Pennington Air and Space Project
From World War I to communications satellites that enable the use of smartphones, aviation and space exploration have been at the center of American history. Explore the Air and Space Museum to learn about the impact of aviation technology.
Develop your own tour of the Air and Space Museum by creating a Tackk page that highlights one artifact from each exhibit listed below. Include an image of the artifact, caption, background information, and explanation of the artifact's significance. Before you get started with research and museum exploration, watch the orientation video below.
The Wright brothers inaugurated the aerial age with their historic first flights at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, on December 17, 1903. The influence of their invention is beyond measure. The transport by air of goods and people, quickly and over great distances, and the military applications of flight technology have had vast economic, geopolitical, and cultural impact around the globe. The Wrights helped fashion a radically new world.
The first glimpses of what that world would become are reflected in the pioneer aircraft of the first decade after 1903 and the airplanes of World War I, when human flight began to come of age. In less than two decades, the airplane was transformed from an exciting new invention to a machine of practical utility, primed to become the defining technology of the 20th century.
Interwar Military Aviation
The airplane emerged from World War I recognized widely for its potential as a military weapon. In the United States, Army pilots and Navy and Marine aviators worked to realize their different visions of the airplane’s ultimate role in American defense.
These advocates faced institutional resistance and meager budgets. They also faced the danger of pushing the capabilities of a rapidly developing technology during regular operations, combat in foreign lands, and public flights that presented their visions to everyday Americans. Innovations in doctrine, organization, and technology resulted in the air forces that would fight World War II on a global scale.
The Museum’s collection of 1920s and 1930s military aircraft contains many one-of-a-kind and sole-surviving aircraft.
World War II Aviation
Facing a two-front war in Europe and the Pacific, the United States mobilized its vast human and industrial resources to achieve victory—a strategy that required the systematic use of air power. World War II became the global arena for a titanic struggle for control of the air. U.S. factories produced overwhelming numbers of fighter and bombers, and in both Europe and the Pacific, aviation proved crucial in tactical and strategic roles.
War-induced technological leaps in aircraft design and performance recast the nature of air warfare. Streamlined, all-metal fighters replaced wood and fabric biplanes. With remote-controlled guns, pressurized cabins, and powerful engines, the Boeing B-29 Superfortress became the most advanced bomber of its day. Late in the war, the relentless process of technical refinement culminated with the debut of jet aircraft.
World War II German Aviation
On September 1, 1939, as the ground forces of Nazi Germany swept into Poland and precipitated World War II, bombers of the Luftwaffe, the German air force, conducted the war’s first air strikes. During the next year, the Luftwaffe played a principal role in the German Blitzkrieg conquest of almost all of Western Europe. These early successes spurred the perception that the German war machine, including the Luftwaffe, was invincible.
Yet less than six years later, despite having produced extraordinarily advanced aircraft and weaponry, Germany lay totally defeated, its cities in ruins, and its air force destroyed as an effective instrument of war.
The story of the rise and fall of the Luftwaffe illustrates not only the effective use of airpower and expansion of industrial output under difficult conditions, but also the effects of faulty military strategy and mismanagement of aircraft development programs. It also underscores the consequences of the German belief that advanced technology could prevent defeat in the face of overwhelming Allied numerical and material superiority.
Cold War Aviation
After World War II ended, the United States and the Soviet Union began competing for primacy in a global struggle pitting democracy against communism. Tensions between the two superpowers led to such confrontations as the Berlin blockade, the downing of an American U-2 spy plane, and the Cuban Missile Crisis. "Hot" wars erupted in Korea and Vietnam.
Aerial reconnaissance played an important role in this struggle. To supersede its U-2 spy plane, Lockheed developed the top-secret, stealthy SR-71 Blackbird, the world's fastest jet-propelled aircraft, one of which is displayed here. The Cold War ended with the peaceful collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, and relations between the former adversaries began to warm.
Korea and Vietnam Aviation
Aerial attacks during the Korean and Vietnam wars involved limited campaigns waged with conventional weapons. The vast formations of heavy bombers common during World War II were seldom used. These wars were fought mainly by Allied ground forces assisted by U.S. Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps fighters and bombers, which provided close support and attacked enemy supply lines.
The helicopter came into its own during these conflicts. It excelled at evacuating wounded ground troops, and in Vietnam the Bell UH-1 Huey provided battlefield mobility in a new type of maneuver warfare. The Huey became the modern-day cavalry for the ground forces. Although air power did not play a decisive role in Korea or Vietnam, U.S. strategic air power did help deter the Soviet Union and China from expanding these wars into global conflicts.
Space science—science performed from vehicles that travel into Earth's upper atmosphere or beyond—covers a broad range of disciplines, from meteorology and geology, to lunar, solar, and planetary science, to astronomy and astrophysics, to the life sciences.
A relatively young field, space science blossomed in the latter half of the 20th century, so the Museum's collection focuses mainly on that period, and especially on objects flown in the atmosphere or in space. The space science objects on display include vehicles (balloons, sounding rockets, satellites, space probes, orbiters, landers), the scientific instruments they carried, and ground-based instruments or other examples of technology that support space science or illuminate its development, nature, or history.
Human spaceflight is one of the great achievements of the modern age. Not content to master flight in the atmosphere, inventors, engineers, scientists, and visionaries pressed ahead to explore space and developed the technology for human spaceflight. With varying degrees of political leadership and public support, the United States, Soviet Union/Russia, and other nations have made human spaceflight a priority.
Since the first venture into space by Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin in 1961, more than 500 men and women have flown in space, some staying months at a time. People have circled the Earth in small capsules and huge space shuttles. They have floated in open space, delivered satellites, conducted laboratory experiments, repaired space telescopes, and built a space station. Twenty-four men have flown to the Moon and back (three went twice), and twelve explored its landscape.
Able to operate freely from nearly any place on earth, helicopters come closer than any other aircraft to achieving the birdlike freedom humanity has always envied. However, the same technology that makes this possible also prevents the helicopter from achieving the speeds and payload capacity of airplanes performing similar functions.
The Autogiro, which used unpowered rotors to provide most of its lift, was the first successful rotary-wing aircraft. The first decades of the 20th century yielded helicopters that could fly, but only marginally. In World War II, refined versions performed medical evacuation and antisubmarine warfare. During the Korean and Vietnam wars, the helicopter finally emerged as an invaluable, and then essential, military tool. Notable technological innovations have occurred since then, and today helicopters are widely used in civilian roles as well.
From the beginning of the Space Age, people recognized that Earth-orbiting satellites—able to see and communicate across vast distances—promised unique benefits. In the tense years of the Cold War, such spacecraft (known as applications satellites) evolved down two separate paths: one devoted to national security needs, the other to civilian interests.
Today, hundreds of civilian and military applications satellites ring the Earth, often operating side-by-side in orbit. They provide similar services—communications, photography, remote sensing, weather analysis, and navigation—reaching different but occasionally overlapping communities of users. These satellites have become an integral part of contemporary life. We take for granted daily reports on weather as seen from space and television via satellite, and we have come to expect that satellites will be on alert to enhance national security.