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The United States is a nation of speed. Speed shrinks distances and alters our perception of time.

We have shaped our lives and our world by embracing technologies that shatter time and distance. With ships and railroads, then cars, aircraft, and spacecraft, we overcame constraints of the natural world to reach across continents and into space, while also connecting with others around the globe.  

Can speed be both fast and slow?

Yes! While you might get a speeding ticket for driving too fast, even a slow tricycle has a speed. Speed is a measure of how far you move over a given time—like miles per hour (mph) or kilometers per hour (km/h). 

A Grumman F-14A Tomcat emerging from a vapor cone as it breaks the sound barrier on February 14, 1987.

Why do we always try to reach faster speeds?

The thrill of speed begins as an elemental human response. The heart races. The blood rises. And then the mind sprints ahead to imagine ever-faster speeds and technologies needed to reach them. Competition in the marketplace, battlefield, and sporting arena spurred the pursuit of speed, both nationally and globally. This is not uniquely American, but there is no doubt that we are of a nation of speed.

Do you have a personal connection with a particular vehicle?

While most people may have never owned their own aircraft or spacecraft, they likely have spent a fair amount of time in a car. In particular, Americans have many stories to share about personal travel and speed on the road. After World War II, owning a car or motorcycle was a major source of pride and identity in the United States. For many manufacturers, their initial entrée or continuing success in the American market was facilitated by the popularity and performance of fast vehicles. 

Cars, aircraft, and spacecraft all have one thing in common: speed.

Read about 5 connections

Connecting Our World 

The large size of the United States has motivated Americans to find faster ways to travel its vast distances. They’ve been driven by financial aims and also by larger ambitions that inspire people to invent time- and distance-shattering technologies to travel the country, the globe, and beyond. We’ve used speed to connect our world across the water and on roads and highways, but perhaps one of the most innovative ways we have leveraged speed is by flying the air and soaring through space. 

In the Air

One area where people experience the impact speed has on our lives is through commercial aviation and passenger flight. But speed in the air can also be experienced through a multitude of other ways, such as air racing and military aircraft.

Speeding through the sky, Americans have quenched their need for speed for well over a century. Air Racing

Daredevil sportspeople have raced their frail contraptions since the early flight era around 1909. After World War I, air racing transformed from an individual to an organized sport. American and European military teams competed for international prestige and the advancement of technology. During the Great Depression, enthusiasts took easily available technologies and built air racers, seeking fame and fortune. Since World War II, the sport has evolved to be ultra-competitive, dominated by purpose-built air racers and heavily modified fighter aircraft.

Learn more about air racing
Commercial airlines accelerated the pace of travel. In hours, not days, people could journey coast to coast or across oceans

The country’s vast geographic expanse motivated the push for increased speed and distance. New technologies boosted airplanes to fly higher, faster, and farther.

Learn more about passenger flight
Making Passenger Flight Even Faster The Concorde and the Future of Supersonic Flight

Fifty years after the Concorde first flew, a new era of innovation and entrepreneurial ideas seeks to make supersonic flight practical and sustainable. Flying passengers at twice the speed of sound, the Concorde captured the imagination of millions, but was retired in 2003 — so what's next for supersonic flight? In this video, explore the past and future of supersonic flight.

As the fastest jet aircraft in the world, the Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird has an impressive collection of records and history of service

In 1976, the Blackbird broke the world’s record for sustained altitude in horizontal flight at 25,929 meters (85,069 feet). That same day another SR-71 set an absolute speed record of 3,529.6 kilometers per hour (2,193.2 miles per hour), approximately Mach 3.3.

Read about the creation of the Blackbird

Explore More Stories About Speed in the Air

Howard Hughes and the World’s Fastest Land Plane

Famous film producer and entrepreneur, Howard Hughes, set his sights on building the world's fastest land plane. The result was the sleek Hughes H-1 Racer, which broke the world speed record in 1935, and later the US transcontinental speed record in 1937. 

