I was seven years old when Star Trek: The Next Generation premiered on television, introducing me to the stars for the first time. But even at seven years old, I had a sense of reality about me. I knew Star Trek wasn’t real, I knew the characters I loved so much were just actors pretending, and I knew if I wanted to get to the stars I would have to do more than click my heels three time and wait for Scotty to beam me up. I fell in love with the stars and the possibility of traveling among them. So when I flipped through the pages of a book about the National Air and Space Museum, I felt I had found my astronomical Mecca. It would take another 25 years before I finally made it there.
The National Air and Space Museum is just one of the nineteen museums, galleries, zoos, and buildings owned and operated by the Smithsonian Institution. It sits along the National Mall, offering easy access by just about any form of transportation. It is an enormous museum that can satisfy anyone with a love of air power and history or space exploration.
When I took my first trip to Washington, D.C., I made a list of places I wanted to visit. The Lincoln Memorial. The White House. The U.S. Capitol Building. But the National Air and Space Museum was the top of my list (and second and third just because I was so excited to visit). Despite this, it wasn’t until the third day of my trip that I visited this museum. Why did I wait? I wanted to visit on my birthday (August 18 if you were curious, it’s also August 18 if you weren’t curious).
There are many ways you can get to this museum. I was staying at the Hyatt Regency just a few blocks away so I decided to walk (took me about 25 minutes). If you walk along the National Mall, the museum has enormous steps that lead into the foyer (and security gates). You can take the Metro Bus with several lines making stops near or at the museum. You can also take the Blue or Orange Lines on the Metro Rail, which puts you out in the National Mall about four blocks from the museum. If you want to drive, you can find parallel parking on just about every street surrounding the museum. If you feel adventurous, you could try renting a bicycle from Capital Bikeshare and ride to the front door!
Before you make the journey to the museum, however, you should take a read through these tips below. Once you arrive you may want to stay awhile, so it’s always good to know what you are getting into! Here are some tips before you visit the National Air and Space Museum:
Pack light. All visitors must go through a security gate, have bags searched, and pass through metal detectors. The more bags you bring, the longer your journey through this security passage will be, which could potentially slow everyone else behind you. Try to keep it to one bag per person.
Eat before you arrive. As with all museums, food and drinks are prohibited on the exhibit floor (with the exception of bottled water). You can grab some typical fast food fare at The Wright Food Court or coffee and pastries at the cafe on the second level. But you could also have a picnic on the National Mall before you go to the museum.
Bring your tablet. The museum offers free wi-fi for all guests (connect to SI-VISITOR), so if you bring your tablet or obnoxiously large cellphone you can browse additional content while perusing the museum.
Dress comfortably. The museum is rather large and epic. There are several sets of stairs to climb (or if you need assistance there are elevators.) Even the gift shop has two levels!
Download a map. If you have a tablet to bring with you, download the map ahead of time (you can still use their free wi-fi, but it’s easier to have it ahead of time). If you don’t have a tablet or don’t want to bring it, print out a map of the museum. Trust me: you’ll want it.
Now I feel I must add a few other notes before visiting the museum. As a photographer, I was not sure what to expect when I showed up on the front door with my Lowepro Stealth Reporter 650 loaded to the gills with a camera body, four lenses, and an assortment of accessories. Thankfully I had done some research ahead of time so I knew what to expect and had packed appropriately. So, for the photographers among my readers, here are some tips for photographers before you visit the National Air and Space Museum:
Leave the tripod at home. You can also forget the monopod. It is a combination of reducing tripping hazards and I suspect a way of preventing photographers from capturing stunning low-light photos by using long exposures. Either way, you won’t be allowed through security with them so don’t bring them.
Limit the flash photography. When a flash from a cellphone, tablet, or point and shoot camera pops off it catches the corner of your eye and five-tenths of a second later you have forgotten about it. But when the flash from a camera-mounted strobe on a DSLR pops off it temporarily blinds you, leaves a giant orange orb hovering in your vision, and causes you to walk into walls. It’s OK to fire off a few photos using a flash, but try to limit the photos (and whatever you do switch to single shot mode, you don’t need 8 frames per second with a flash!)
