The National Air and Space Museum

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The Spirit of St. Louis and SpaceShipOne in the Milestones of Flight Gallery

I had the honor of working at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum for eight years, departing in 1996 as the Acting Chairman of the Laboratory for Astrophysics. I have maintained a wonderful relationship with the Museum, and with many friends still there.


In 1999 I had the remarkable opportunity to lead an interdisciplinary and inter-organizational team to permanently place Voyage—a one to 10-billion scale model solar system—on the National Mall in front of the Smithsonian. Replicas of Voyage on the Mall are now permanently installing across the nation.


To this day I oversee an evening program at the Museum, together with Maureen Kerr, Chair of the Museum’s Education Division, and Michael Hulslander, Manager of Onsite Learning. The Family Science Night program was designed as a school field trip for families. The program has touched over 49,500 students, parents, and teachers from 183 local DC metro-area schools since program incepetion in 1993, and has served as a model for replication nationally.


I have a special fondness for the National Mall and the Museum, and wanted to share why … with you.



Looking down on Milestones of Flight during a family evening for Baltimore City schools. This photo was taken before the Wright Flyer (hanging from the ceiling) was moved to its own gallery in commemoration of the 100th anniversary of powered flight in December 2003. The Apollo 11 command module Columbia is in the foreground.





Imagine standing on the National Mall in Washington, DC, the historic expanse from the Potomac River to the U.S. Capitol Building, and home to the Smithsonian Museums, the Washington Monument, and memorials to Jefferson, Lincoln, and Roosevelt, and to the sacrifices of veterans of wars past. Visible to the east is the dome of the Capitol Building, crowned by the Statue of Freedom. She faces due east to greet sunrise on America each morning. To the west, in the direction of the pacific coast some 2,500 miles away, the Washington Monument rises above the tree line to a height of 555 feet. One cannot imagine a place—a space—more connected to the fabric of the nation.


Behind you is the three-story glass walled entrance to the National Air and Space Museum, the most visited museum on the planet. It is a place where we celebrate human dreams of flight in air and space—dreams of countless generations. Dreams that are embodied in starkly simple questions: What would it be like to fly like the birds? What would it be like to leave Earth and go to the Moon—and to those points of light in the evening sky?


The machines on display in the Museum have much to say about their creators and pilots, and stand as testaments to how ingenuity and hard work can push the envelope of human experience. The Wright Flyer and Apollo 11’s Columbia are two of these machines. If you stand beside them, and know even a little about what they are, a profound silence overcomes the bustle of the Museum and you can almost hear them speak—



On December 17, 1903, it was a bitterly cold, windy morning on Kill Devil Hill, about four miles from Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. At 10:35 am Orville Wright was aboard the Flyer as it moved down a track with Wilber running along side, steadying the wing. And in that moment, these two brothers changed us all. A human became airborne in a heavier than air craft under its own power, and in a sustained and controlled flight. For the first time in human history we were flying like the birds.


Click photo

Click photo

At 9:32 am EDT, July 16, 1969, Apollo 11 rose from Pad 39A at Kennedy Space Center in Florida. At the top of the 36-story rocket was the Command Module Columbia with Neil Armstrong, Edwin ‘Buzz’ Aldrin, and Michael Collins inside. After a 3-day flight, Apollo 11 took up station in orbit around the Moon on July 19. On July 20 Armstrong and Aldrin descended to the surface in the lunar module Eagle, touching down in the Sea of Tranquility at 4:17 pm EDT. At 10:56 pm EDT, Armstrong put the first human footprint on another world, and back on Earth 600 million of us watched it live on television.


Click for Video

Click for Video

All those that built and flew these machines on display at the Museum have something in common—they were children once that dared to dream. And these are also the dreams of a current generation that will surely aspire to take the human race where we’ve never been, if we teach them well and nurture their curiosity.


The National Air and Space Museum, with its presence on the National Mall, documents a voyage of individuals, of a nation, and of a race of explorers. It is a voyage that defines the nature of the human condition, and links each generation to the next.


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