast in 1:04:20.
“Each of our 3,000 artifacts has a story, and we encourage groups to take our free tours to hear some of those stories,” Williamson said. “Our docents are incredible, and there are no scripts. Most docents are pilots, flight instructors and engineers, and each tour is different.”