Ten Great Moments in Aerospace History

And you can learn about all of them in one trip to the National Air and Space Museum.

The Piper Cub (Dane Penland)
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Forty years ago, on the nation’s bicentennial, President Gerald Ford declared the newly opened National Air and Space Museum a “perfect birthday present from the American people to themselves.” Although the Smithsonian Institution’s aerospace collection had been established much earlier, it wasn’t until the building on the National Mall opened that hundreds of artifacts could be displayed in one exhibition space.

Four decades later, thanks to a $30 million donation from the Boeing Company, the Museum has renovated its entrance hall and begun work on other galleries and educational activities. In recognition of Boeing’s generous gift, the new entrance gallery has been renamed the Boeing Milestones of Flight Hall.

One of the first changes visitors will notice is an interactive wall that introduces them to objects on display within the Museum. By downloading the accompanying Go Flight app onto a smartphone or tablet, visitors can read stories about the artifacts, watch videos of their history, and learn about connections between the world’s most significant air- and spacecraft.

Because the app (available for Android and iOS) can track your location, when you’re in the Museum, it offers you a map to help direct your visit, hour-long guided tours, and a schedule of daily events. If you open the app at home, you’ll get a list of topics that can be tailored to your interests. Each time you open the app, you’ll get a different set of stories.

To celebrate the Museum’s 40th birthday, we’re highlighting 10 iconic objects of the hundreds on display. Through the Go Flight app, any one of these could lead you on a journey through a dozen historic artifacts, showing how one led to the next.

Bell XS-1/X-1

Imitating the shape of one of the few objects that before 1947 could fly faster than sound—a high-powered bullet—the X-1 broke the sound barrier that year on October 14. Although the revolutionary aircraft enabled NASA and the Air Force to understand transonic flight, the moment that the test pilot, Air Force Captain Chuck Yeager, slipped past Mach 1 appears to have been remarkably uneventful. The wild part of the flight was Yeager’s climb down the ladder from the Boeing B-29 mothership into the rocketplane in its bomb bay—in the slipstream. “There was a metal panel to protect against the wind blast, but it was rather primitive,” Yeager later wrote. “That bitch of a wind took your breath away and chilled you to the bone.”

After the X-1 was dropped from the bomber, Yeager fired the four rocket engines and climbed to 36,000 feet, hitting .88 Mach. He then shut down two of the engines to conserve fuel and climbed to 42,000 feet, where he hit Mach .92. He refired the two inert engines. At that altitude the Mach meter registered .956 and then 1.06—700 mph. “#1 ok,” Yeager wrote in his logbook after the flight.

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