If you can only see one, see this one: The National Air and Space Museum (NASM), part of the Smithsonian Institution.
Walking into the grand hall (image: left) is truly entering aerospace heaven. It is a feeling you must experience at least once - rather like a pilgrimage. I took these in 1988, and the exhibits have changed over the years, but the inspiration is boundless. There is a greater array of pure preserved manned spaceflight here than anywhere! The main galleries house Apollo 11 Command Module "Columbia," and two of the last surviving full, flight qualified Apollo spacecraft. Other notable flown spacecraft are Gemini IV, which hosted the first U.S. spacewalk; and Mercury spacecraft number 13, which flew mission Mercury Atlas 6 (MA-6), better known as John Glenn's "Friendship 7" (image: right).
One of the lesser-known, but extremely very important vehicles on display is the X-15, a rocket-powered airplane that some consider one of America's first real spacecraft. This joint NASA-Air Force experimental flight program flew three different aircraft in 199 missions from 1959-1968. The machine, simply called X-15 #1 (tail number 56-6670), flew both NASA and Air Force pilots at speeds over Mach 6, to altitudes of over 50, then over 60 miles (100 km). Notably, it is the only one of the original three aircraft flown by all 12 test pilots, and flew the first and last missions in the program. This black rocket made 81 free fall drops, and 142 powered flights from its B-52 mothership. Some folks call the X-15 the father of the Space Shuttle program, as the hypersonic speeds, high temperate return from altitude, and pressure-suit needs all contributed to developing this next big winged rocket program.
This is a real Moonship that never made it into space (image: below left and center): Apollo Command Service Module (CSM) number 105, with the unique Docking Module (DM) atop its nose probe, is part of the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project (ASTP, sometimes identified as Apollo 18) display. The DM provided the crucial mechanical and environmental adapter that enabled this first joint U.S./Russian (Soviet) effort in July 1975. The Russians used different gas mixes and pressures in the Soyuz atmosphere, so the crews always had to use this adapter before moving between spacecraft. Notably, Deke Slayton was the only Apollo crewman to carry the title Docking Module Pilot (DMP) - check out Deke's own museum. This same basic joint docking system is still used for Shuttle missions to the International Space Station, and formerly to the Mir space station.
This real Moonship never touched the surface of the Moon (left), but was meant to do just that mission. Lunar Module (LM) number 2 recreates the Apollo 11 landing with two type pressure-suited figures. This spacecraft was originally built for a second unmanned test flight after the first LM flew on Apollo 5. It must have been a pretty solid craft to only need one test flight, because LM 3 flew with a crew on Apollo 9. People are often struck by how ungainly and fragile-looking a spacecraft the LM appears. Many people think it looks less like a spaceship than any other vehicle in the museum, but oddly it was the first machine designed to work only in space - never in Earth's atmosphere. Regardless of how you view this remarkable machine, it's a wonderful close-up view of the reall thing: an historic "Lunar Schooner." Not only is it a major landmark and centerpiece, it's right outside the museum's cafeteria. Oddly enough, there's more to say about LM's and food in other museums.
This quote came from Skylab 1 Commander Charles "Pete" Conrad (also the third man on the Moon), as he flew his crew toward the first U.S. space station in May 1973. The program was originally called Apollo Applications, or: "What do we do with out Moon program leftovers?" The Orbital Work Shop (OWS) - the living/working module - of the actual backup Skylab, was built from Saturn V booster stage S-IVB number 515. This rocket stage was originally meant to carry a later Apollo mission to the Moon, but being part of a space station program was not a bad supporting role. I think we're fortunate to have any space station available for a walk-through tour. This spacecraft would have flown a second Skylab "B" mission around the Earth in the late 1970s - and more ambitious never-realized schemes would have even made it "Moonlab" in Lunar orbit! Elsewhere in the exhibit, two intrepid spacewalkers in their A7B model extravehicular spacesuits attend the Airlock Module and Apollo Telescope Mount (ATM). Compare the real unflown second Skylab to the very realistic trainer version in Houston. When I took this image in the late 1980s, Skylab sat next to a World War II V-2 missile (image: right).
The view out the window, past a Ranger lunar probe hanging in the sunlight, looks onto Washington DC's National Mall. This is somewhat appropriate, as the U.S. Capitol and the government it represents paid for the trips to the Moon. As part of the Smithsonian Institution, this museum represents just a part of the great learning and marvelous artifacts around this major U.S. city. But, hey, I'm a space geek, so what I really liked were all the pictures of spacemen and spaceships drawn by local school children (image: right) !