Get ready for takeoff, because this weekend DC’s most popular museum reopens after an extensive renovation. The National Air and Space Museum has always been a top destination for kids and families. Now it reopens October 14th with eight totally revamped galleries. They showcase artifacts and technology chronicling America’s pursuit of flight and space exploration. For instance, visitors can look at a Mars rock, gaze out of a simulated Space Station window or pull levers to watch wing models move.
The new galleries are “phase one” in a seven-year project to renovate all 23 galleries of the iconic museum. The National Air and Space Museum first opened in 1976, at the height of the space race. Now, everything in the museum will have a new twist– from the way the Wright military flyer is displayed (now at eye level!) to the flooring (less dusty!) and amenities (new nursing lounges!). Museum curators say they hope the renovations will offer a more modern and engaging experience for visitors of the beloved museum.
In this first phase, only the west wing of the museum will be open. The rest of the museum is still under construction and will open gradually. Museum officials estimate they will finish the renovation by 2025.
But even with a limited opening, there is still plenty to see at the National Air and Space Museum with kids. There are 1,240 artifacts on display. More than half of them have not been on display at this museum before. For example, a giant X-wing starfighter from Star Wars hangs near the planetarium. And there are still plenty of your old your favorites, like Neil Armstrong’s space suit.
So here’s a guide with some of the highlights and tips for how to get the most out of your visit to the Air and Space Museum with kids.
Tickets for the Air and Space Museum
The first trick is getting in. In an effort to manage crowds, the Smithsonian is requiring timed tickets to enter the museum. Passes are required for everyone. The tickets are free and can be reserved ahead of time on their website. Each person can only reserve six tickets at a time, so if you have a large family or visiting grandparents, you’ll need some teamwork to get everyone a ticket.
The museum will be open daily from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., except for Christmas. The entry is on Independence Avenue. Due to construction, the entrance on the National Mall side is not open.
Tickets are sold out for this weekend and next. But currently, there are still plenty of weekday tickets available. And weekends in November have available tickets. The museum will release a new set of tickets every six weeks.
The museum will also release a limited number of same-day passes every morning at 8:30 am.
The new exhibits: what to see, touch and do at the National Air and Space Museum with kids
Each gallery has plenty to see, models to touch, levers to pull and interactive computer touch screen games. Note: the height of the displays and touch screens was comfortable for me and my grade school-aged buddy at the preview. But if you’re there with a toddler, prepare for a lot of “uppies” to lift your small explorer to see and touch the exhibits.
Here are some highlights at each of the eight galleries, including things you will not want to miss when visiting the National Air and Space Museum with kids.
1. Destination Moon
This expanded and updated gallery has two levels of exhibits exploring the origins of the race to the moon and what has happened since. The combination of nostalgia and futurism will likely make it one of the more popular exhibits for those who visit the museum. Check out a lunar rover “dune buggy” or touch models of spacesuit gloves. Find the first spacesuit worn on the moon and the moonboots that were the last human-worn objects to touch the moon in 1972.
2. Exploring the Planets
A massive immersive exhibit in the middle of this gallery invites visitors to stand surrounded by video screens and “travel” to seven locations throughout the galaxy. Destinations include Mars or Jupiter’s moon, Titan (look for the remnants of a probe that crashed there in 2005). Challenge your kids to explore the gallery and find the Mars meteorite and a Mars rover.
3. One World Connected
This gallery explores how satellites, travel and spaceflight connect the world. You can imagine you’re in the International Space Station in a mesmerizing model of the “cupola,” the domed hexagonal window where astronauts can get a view of Earth. Check out a massive globe with digital images that show global connections. (Find out what happens when you press the bird button!)
4. Nation of Speed
This new exhibit explores America’s obsession with speed, from racecars driven by Richard Petty and Mario Andretti to a “rocket sled” to rocket engines. In one display, kids can push a throttle or pedal for that thrill of watching a needle accelerate. Challenge them to find models of the cars from the Cars movies or Benny Scott’s California Sports Car Club Trophy. There’s even an Evel Kinevel pinball machine, where they can adjust ramps and launch a ball as if it were a motorbike. The pinball exhibit is likely to be a favorite… if it can hold up. The ball was already stuck during the press preview, which does not bode well for its endurance for millions of visitors a year.
5. Early Flight
This gallery explores plans and modes for early flight. You can’t miss the centerpiece, the 1909 Wright military flyer. It was hidden in the old gallery but is now center stage at eye-level. Also look for the Ecker flying boat and the parachute of the first woman to parachute out of an airplane. Kids can touch displays with models of different propellers, spin a radial rotary engine and play interactive computer games where they build or fly an airplane.
6. We All Fly
We All Fly explores general aviation. Check out aircraft on display: an “airphibian” that can go from road to air, a Lear jet, an acrobatic biplane, and yes, even a flying lawn chair. Larry’s Lawn Chair took flight in 1982 when 42 helium-filled weather balloons carried it aloft in San Pedro, California. Challenge kids to also find a delivery drone and the fabric helmet that belonged to Dale White. White was a Black aviator who made the case for African American participation in flight training in the 1930s.
7. Wright Brothers & the Invention of the Aerial Age
This updated exhibit displays an original Wright bicycle, a 1903 Wright flyer, and the stopwatch the brothers used to time their first flights. Touchable displays include levers kids can push to see how wings warp and an interactive touch screen to listen to music influenced by flight.
8. America by Air
This exhibit in the downstairs hall of the museum is very similar to the former display on the history of air passenger travel. You can walk through a Douglas DC-7 or look at stewardess fashion from the 1960s. An interactive touchscreen lets kids attempt to deliver airmail.
The planetarium is in the same place it was before, on the second floor of the museum. But otherwise, everything is new about it. The new projector and sound system offer state of the art digital displays. The old projector was a classic from West Germany (yes, it is that old). It will soon move to a display at the Udvar Hazy as its own relic.
Two planetarium programs will rotate as the museum opens: “Worlds Beyond Earth” and “Dark Universe.” Each one is less than thirty minutes long. Tickets will be available on a walk-up basis from the desk in front of the planetarium. And for all the fans of the free kids program the planetarium used to have: “One World, One Sky: Big Bird’s Adventure” (affectionately known in my household as “Elmo Stars”): museum staff assure me it will return eventually. (It is possible “Elmo Stars” was the first thing I asked about.)
Human needs on Earth: food, bathrooms, nursing rooms and souvenirs
Now for the exhibit you know you’ll need at the Air and Space Museum with kids: bathrooms. There are bathrooms and changing tables on every level. Additionally, the basement level of the museum has a companion care bathroom with a full adult-sized changing table for guests with special needs. And in a beautiful move for parents of infants, there are several private nursing rooms downstairs. Each has a chair and outlet. (I could have used that in my peak “Elmo Stars” days.) Further, there are quiet rooms on the basement level for anyone who needs a break after the sensory overload of all those pinball games and interactive touch-screens.
Food, drink and astronaut ice cream
Food and drink are not permitted in the museum, so you might want to hand out snacks before your arrival time. There is a Mars Cafe on the basement level with coffee, pastries and a small selection of sandwiches in the $10-$15 range. There will be a larger restaurant with more options in the next phase of the museum.
The gift shop is amazing and nearly unavoidable, with entrances on all three levels. It has books, science kits, games, LEGO, shirts and the classic souvenir astronaut ice cream.
What is your favorite part when you visit the National Air and Space Museum with kids? Visit it and other icons on the National Mall! Check out our 10 Tips to visit the Washington Monument with kids. Or add the National Air and Space Museum with kids to one of our perfect DC itineraries.