Don’t book a portrait shoot here. The Smithsonian Institute has a specific photography policy for professional photographers and filmmakers. Basically, you cannot make money by shooting photos here. That includes portrait shoots, selling print photography of the museum, and licensing photos to magazines. Yeah, that kinda bummed me out as well because I was really hoping to license my photography to travel magazines. But, as you can see on my photography website, the photos captured here are not for sale. [Insert epically huge sad face]
Pack light. The same as I mentioned for the average visitor, only bring one bag. Try to make it a small bag. You will only need one camera body. You don’t really need a flash. Remove accessories you won’t need like CPL filters, remote shutter release cables, remotes, and mounting plates. Be prepared to open your bag and all the pockets as you move through security; they will be checking every inch of that bag, so make it as easy on these hardworking people as you can.
At this point, I had finally made it through security. Only took me about five minutes and suddenly…I looked up. At the life-size, real planes hanging from the ceiling. They had planes hanging from the ceiling! The museum is spread out across two main floors with twenty-two exhibit areas, the Lockheed Martin IMAX Theater, Einstein Planetarium, Wright Place Food Court, and gift shop. This was during my pre-iPad era so I grabbed a paper map just as soon as I could (and I’m glad I did).
Some of the exhibit spaces will rotate every few months, while others are permanent spaces. My favorite, of course, was anything relating to space travel. At one end of the museum they had a replica of a moon walk next to a lunar lander. I wanted to jump out there next to the astronaut suit and do the moon walk, but I was afraid too many people would like it.
As you make your way around the museum, try to focus on one specific area at a time. It’s easy to get overwhelmed or miss entire sections of the museum because of the enormous size and scope. I missed the Wright Place Food Court entirely during my visit (it’s behind the lunar lander exhibit through a set of swinging doors). Just about all the little exhibit spaces are tucked away behind walls, providing sound deadening and a little escape from the crowds. My favorite of these escapes was the Wright Brothers exhibit on the second floor (although I also loved the Sea-Air Operations exhibit tucked away into a corner).
As you slowly make your way around the museum, be sure to try out some of exhibits you can board such as a segment of the International Space Station and the cockpit of a commercial aircraft. Be sure to stop and read the information with the exhibits, and read them aloud to children who may otherwise be too jittery to stand still long enough to finish a sentence. Soak it in, because this is the epitome of air and space history all under one roof. You should expect to spend at least two hours in this museum (if all you do is walk around at a leisure pace and visit all the exhibit spaces). However, if you start to read the information, wait in line for a few exhibit rides, or visit the theater or planetarium, you could very well spend 4-5 hours at the museum. I could have spent all day.
After your potentially exhaustive adventure around the museum, make a final stop at the gift shop on the first floor near the main entrance. This isn’t a typical gift shop with every possible piece of merchandise plastered with the museum name on it. It’s actually a place to find nifty little science doo-dads and gizmos, clever t-shirts, and fantastic reading materials. But don’t even think about leaving the museum before you head down to the basement level of the gift shop. This area seems mostly reserved for clearance items or odds-and-ends, but it did feature one thing that took my breath away: the actual model of the USS Enterprise NCC-1701 used for filming of Star Trek: The Original Series. I stood next to the glass enclosure with the biggest, goofiest, geekiest smile on my face for what seemed like twenty minutes. Actually, it was twenty minutes. My trip had been complete.
Many people have many reasons for visiting the National Air and Space Museum. Some are avid air history buffs who want to see a piece of history. Others just want a place to walk and learn a thing or two about early space travel. A few people may want to show off their knowledge to their kids. There just might be that one person who remembers being seven years old, flipping through the pages of a giant book, looking at photos of planes, exhibits, and artifacts, hoping and wishing for the day he could visit the museum and walk through history. Whatever your reason, make this a stop during your next visit to Washington, D.C. Whether you’re a tourist from across the country or around the world, or a resident just twenty minutes out on the Blue Line, come to the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum.