Science fiction allows us to imagine what happened a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, or to boldly go where no one has gone before.

Through science fiction, we're able to explore new frontiers in science, innovation, and society. 

Jump to a Section:   Early Works       Space Race Begins       Human Spaceflight Begins       Space Exploration Continues       Science Fiction Over Time      Activities for Families

Jump to a Work:   Star Trek       2001: A Space Odyssey      Star Wars

Early Works

Long before we went to space, we imagined what space would be like (or for space to come to us). 

Object Highlight Ray Gun from Buck Rogers

Buck Rogers first appeared in the pulp magazine Amazing Stories in August 1928 as "Anthony Rogers." Renamed "Buck" to tap into the popularity of Westerns, Rogers eventually had his own comic strip, radio program, and television show.

When Daisy Manufacturing Co. introduced this first Buck Rogers metal gun for 50¢ in 1934, its popularity sparked a brief price war between Macy's and Gimbel's department stores. 

More About the Price War
Podcast Episode War of the Worlds

It’s Halloween eve, 1938, and you're listening to the radio. Suddenly, the broadcast is interrupted by breaking news. First, a report of explosions on Mars, then news of a meteorite landing in New Jersey, and suddenly a correspondent is attacked live on air by a Martian heat ray!

Obvious spoiler: there was no Martian attack. What actually happened might surprise you.

Listen to the Podcast Episode

As the Space Race Begins

Late 1940s and 1950s

While the United States and the Soviet Union competed to achieve new feats in space; authors, artists, and other creatives were crafting new stories about the possibilities of space.

What was the Space Race? 
The Space Race grew out of the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union. The two superpowers competed for supremacy in a global struggle that touched a variety of areas from military might to consumer goods. Space was a crucial arena for this rivalry. Each side sought to demonstrate its superiority through impressive feats in rocketry and spaceflight. 

More About the Space Race

Science Fiction Writers in the 1940s and 1950s Ray Bradbury

Bradbury's 1950 novel, The Martian Chronicles, was a major source of inspiration for geologist John Grant.   

Arthur C. Clarke

By 1951, Arthur C. Clarke had gained respect as both a fiction and non-fiction writer. 

As Humans Begin to Go to Space

1960s and 1970s

When humans went to actual outer space, on Earth we imagined new stories for people (and aliens) in fictional space. Some of our most popular and enduring works of science fiction were born in the 1960s and 1970s.

Who were the first humans in space?
On April 12, 1961, Yuri Gagarin became the first human in space. Alan Shepard became the first American in space less than a month later. From the United States, the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo programs would send many more astronauts into space in the coming years, ultimately leading to humans walking on the Moon.

More About the Mercury Program   More About the Gemini Program   More About the Apollo Program

Star Trek

Star Trek became one of the most influential shows in television history. 

Premiering in 1966, the original series depicts a racially-integrated, multinational crew of men and women aboard the starship Enterprise working together as they travel the cosmos.

The show's plot, including its attention to contemporary social and political issues, pushed the boundaries of network television, earning Star Trek a dedicated fan base. Even though the original series only lasted three seasons, fans lobbied for the franchise's continuation. And continue it did, with several spin-off series, a film franchise, and more.

Learn More about Star Trek
Conservation Project Starship Enterprise Studio Model

This 11 foot model of the starship Enterprise was used in the filming of the original Star Trek series. In 2016, after extensive research and meticulous conservation, the model was restored to its appearance at the end of filming for the original television series.

More About This Object

Conserving the Starship

2001: A Space Odyssey

When viewers filed into the seats to see 2001: A Space Odyssey for the first time in 1968, they saw astronaut David Bowman travel on a voyage to Jupiter. (Spoiler alert: Things don’t quite go as planned—including a famous face off with HAL, the spaceship's computer.) 

Director Stanley Kubrick based the film on Arthur C. Clarke’s short story “The Sentinel” and the two men wrote the screenplay together. The novel version of 2001: A Space Odyssey, written by Clarke, was not published until after the film debuted.

How was the film received?
Legacy of 2001: A Space Odyssey Reading Space Odyssey in Orbit Why Is It Still So Relevant? HAL and Its Real-Life Computer Counterparts What were computers really like in the 1960s and 1970s? From Advising on the Movie to Pioneering AI

Star Wars

In 1977, Star Wars: A New Hope became one of the biggest box office hits of all time. It was the first installment of the Star Wars series, which introduced generations of fans to space as a setting for adventure and exploration.

Star Wars takes place a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away and explores our heroes' fight against the evil Empire.

The original trilogy of Star Wars movies may have been about taking down one empire, but it sparked another dynasty—one that continued in several movies, television shows, books, and more. 

Learn More about Star Wars
Object Highlight T-70 X-Wing Starfighter

A T-70 X-wing Starfighter hangs amidst a variety of real-life aircraft and spacecraft in the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, DC. The full-sized vehicle, with a wingspan of 37 feet, appeared in Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker and is on long-term loan from Lucasfilm.

More Works from the 1960s and 1970s

Object Highlight Close Encounters of the Third Kind

This is the model of the alien Mother Ship used in the filming of the 1977 movie directed by Stephen Spielberg. The ship was made using model train parts and other kits. When filmed with special photographic and lighting effects, the model appears to be a huge, hovering craft.

More about the Mother Ship
Visionary Writers in the 1960s and 1970s Gerard K. O'Neill

Princeton University physicist and spaceflight visionary, O’Neill published his ideas about populated orbiting space stations beginning in the 1970s.

More About O'Neill

Explore O'Neill's Papers in our Archives

Octavia Butler

Butler realized that science fiction, which was dominated by white male authors, lacked representation of her lived experiences as a Black woman in America—so she wrote herself into the genre.

More About Butler

See Butler's Typewriter in the Anacostia Community Museum's Collection

As Space Exploration Continues

As humans continue to explore space, science fiction continues to develop new ideas and imaginings of what we might find in the cosmos, and how it might affect life on Earth. 

AirSpace Movie Club

Join the hosts of our AirSpace podcast to take a closer look at the sci-fi movies they love. 


This 1982 French graphic novel, turned 2013 Korean action film, and now 2020 television series, is set in a post-apocalyptic world where all that is left of humanity is endlessly circling the globe in a train.


Revisit this 1998 film and take a look at our favorite inaccuracies and a few things that seemed ridiculous, but actually turned out to be true.

Galaxy Quest

This 1999 film has it all: sci-fi, action, and comedy, an underdog who saves the day, and feel good story with space aliens! 

The Core

Revisit this 2003 star-studded movie to explore its questionable science, and why it's still a favorite. 

Science Fiction Over Time

Take a deep dive with us to look at science fiction over time, exploring movements like Afrofuturism or themes from how we've explored Mars to reimagining gender and sexuality. 


An important part of science fiction, Afrofuturism is the reframing and reimagining of the past, present, and future through a global Black lens rooted in the African diaspora.

A multi-media movement focused on issues of social justice and equity, it centers African and African American contributions to the advancement of science, technology, and culture and is often explored through music, art, and literature. 

Learn More about Afrofuturism

Voyage to Mars Sci-Fi Mix Tape

Humans may have not set foot on Mars (yet) in real life, but in literature we’ve been exploring the Red Planet for centuries. Tune into our literary mixtape of Martian-themed sci-fi set to music by DJ Kid Koala.

Queer Worldbuilding in Sci-Fi

Sci-fi writers often create entirely new civilizations where our social constructions can be upended and examined, or just thrown out entirely. They can literally rewrite a world in terms of gender, sexuality, and culture.

Activities for Families

Creating Imaginary Worlds From Science Fiction to Everyday Life