Every child is born with the innate desire to fly. Some have chased this innate wish all the way to reality by becoming pilots or astronauts. For the rest of us, aviation museums provide a glimpse into the fascinating world beyond the limits of earth.
These five museums celebrate the visionaries who have furthered humanity’s path to the clouds and beyond.
Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum
Visitors walking into the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum can’t help but immediately look up. Historic aircraft hang from the ceiling of the large museum, among them the original 1903 Wright Flyer and the Spirit of St Louis.
One of the most visited cultural institutions on the planet, the museum delves into the first attempts to study space, the first attempts at flight and the journey beyond Earth’s atmosphere. The museum contains about 60,000 exhibits and more than 14,000 videos related to aviation and space.
Almost all the aircraft on display are originals or the original backup craft. Among the highlights are the Bell X-1 which broke the sound barrier; the model of the starship Enterprise of “Star Trek” fame; and the Apollo 11 command module, which brought the first astronauts to the moon.
Thousands more aircraft hang in the museum’s companion facility, the Udvar-Hazy Center. Two large hangars hold historically significant aircraft, such as the space shuttle Discovery and the Boeing B-29 Superfortress bomber Enola Gay, which dropped an atomic bomb during World War II.
Intrepid Sea, Air and Space Museum
The USS Intrepid served as an aircraft carrier during World War II and the Vietnam War. After it was decommissioned, the massive ship reopened in 1982 as the Intrepid Sea, Air and Space Museum. The 250,000-ton carrier now holds exhibits, videos and military aircraft.
Tours explore areas of the ship that have been restored with historic accuracy. Among the highlights are a giant 1940s computer, radar equipment and pneumatic tubes used to ferry messages from one point in the ship to another.
The ship also houses the USS Growler, a submarine armed with nuclear missiles during the Cold War. Walking down into the submarine allows groups to picture life underground for months on end in confined spaces and no access to the sun.
The Concorde Experience depicts a more glamorous mode of travel. Groups can walk through the Concorde’s first-class cabin and learn how the technological marvel became the fastest commercial aircraft to cross the Atlantic Ocean advanced flight technology.
U.S. Space and Rocket Center
Groups visiting the U.S. Space and Rocket Center can admire spacecraft and then try to pilot one themselves. The center offers several hands-on experiences and programs, including space travel simulators that re-create the forces of liftoff and weightlessness.
Mammoth rockets reveal the immensity of space equipment. The National Historic Landmark Saturn V moon rocket looms large at the site. Other artifacts, such as a replica of Pathfinder, a handprint of America’s first space monkey and an Apollo Command Module simulator help travelers relive moments from the space race. To feel the power of these spacebound rockets, visitors can stand inside a rumbling, simulated flame pit beneath a Saturn V engine.
For longer visits, groups of all ages can book a program with weeklong Space Camp. Other space-related educational experiences include the Aviation Challenge Camp and the Robotics Camp.
National Museum of the U.S. Air Force
Visitors can imagine themselves as president for the day at the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force. On the Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, the museum’s sprawling 17 acres of displays could take a couple of days to tour completely.
The museum allows guests to walk onto some of the planes used to fly presidents to important international meetings. Groups can explore the cabin of the Boeing aircraft that served as Air Force One when John F. Kennedy was assassinated. The plane carried his body from Dallas to Washington. Tours point out the spot where Lyndon B. Johnson was sworn in as president.
Other exhibits use more than 360 aircraft to trace human flight from the Wright brothers to the modern era. A restoration hangar to the east of the main museum allows tours to see these historic planes brought back to functioning condition.
Museum of Flight
The largest private air and space museum in the world, Seattle’s Museum of Flight goes back to the beginning of the Boeing corporation. The museum’s Red Barn is a registered historic site that was used in the early 1900s as Boeing’s original manufacturing plant when the company crafted wooden airplanes with fabric overlays. Visitors watch as the planes advance through the company’s history.
Beyond the exhibit, groups can wander through 15 acres of exhibits and more than 175 air and space craft. A new pavilion opened in 2016 to showcase some of Boeing’s most successful commercial jet aircraft, among them the first jet Air Force One, the only Concorde on the West Coast and a B-17F Flying Fortress.
Flight simulators use 3D visuals to create a realistic piloting experience. The Lear Gallery continues the simulations with NASA’s Space Shuttle Trainer, used to prepare astronauts for their missions. A replica of the International Space Station’s laboratory provides insight into the daily life of an astronaut on a space mission.
Groups can book several interactive experiences, including “Amazing Skies Theater,” a living-history production that brings aviation history to the stage.