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    101: Milestones of Flight

The Boeing Milestones of Flight Hall (Gallery 101)

The Air and Space museum’s centerpiece display is a priceless collection of some of the world’s most important flying machines. Most of these aircrafts’ names, their pilots’ names, and achievements will be instantly recognizable.

Ryan NYP Spirit of St. Louis: Charles Lindbergh was the first solo pilot to fly an airplane, this Spirit of St. Louis, nonstop across the Atlantic Ocean, in 1927. While the public regarded Lindbergh’s flight as a demonstration of how reliable airplanes had become, the fatality rate was still roughly 50% for pilots attempting long-distance flight records over oceans in 1927. Lindbergh became a household name around the world and went on to a distinguished aviation career.

Bell X-1Glamorous Glennis: Chuck Yeager was the first pilot to break the sound barrier, in this Bell X-1 in 1947. To fly faster than the speed of sound, the X-1 used liquid-fuel rocket motors instead of a piston or jet engine. The X-1 never took off from the ground; it was dropped from a military bomber before igniting its engines. Thus, the X-1 is essentially a missile with wings. Still, it showed that controlled flight could be achieved above the speed of sound, and this led to the development of supersonic aircraft within a few years. Yeager later flew this plane to its top speed, 947 m.p.h., in 1948. The U.S. Air Force donated the X-1 to the Smithsonian in 1950.

Mercury MA-6 Friendship 7: John Glenn, Jr. was the first American to orbit the Earth, in this Mercury spacecraft on February 20, 1962. The Soviet Union had placed the Sputnik satellite into orbit in late 1957, catching the United States off guard and prompting the start of the Cold War’s space race. The U.S. responded by creating NASA to guide its space program, but the Soviets were able to launch a man in orbit around the Earth before the U.S. had even achieved its first suborbital flight. John Glenn’s orbital flight in the Friendship 7 demonstrated that the U.S. was back in the game against the Soviets.

Apollo 11 Command Module Columbia: The Columbia is the most important man-made object in the history of the world. Launched on July 16, 1969, the Apollo 11 mission was the first to land men on the moon. Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin reached the lunar surface on July 20, and, with pilot Michael Collins, returned safely to Earth in this Columbia command module on July 24, 1969. The Apollo 11 success effectively ended the expensive, high-stakes space race between the U.S. and Soviet Union, to land first on the moon. Five more Apollo missions made successful lunar landings, all returning in modules similar to this Columbia. The last men to visit the moon left on December 14, 1972.

Why is the Columbia the most important object ever made? It represents the point at which humans definitively controlled Earth’s materials and mastered the universe’s fundamental physical laws. And not coincidentally, the only nation that has shown the collective will and capability to build one of these things, has its basic ideas of freedom and governance displayed for you to read in a couple of documents a few blocks away.

Besides these, the Milestones of Flight Hall includes: the Bell XP-59A Airacomet, one of the U.S. military’s first jet fighters; the North American X-15, another rocket-powered plane that in the 1960’s helped the U.S. test metals and control systems for spaceflight (the one shown here was flown by Neil Armstrong to a speed of 3,989 m.p.h.); the Gemini IV spacecraft, outside which the first American spacewalk took place, in 1965; an engineering model of the Viking Lander, the first two of which landed on Mars in 1976; SpaceShipOne, the first privately-owned, manned spacecraft; a moon rock sample you can touch; a full-scale NASA wind tunnel fan; and the American Pershing-II and Soviet SS-20 ballistic missiles, developed to carry nuclear weapons during the Cold War, and retired in 1988 by treaty between the U.S. and U.S.S.R.

Other Lands at Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum