How can objects and collections help us understand the past and present? What kind of stories do they tell?

This month, we will explore this question, and show you how to discover more about your family story through objects and photos.

Jump to Section:     Anytime Activities

The Smithsonian Institution has been around for 175 years and has grown into the world's largest museum complex. The National Air and Space Museum, whose building opened in 1976, is just one of the Smithsonian's 21 museums.

We have the world's largest collection of objects related to aviation and space. The Museum's collection encompasses some 60,000 objects ranging in size from Saturn V rockets taller than 30-story buildings and jetliners that can fit hundreds of people to space helmets to microelectronics. One-third of the Museum's aircraft and spacecraft are one-of-a-kind or associated with a major milestone!

Our museum's mission is to "Commemorate, Educate, and Inspire" and our collections help us do that!

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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.

A painting on board the U.S.S. Hornet, “There!,” shows the seamen pointing to the sky, seeing the Columbia command module descending on its parachute.

This is a Saturn 1 Block 1 test launch vehicle, examples of which successfully launched during 1961-1963. The Saturn 1 was the basic test vehicle that led to the development of the Saturn V that carried men to the Moon for Project Apollo. The Block 1 second and third stages had dummy stages. The Block 2 differed in having a live upper stage and fins on its first stage.
To save money in its development, the Saturn 1 used existing hardware. The first was assembled from a lengthened Jupiter missile tank in the center with eight lengthened Redstone missile tanks around it. This Saturn 1 was transferred to the Smithsonian from the NAS/Marsahall Space Flight Center in 1980.

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The first supersonic airliner to enter service, the Concorde flew thousands of passengers across the Atlantic at twice the speed of sound for over 25 years. Designed and built by Aérospatiale of France and the British Aviation Corporation, the graceful Concorde was a stunning technological achievement that could not overcome serious economic problems.

In 1976 Air France and British Airways jointly inaugurated Concorde service to destinations around the globe. Carrying up to 100 passengers in great comfort, the Concorde catered to first class passengers for whom speed was critical. It could cross the Atlantic in fewer than four hours - half the time of a conventional jet airliner. However its high operating costs resulted in very high fares that limited the number of passengers who could afford to fly it. These problems and a shrinking market eventually forced the reduction of service until all Concordes were retired in 2003.

In 1989, Air France signed a letter of agreement to donate a Concorde to the National Air and Space Museum upon the aircraft's retirement. On June 12, 2003, Air France honored that agreement, donating Concorde F-BVFA to the Museum upon the completion of its last flight. This aircraft was the first Air France Concorde to open service to Rio de Janeiro, Washington, D.C., and New York and had flown 17,824 hours.

This Lunar Extra-Vehicular Visor Assembly (LEVA) was worn by astronaut David Scott, Commander of the Apollo 15 lunar mission to the Hadley Rille in July/August, 1971.

The A7-LB Lunar Extravehicular Visor Assembly consisted of a polycarbonate shell onto which the cover, visors, hinges, eyeshades and latch are attached. It consisted of two visors, one covered with a thermal control coating and the other with a gold optical coating. It had one center and two side sunshields which could be raised and lowered independently of the other two visors. This visor was worn over the pressure helmet and fastened with a latch during EVA periods and provided impact, micrometeoroid, thermal, ultraviolet and infrared light protection.

During the Cold War aerospace and defense electronics firms occasionally attempted to apply their expertise to commercial products. In the early 1970s, General Electric applied its expertise in a special area of electronic miniaturization called "thick film hybrid integrated circuits" (originally developed for use in missiles and satellites) to help improve the first generation of cardiac pacemakers.

This collection of artifacts represents the development and manufacturing process of building a pacemaker. The micro-electronics (thick film hybrid integrated circuits) were placed inside the metal casings, which were then hermetically sealed. These circuits were the key technology of the pacemaker, sensing heart rhythms and sending out signals to stimulate the heart when needed during abnormal activity.

Lockheed Martin donated these artifacts to the Museum in 1998.

Anytime Activities

Activity: Images and Photos Tell Stories

Just like reading a book, images can tell us a lot about what is happening at a certain point in time. Learn how to study an image and then give it a try yourself!

Step 1: Watch

Get an introduction to reading images from space history curator, Jennifer Levasseur.

Watch how one of our curators emeritus, Tom Crouch, "reads" a famous historical photo - the Wright Brother's First Flight.

Think about it!

  • What kind of information did Curator Crouch point out in the photo?
  • Did you notice that he used a combination of things he knew already and things he observe in the image?

Step 2: Learn

Follow these tips on how to "read" a photo:

  • Use stick notes or make notes on a copy of the photo you want to study, so you don't ruin the original image.
  • Read the image like you would read a page in a book. Start at the upper left corner and move across the image. 
  • Label things that stand out to you or that you think are important. 
  • If you don't know what something is, circle it and add a question mark so you can ask someone about it later. 

Step 3: Practice on a famous photo

This image from the first moon mission, Apollo 11, is one of the most popular historical images. The astronaut in the image is Buzz Aldrin and he's standing on the moon!

Try to note and observe 5 things on the photo.

