Ten Artifacts That Transformed the World

Posted on Fri, July 15, 2016
  • by: Tim Grove, Chief of Museum Learning

“What is your favorite artifact?” When you work at a museum that is the question people always ask you. Most of my museum colleagues say it’s impossible to pick just one. I agree. Since I do not curate any collections, usually my favorites vary based on the exhibitions I’m working on. Most recently, I’ve been working on the Boeing Milestones of Flight Hall. For my new book, Milestones of Flight, based in part on the exhibition, I worked with the Museum’s curators to select 30 of some of the most iconic artifacts in our collection. Many of these soaring machines helped to transform the world, and make our planet smaller and our universe larger. Here are 10 of my favorites from the book.

1. 1903 Wright Flyer 

When you have the very first in the world, it tops the list. The Wright Flyer, the first heavier-than-air machine to achieve controlled, sustained flight with a pilot on board, flew in 1903, and every airplane since has incorporated the same basic design elements! The Wright brothers didn’t set out to change the world, they just wanted to solve a puzzle and figure out the challenge of flight.

1903 Wright Flyer First Flight, Kitty Hawk, N.C.

The 1903 Wright Flyer makes its first flight at Kitty Hawk, N.C., Dec. 17, 1903.

2. Spirit of St. Louis 

You can’t look at this airplane and not be awed by the feat of one man, Charles Lindbergh, flying it alone across the Atlantic Ocean in 1927. The fact that it has no windshield to allow for fuel storage is amazing. Even more incredible is that Lindbergh managed to stay awake for the 33 ½ hour trip, despite having been awake for 24 hours prior to takeoff! Add the fact that he didn’t carry a parachute or radio and you see why he became a worldwide hero. His achievement revealed the huge potential of air travel as a practical way to cover great distances. Lindbergh became a major proponent of airlines.

Lindbergh takes off from Roosevelt Field
Nearly a thousand people assembled at Roosevelt Field to see Charles Lindbergh off on his historic flight. Underwood and Underwood.

3. Douglas World Cruiser Chicago

This airplane tells a fascinating adventure story of a team of Army Air Corps pilots and mechanics striving against one obstacle after another to achieve the honor of being first to fly around the world. They beat teams from five other countries in the process. Four airplanes left the starting line, only two made it the whole way. Everyone survived.

Douglas World Cruisers in England

Crowds greeting the American airmen in the Douglas World Cruiser at Croydon, England.

4. Star Trek Starship Enterprise Studio Model

Images of this studio model zooming through space opened every episode of the popular 1960s TV show Star Trek (NBC, 1966-69). Although it isn’t a real spaceship, it’s important because it inspired all kinds of people worldwide to imagine the future of space. Many of them entered careers in aerospace industries. Conceived initially for one television program, the Enterprise became the ship from which a whole fictional universe of starships have been derived.

Star Trek Enterprise

5. Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird

For its coolness factor alone, the SR-71 makes the list. It was not only the fastest jet-propelled bird in the sky but also one of the most effective reconnaissance aircraft to fly. No reconnaissance aircraft in history has flown in more hostile airspace around the world. It could fly at speeds of 3,218 kilometers per hour (2,000 miles per hour) and more than 26 kilometers (16 miles) above the Earth. Its sleek streamlined shape allowed it to stay undetected in enemy airspace and its dark paint absorbed radio signals and helped camouflage it against the night sky. The Museum’s Blackbird flew from Los Angeles to Washington, DC in 1 hour, 4 minutes. (Located at the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center)

Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird

The Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird on display at the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center.

6. Discoverer 13 and Corona

The USA’s first photoreconnaissance satellite was top secret for decades. Discoverer 13 was the first human-made object recovered from orbit. Once it was operational, Corona’s camera shot a roll of film and the shiny gold film-return capsule parachuted through the sky and was snagged in mid-air by an Air Force C-119 plane. By the end of the Corona program in 1972, 145 Corona satellites had flown over and photographed the Soviet Union, China, and other nations. Discoverer 13 is on display at the Museum in Washington, DC, while Corona components are on display at the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Virginia.

Discoverer XIII Satellite Reentry Capsule

This is the Discoverer XIII reentry capsule which, along with the capsule cover and parachute, was recovered north of Hawaii by the U.S. Navy on August 11, 1960, the first man-made object to be recovered from orbit.

7. Mercury Friendship 7

This small spacecraft held one brave man, NASA astronaut John Glenn. He traveled three times around the Earth in just under five hours reaching speeds of more than 27,359 kilometers per hour (17,000 miles per hour). The first American to orbit the Earth was also first to see a sunrise and sunset in space and to take a photograph of the Earth. Friendship 7 traveled around the world one last time on a three-month world tour to promote the U.S. space program. Glenn became one of the most famous people in the world.

Mercury Capsule MA-6 <em>Friendship 7</em>

Mercury "Friendship 7" on display in the Boeing Milestones of Flight Hall at the Museum in Washington, DC.

8. SpaceShipOne

This white spaceplane with blue stars won the $10 million Ansari X Prize as a privately-built and financed vehicle to go into space in 2004. Its jointed wings pivoted into a “feathered” position to steady its reentry. It proved that a privately built and piloted craft could offer a new way to provide access to space and was a first step in the quest for commercial spaceflight.


SpaceShipOne, the first privately built and piloted vehicle to reach space.

9. Hubble Space Telescope Structural Dynamic Test Vehicle

The Hubble Space Telescope has sent back to Earth mesmerizing images of distant galaxies and stars being born. These images have captivated the world and helped to expand our knowledge of the universe. In 1990, the telescope’s story started out more dramatic than planned when Hubble initially sent back blurry images due to a flawed primary mirror. A dramatic astronaut mission to Hubble corrected the problem. The Museum’s Hubble Space Telescope was a test vehicle. The actual Hubble continues to send back images to Earth.

Hubble Test Telescope

The test telescope was used for a variety of tests, such as handling equipment and procedures checkout. It was also subjected to the same noise and vibration (structural dynamics) that the flight telescope would experience during launch, as well as the extreme temperatures to be encountered in space. Technicians used it as a testbed to lay out wiring harnesses and evaluate features that would enable the telescope to be repaired in orbit.

10. Space Shuttle Discovery

I’m partial to space shuttle orbiters because I was fortunate enough to witness a launch and to visit Launchpad 39A where Atlantis was being readied for launch. For 30 years, space shuttle orbiters, the world’s first reusable spacecraft, blasted into space on a variety of missions. They were the most complex space vehicles ever built. The Space Shuttle Program greatly expanded who could fly in space with women and members of minority groups becoming astronauts. 

Space Shuttle Discovery

The space shuttle Discovery is the centerpiece of the James S. McDonnell Space Hangar at the National Air and Space Museum's Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, VA.


Each of these artifacts made newspaper headlines in their day and have amazing stories to tell. If only they could talk. 

Milestones of Flight, the book, is published by Abrams Books for Young Readers and is targeted to ages 10-14.