The Powerful and Fast P-51 Mustang

The P-51 Mustang was originally designed for the Royal Air Force. However, it became a long-range escort fighter for the U.S. armed forces against Nazi Germany. The production process was efficient and quick; about 14,000 were built during WWII. It was a powerful and fast aircraft with extensive range. The P-51 Mustang was stiff competition for the Luftwaffe. 

The Bell X-1 in 3D See 3D scan Sleeker and Faster: The Impact of the Full Scale Wind Tunnel About the wind tunnel The Man Behind High-Speed Safety Standards About Col. John Stapp Landing a Really Fast Plane on a Really Big Boat Watch STEM in 30 episode

In Space

In the mid-to-late 20th century, advances in rocket engine technology sent astronauts to live and work in space and to explore the Moon. These engines also propelled unmanned spacecraft through the solar system and beyond, at speeds and distances previously left to the imagination. 

A Soviet Moonshot? Read Vasily Mishin's diaries Building a Moon Rocket About building the rocket Looking Closer at the Saturn V About the Saturn V Taking Speed to New Horizons

Launched in 2006 to study Pluto, the New Horizons probe became the fastest man-made object to escape Earth’s gravity. It passed the Moon’s orbit in only nine hours, a record! 

Read about the origins of the first mission to Pluto
Taking the Fast Lane to Orbit The Technology of Rockets and Race Cars

Many of the technologies used in NASCAR are the same as those used in space travel, and many of the forces that keep a plane in the air also keep a race car on the road. Join us on STEM in 30 from the NASCAR Hall of Fame in Charlotte, North Carolina and look at the crossover between these forces and technologies.

People of Speed

Meet some of the people who have made speed their job.

Betty Browning About Browning Jacqueline Cochran About Cochran Glenn Curtiss About Curtiss Christine Darden About Darden Darryl Greenamyer About Greenamyer Neal Loving About Loving Ruth Nichols About Nichols The Sharps About the Sharps Louise Thaden About Thaden Roscoe Turner About Turner

Speed in Our Culture

A fascination with speed runs through our national culture. Music, film, and literature reflect Americans' desire to take off and watch the world race by. Fans of speed get their fix by attending things like airshows, rocket launches, or NASCAR races. All of this reminds us that we are a nation of speed.

Heading For...Out There Imagining Faster-Than-Light Travel

The idea that characters can fly from planet to planet, or star to star, defying current science and technology, is central to science fiction. Although some of these ideas predated the space age, after the 1950s, fictional depictions of space travel needed to suggest conceivable ways to cross interstellar distances to seem plausible. Some authors suggested faster-than-light drives, hyper drives, jump drives, worm holes, and black holes.

About traveling faster than light
Ford v. Ferrari Reminds Us That We Are a Nation of Speed

Have you seen the movie Ford v. Ferrari? Hollywood has a long history of bringing to American audiences the drama, speed, and spectacle of international racing.  

About Ford v. Ferrari
Air Tractor AT-400A Dusty Crophopper

If you are a fan of Disney's Planes franchise, you might recognize this friendly face.

This Air Tractor AT-400A has been painted to resemble “Dusty Crophopper,” an agricultural plane who longs to become an air racer in the animated film Planes (2013) and a firefighter in the sequel Planes: Fire and Rescue (2014).

Dusty's desire to become an air racer reflects the need for speed that is a predominant feature of American culture. Alongside other air racers El Chupacabra and Ripslinger, Dusty and the movie Planes introduced the thrill and excitement of air racing to a new generation.

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More Objects in the Museum's Collection
Connected to Speed and Our Culture

Model, Star Trek, Starship Enterprise Object Toy, Space Port, Flash Gordon Object Rocket, Flying Model Kit, Titan IIIC, 1:100 Object Sneaking Through the Sound Barrier Object Camera, Motion Picture, Cine-Kodak Special, 16mm Object Toy, Captain Video, Supersonic Space Ship, Silver Object Express Wars '83 Object Toy, Tin Toy, "Moon Rocket" Object