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.

Apollo 11 Command Module

The living quarters for Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins during their eight-day journey to the moon in July 1969 had an interior of just 210 cubic feet—a little less than the inside of a compact car. It may have felt roomy to Michael Collins, once his two colleagues departed for the lunar surface, leaving him to orbit alone in the Columbia for almost 24 hours. In his book Carrying the Fire, Collins recalls the feeling of solitude: “[R]adio contact with the Earth abruptly cuts off at the instant I disappear behind the moon, I am alone now, truly alone, and absolutely isolated from any known life. I am it.”

Thanks to recent efforts by the Smithsonian’s 3D Digitization Program, we now know what the three men wrote on the walls in that cramped space. The digitization project uses cameras and software that capture information without requiring a person to enter—and potentially damage—the spacecraft. Space history curator Allan Needell seemed most thrilled with the discovery of a calendar, duct-taped to the spacecraft wall, which appeared to have the dates of the mission X’ed out day by day. Noting that in space there is no sunrise or sunset, Needell finds the need to mark the time in days “a very human thing.”

Once the 3D model of Columbia is completed in June, anyone with access to a 3D printer will be able to download and print his own copy of the artifact.

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