Many calculations have gone into the museum’s makeover, which won’t be finished until 2025. Expect to see high-tech improvements — including plenty of screens to touch — along with fun facts about the people who contributed to aviation and space history. Here are five cool objects and experiences you won’t want to miss:
At the far west end of the museum soars this sleek jet. “It even looks fast standing still,” said Jeremy Kinney, associate director for research and curatorial affairs. Eight world records stenciled on its nose belong to Jacqueline “Jackie” Cochran, the first female pilot to break the sound barrier. From the 1930s to the 1960s, she racked up more than 200 records for speed, altitude and distance. She also promoted her cosmetics brand, Wings to Beauty. Her flight suit is on display nearby in the Nation of Speed gallery, devoted to America’s love of vehicles. Cochran would have liked “Race Against the Machines,” a station that calculates how quickly visitors run in place.
The only way this orange-and-silver spacecraft loaded with laser cannons and proton torpedo launchers could ever take flight is with movie magic. Featured in the 2019 film “Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker,” the prop blends authentic details, such as engines and a cockpit, with fantastical ones. Can you spot the droid perched in the co-pilot’s seat? Sci-fi fans will also want to hunt for Mr. Spock’s pointy ears from “Star Trek,” donated by the family of the late actor Leonard Nimoy.
Model airplanes, plastic rockets and other toys are part of the collection because they show how kids have always wanted to pretend to fly, Weitekamp said. Her favorite is this 1950s-era helmet in the Destination Moon gallery with a kazoo mouthpiece. Is that how real helmets work? “Only if communications are bad,” she said, joking. But it probably inspired children, just like the helicopter toy that the Wright brothers’ dad gave them when they were little. There’s an oversize version of it in the Early Flight gallery that you can try out: Pull the black wheel hard to send the propeller spinning up a plastic tube.
Problem: Baby whooping cranes born in captivity needed to learn to migrate a 1,200-mile route from Wisconsin to Florida. Solution: Teach the endangered birds to follow an ultralight aircraft. The successful mission was part of Operation Migration, featured in the We All Fly gallery. The display also includes an example of a bird costume worn by the pilot and a loudspeaker that played adult crane sounds during the flight. (The goal was to persuade the babies to bond with the plane, not people.) A nearby simulator teaches how to “fly” a similar aircraft.
You’ll feel like you’re zigzagging through the solar system in the Exploring the Planets gallery, where a pair of curved screens displays detailed digital images based on evidence gathered by probes and rovers. Fact bubbles about these strange environments pop up to explain, for instance, that someone hopping two inches off the ground on Earth would completely jump off Comet 67P. It’s a cool way to showcase some of the latest findings from experts, Weitekamp said. “These scientists know these planets as places, like you know your neighborhood, and you know where there’s a good sledding hill,” she said. (Don’t expect to go sledding on Venus, which is 880 degrees Fahrenheit.)
What: National Air and Space Museum
Where: 6th Street and Independence Avenue in Southwest Washington.
When: Daily, 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.
How much: Free, but timed-entry tickets are required. Book online at airandspace.si.edu.