When the United States was founded, 200 years before the National Air and Space Museum opened, the existence of this museum wasn’t a given. If you had told George Washington and Benjamin Franklin that one day, the nation’s capital would be home to a national museum of human flight and space, they probably would have stared at you blankly. What would go in it? At the time of our nation’s founding, we only knew about six planets in our solar system and couldn’t have dreamed of visiting them. Humans didn’t take to the sky untethered in a hot air balloon until seven years later, in 1783 We didn’t get to space until 1961.
The idea of a museum to celebrate our achievements in flight and what John Milton’s Paradise Lost called “space,” would have seemed ridiculous to the founding fathers—laughable. A museum to celebrate our achievements in flight and space would have been an idea that defied common expectations, defied logic, and defied imagination.
The stories we celebrate here at the Museum are of ideas that similarly defied. Behind every artifact is a story that begins with an improbable dream, overwhelming odds, or limited expectations.
They defied preconceptions. In 1921, Bessie Coleman became the first African American woman to earn a pilot’s license. This was a time when society said that women weren't supposed to fly airplanes, but Coleman wasn’t going to let that stop her. When it proved impossible to get her pilot’s license in the United States, she moved to France to make it happen.
They defied technological odds. When Wilbur Wright watched his brother’s first 12-second flight, he probably never would have imagined that a technological marvel like the SR-71 Blackbird was possible. It could fly Mach 3.3, and unlike other aircraft that may have been able to approach that speed, could maintain it for long periods of time. In fact, the Blackbird on display at our Udvar-Hazy Center in Virginia set a speed record when it flew its final flight to the Museum from Los Angeles to Washington, DC, in 1 hour, 4 minutes, and 20 seconds, averaging 2,124 miles per hour.
They defied imagination. For millennia, humans looked at the Moon, and wondered what was up there. Children told tales about the man on the Moon. The first science fiction film ever made, Georges Méliès’ 1902 “Le Voyage dans la Lune,” follows a group of astronomers on an expedition to the Moon. On July 20, 1969, what once seemed the stuff of dreams became reality when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin took their first steps on the Moon.
The National Air and Space Museum is full of ideas that defy. Ideas that defy any obstacle, ideas that defy our expectations, ideas that literally defy gravity. Follow us as we discover the remarkable, the audacious, the outrageous, the #IdeasThatDefy.