Inside the National Air and Space Museum

By Alan Klapmeier

I had intended to write more about General Aviation today (maybe later), but I got distracted after a meeting in Washington D.C. That distraction was an invitation by Dorothy Cochrane, one of the curators at the National Air and Space Museum, to get a little behind-the-scene look at a renovated gallery.

For those who have never had the opportunity to visit the NASM, both on the Mall and the Steven F Udvar-Hazy Center at Dulles Airport, you are missing out on a real treat. Of course, anyone who loves aviation the way I do would not miss the chance to see this great display of aviation history.  In fact, I make a point of at least visiting for a few minutes whenever I am in town. 

But everyone needs to see this place. Why? Because the history of aviation is linked to the development of our society.  Behind the airplanes, spacecraft and associated artifacts is the story of people striving to do the impossible.

"Everyone" knew that man could not really fly. Everyone except a small group of pioneers, including the Wright Brothers, who literally risked everything to invent the airplane.

Everyone knew that airplanes could never fly very far. But here is the Vin Fiz and the Fokker T-2 which spanned the continent.

Oceans? Impossible, but here is the Douglas World Cruiser, the Spirit of St. Louis, and the Lockeed Sirius Tingmissartoq. Lindberg and Earhart.

Military airplanes that changed the course of World Wars like the Spad, Spitfire and P-51.  Even the Boening B-29 Enola Gay. More people who risked everything for the idea of freedom.

The beginning of commercial airlines from pistons to jets. The engines and navigation that made the world a smaller place. Engineers and scientists, machinists and managers are all part of the history of aviation.

And, perhaps most inspirationally, the story of how we got off this small world. The history of NASA from Mercury to Apollo to the Space Shuttle are here. Even SpaceShipOne, the first privately funded spaceship hangs in the main gallery.

Aviation around every corner, but much more. This place demonstrates what can be accomplished when vision meets capability. Visit the National Air and Space Museum before your next challenge -- everything is possible.

Alan Klapmeier is founder of Cirrus Design Corp co-founder and CEO of Kestrel Aircraft.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.

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