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Excerpt from The Book of Flight : The Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum

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Imagine a time when people only dreamed of flying, when the sight of a jet streaking across the sky would have been astounding, and the idea of launching a rocket into space too fantastic to comprehend. You may be surprised to learn that time was not very long ago. It is possible that someone you know was born before airliners and jets even existed.

The stories you are about to read -- and the amazing pictures you will see -- capture the wonder and excitement of a history that is still unfolding. At the dawn of the 20th century, the first powered aircraft took to the skies. By the century's end, the International Space Station was on its way to becoming a reality. In the first years of the new millennium, engineers are developing reusable space vehicles, designing airplanes that will fly at five times the speed of sound and exploring a human mission to Mars.

The pioneers of flight paved the way for a future filled with adventure and achievement, a fact demonstrated every day at the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum. Filled with history-making aircraft and spacecraft, the Museum brings to life the work of the inventors and scientists who created them, portrays the courageous aviators and astronauts who flew them and explains how our world is changing because of the progress in aviation and space exploration. The Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum Book of Flight celebrates the Museum's famous collection and reveals highlights of its many exhibitions.

In the following pages, for example, you will be introduced to two brothers -- Wilbur and Orville Wright. As children they made and flew kites. When they got older they designed and built bicycles. Soon they were able to put their mechanical skills to use in achieving their dream: On December 17, 1903, on a windswept beach near Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, they flew the first powered airplane into the history books. Millions of people come to see the original Wright Flyer at the National Air and Space Museum every year

People also come to the Museum to see other early airplanes like the Spirit of St. Louis. In it, a 25-year-old airmail pilot named Charles Lindbergh flew nonstop from New York to Paris in 1927, a 33 1/2 hour flight that six other pilots died trying to achieve. Five years later, Amelia Earhart became the first woman pilot to fly solo across the Atlantic. Her bright red Lockheed Vega sits in the Museum's Pioneers of Flight gallery.

Aviation's powerful influence on world history is shown in exhibits that describe military activities over the decades. In the Book of Flight, you'll learn all about famous battles and discover how the first bombers and fighter planes worked. You will meet heroes like America's World War I flying ace, Captain Eddie Rickenbacker, as well as other military legends such as Baron Manfred von Richthofen, also known as the "Red Baron." (Do you know what famous cartoon character is still waging war on the Red Baron? Look for the answer in one of the book's many Fun Facts.)

The courage of World War II fliers is shown in the inspiring story of the Tuskegee Airmen, the first African-American fighter pilots. This skilled and daring group fought against great odds to defend our country on two fronts -- against the enemy in Europe and against racial prejudice in this country.

By the middle of the 20th century, aircraft designers were focusing on speed. Suspended from the Museum's ceiling is the Bell X-1, a bright orange, bullet-shaped plane equipped with a rocket engine. In 1947 an American test pilot named Chuck Yeager accelerated it to 700 miles per hour to break the sound barrier for the first time.

It was not long after this milestone that the race to conquer space was on. In 1962 America's effort to orbit the earth was successful. Astronaut John Glenn's Mercury Friendship 7 capsule is now on display in the Milestones of Flight gallery. Other Museum exhibits trace the expansion and progress of space exploration, as well as the science and technology behind the breakthroughs. Hundreds of displays and artifacts -- rockets, capsules, tools, vehicles, equipment, space suits, even space food -- tell this continuing story.

One of the National Air and Space Museum's most popular displays features a rock from the Moon. This four-billion-year-old sample was taken from the lunar surface in 1972 by astronauts participating in the Apollo 17 mission.

Since it opened on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. in 1976, the Air and Space Museum has welcomed more than 212 million people. The world's most visited museum, it is the length of three city blocks and has exhibitions on two floors. Amazingly, however, there is room for only 10 percent of the national collection of aviation and space artifacts. For this reason, the museum is constructing a new building that will be large enough to display an additional 80 percent of the collection.

In December 2003, we will celebrate the 100th anniversary of Wilbur and Orville Wright's historic flight will be celebrated by opening the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center at Washington Dulles International Airport. This amazing facility will be ten stories high and three football fields long. It is named for the man who provided a major contribution to help construct it.

Visitors to the Udvar-Hazy Center will be able to walk among artifacts on the floor and also along elevated "skyways" to view hanging aircraft. Many engines, rockets, satellites, helicopters, airliners and experimental flying machines will be displayed for the first time in a museum setting. Over 200 aircraft and 135 spacecraft will be on view, including the prototype space shuttle Enterprise and the SR-71 Blackbird, the world's fastest airplane.

There will be an observation tower overlooking Dulles air traffic, plus restaurants and shops. Visitors will also be able to enjoy exciting movies in a large-screen theater, and ride thrilling simulators.

As the Director of the National Air and Space Museum, I feel I am one of the luckiest men on the planet. I not only have the chance to be in the world's most fascinating museum everyday, I also know what it is like to be in the cockpit, having served for many years as a Marine Corps pilot. In addition, I was privileged to continue my flying and play a role in the space program by working at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

Although my career has included many roles, the one I care most about is being a father and grandfather. It is for this reason that I want to preserve and share the magnificent history and technology of aviation and space exploration ith and others.

Over the past century, we have come a long way. But for future generations, the best is yet to come.

General John R. "Jack" Dailey, USMC (Ret)
National Air and Space Museum

--From The Book of Flight : The Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, by Judith E. Rinard. © September 2001, Firefly Books used by permission.

Retail Price: $24.95 Price: $17.46
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Format: Paperback  128pp
ISBN: 1552095991
Publisher: Firefly Books
Pub. Date: September 2001
Item No: 9599-1

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