Step 4: Compare

Watch this video and compare your reading to one of our curators, space history curator, Jennifer Levasseur.

Step 5: Read a family image

Now practice "reading" one of your family photos!

Think about it!

  • What can you find out about your family from looking at photos looking more closely and paying attention to details?
  • If you have questions, ask your family members. It's a nice way of remembering moments in your family timeline. 

Activity: Objects Tell Stories

Museums collect objects that tell stories about people in history, or to remember moments in time so we can learn and prepare for the future. The National Air and Space Museum has some unexpected objects in our collections because they tell stories about air and space history. Scroll through the carousel to learn more!

Col. Pamela Melroy gave this scrunchie to the Museum after she had used it as a Space Shuttle pilot astronaut on missions to the International Space Station in 2000 and 2002. A scrunchie - like clips, barettes, or rubber bands - keeps hair tidy and under control. According to NASA policy, while they are in space astronauts should confine long hair in a ponytail, braids, or other manner to keep it from floating free and becoming tangled in equipment or posing a nuisance. This guideline has affected only the women astronauts, as no male astronauts have had long hair. The scrunchie is thus an emblem of small but noticeable changes that occurred when women entered the workplace in space.

Pamela Melroy donated this hair accessory to the Museum in 2004.

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This Dunlop Maxply tennis racquet belonged to Dr. Sally K. Ride. Ride took her first tennis lesson when she was nine years old, and she quickly became a talented and dedicated player. She entered the private Westlake School for Girls in Los Angeles in 1965 on a partial tennis scholarship and also went on to become a nationally-ranked tennis player as an undergraduate at Swarthmore College and Stanford University. In 1970, she briefly considered becoming a professional player, but decided to concentrate on a career in science instead.

Sally Ride became the first American woman in space when she flew on the STS-7 shuttle mission in 1983. Her second and last space mission was STS-41G in 1984. A physicist with a Ph.D., she joined the astronaut corps in 1978 in the first class of astronauts recruited specifically for the Space Shuttle Program. Viewed as a leader in the NASA community, she served on the Rogers Commission after the Challenger accident in 1986 and the Columbia Accident Investigation Board in 2003. She also led the task force that produced a visionary strategic planning report in 1987, titled “NASA Leadership and America’s Future in Space” but known popularly as the "Ride Report."

After she left NASA in 1987, Dr. Ride taught first at Stanford and later at the University of California, San Diego, where she also served as the director of the California Space Institute. Until her death in 2012, she was president and CEO of Sally Ride Science, a company she founded to promote science education.

Dr. Ride’s partner, Dr. Tam O’Shaughnessy, donated the tennis racket to the Museum in 2013.

This Buzz Lightyear toy flew to the International Space Station in 2008 through an educational initiative developed by NASA with Disney•Pixar, as part of NASA's broader "Toys in Space" project. The toy flew aboard the Space Shuttle Discovery twice (up on STS-124 and down on STS-128) and spent 15 months aboard the ISS, where it was featured occasionally on down-linked videos for the project. At the same time, Disney•Pixar gave NASA permission to use the character in on-line educational interactives and hard-copy hand-outs to promote science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) learning.

The actual toy that flew in space came from James Wardle, son of the Disney team member who coordinated the program with NASA. Unable to locate a Buzz Lightyear toy when he needed to ship one to NASA, Duncan Wardle found this one under his son's bed and sent that. The Wardle family donated the space-flown toy to the Museum in 2012.

Charles A. Lindbergh and his wife, Anne Morrow Lindbergh, flew in their Lockheed Sirius aircraft on two significant missions, one in 1931 and the other in 1933. The first flight in 1931 was to the Orient. This flight successfully proved the viability of using the great circle to navigate from the West to the East via the North. In 1933 the Lindberghs again flew the Sirius across the Atlantic, this time on survey flights to gather valuable information for planning commercial air transport routes for the North and South Atlantic.

Upon returning in late 1933, Charles Lindbergh donated the aircraft and the material support items to the American Museum of Natural History in New York City where they were displayed in the Hall of Ocean Life. When the museum deaccessioned the collection it was sent to the United States Air Force Museum. In 1959 it was decided that the aircraft did not represent the Air Force and the collection was then transferred to the Smithsonian Institution's Air Museum. Every possible space of the aircraft was utilized to carry supplies during the flights.

The objects in this collection are representative of these mission support and personal items carried. These objects serve to illustrate the essential equipment that would have been taken on international exploratory flights during the 1920s and 1930s.

Try it Yourself!

Step 1: Choose one of these options to get started:

Option 1: Find an object in your home or a family member's home that you are curious about.

Option 2: Ask a family member to choose an object that is special to them.

Step 2: Interview your family member about it. Here are some sample questions to ask:

  • Where did you get the object from?
  • Why is it special to you?

Explore Smithsonian Open Access

At Smithsonian Open Access, you can search nearly 3 million 2D and 3D images and use them however you want to use them, without permission from the Smithsonian! Watch this video to learn more and then start exploring at

Soar Together @ Air and Space is made possible by the generous support of Northrop Grumman.