The Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum is one of the most engaging family museums in Washington, D.C. With more than 20 exhibit galleries, thousands of artifacts and plenty of hands-on activities, this free museum is always a bright spot for visitors who need a break from some of the more traditional museums in the city. From airplanes to rockets and more, it’s impossible not to learn something while visiting!


Smithsonian, Air and Space Museum, Free in D.C., Free in DC

Photo credit: Eden Pontz / Discovery TravelingMom

National Air and Space Museum: High Flying!

Just because you may not be a huge fan of flying these days, be sure you don’t miss out on visiting Washington D.C.’s Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum if you’re in town. It’s almost impossible for both children and adults not to be enthralled by all the amazing achievements in the history of flight and space made around the world.


With literally thousands of objects both big (huge) and small on display, as you wander through the vast halls you may come upon highlights including Charles Lindbergh’s Spirit of St. Louis, the 1903 Wright Flyer and the Apollo 11 Command Module Columbia. There are 22 different gallery exhibits taking you through aviation from the very beginning, on to spaceflight, astronomy and planetary science.

Air and Space Museum Hands On

Smithsonian, Air and Space Museum, Free in D.C., Free in DC

Photo credit: Eden Pontz / Discovery TravelingMom

While there are plenty of interactive exhibits such as Lunar rocks you can touch, a chance to try your skill at bringing a plane “under control” and well, virtually the entire “How Things Fly” Gallery, also keep an eye out for various science demonstrations given throughout the museum during the day. (If you want to be sure to see a specific one, you can check the day’s schedule of demonstrations on postings outside various gallery entrances. We really enjoyed “Paper Airplane Contest!”) Audience participation in some of the experiments helps make them even more interesting!

Docent tours are given twice daily (sometimes more, so be sure to check on timing with the welcome desk). They last about an hour and a half. The docents are volunteers who have plenty of experience in the air and space field. According to folks at the museum, you may end up being led by former NASA employees, historians and pilots – some who even flew aircraft that are found in the museum collection! If you’re going with a large group, it’s recommended you make reservations in advance.

Film Fanatics

If you need to give your feet a break, check out some of the movies constantly running in the IMAX and other theaters and Planetarium within the Air and Space Museum. While there is a charge for these films, remember, you didn’t pay to see the rest of the museum.  In our case, I was pretty excited to see the museum was airing Journey to the Stars, a film that my husband had worked on. What a bonus for me to be able to embarrass both my child and husband by taking pictures of him in front of the film’s museum marquee!

I have fond memories from my own childhood of seeing the film To Fly!  This special film has been playing daily at the National Air and Space Museum since its opening in July of 1976. I have to admit that although I very much wanted to see it again, this time with my own child, I was nervous that it wouldn’t stand up to all the bells and whistles in movies out today. I’m happy to report that although there were a few spots that felt a bit dated or awkward, the rest held up to its flight test. My daughter grabbed hold of the railing in front of us as we felt land “virtually” drop from beneath us while the 5-story screen depicted a hot air balloon taking off in the 1800’s. Later in the film, we all felt almost as if we were hang gliding along the cliffs of California’s coastline. And as the U.S. Navy’s Blue Angels took off, I still held my breath as they began to maneuver.

Smithsonian, Air and Space Museum, Free in D.C., Free in DC

Photo credit: Eden Pontz / Discovery TravelingMom

Looking Up

Outside the East Terrace of the museum, you can head to the Phoebe Waterman Hass Public Observatory. Between 11 a.m. and 3 p.m. daily (weather permitting), you can look through the observatory telescopes to see what the professionals are spotting as well. Moon craters, sun spots, phases of Venus and other planetary observations may be possible day to day. And with members of the astronomy staff on-hand, your questions will be answered and you are guaranteed to learn something new about astronomy!

Flight of Fancy

For those who “feel the need for speed,” (I’m feeling a bit nostalgic by now) flight ride simulators and interactive simulators in the museum (a charge applies) will have you “virtually” flying—whether taking a ride on the Space Shuttle, navigating an F-18 Super Hornet, or trying out the Cosmic Coaster. (White-knuckle alert!) There are even more simulator experiences to choose from with a varying range of effects.  Some of these are not for the faint of stomach!

A second location of the museum—The Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center—is located about 25 miles outside of Washington, D.C. in Chantilly, Virginia. Public transportation via Metrorail and/or Fairfax Connector bus will get you there, although it will take approximately an hour and a half each way. Plenty of other artifacts await there, including the Space Shuttle Discovery and the Enola Gay. Plus, you can watch planes take off and land from the Washington Dulles International Airport. While we weren’t able to get there during our latest trip, it’s also recommended for those who are passionate about the science behind air and space travel.