Skip to Content


The thrill of discovery awaits you in the Smithsonian Learning Lab. From the Discovery space shuttle to the Star Spangled Banner to dinosaur fossils, the Learning Lab gives everyone with a desire to learn the opportunity to explore the Smithsonian's rich resources anytime, anywhere. Start discovering what interests you today, and find your inspiration from more than a million multimedia resources.

Suggested Discoveries

North American X-15

National Air and Space Museum
North American X-15, rocket powered experimental aircraft; black titanium skin with wedge shaped horizontal stablizer; yellow stripe NASA inisignia on tail with stars and red bars United States national insignia on wings; white letter text "U.S. AIR FORCE" on the sides of the fuselage.

The North American X-15 rocket-powered research aircraft bridged the gap between manned flight within the atmosphere and manned flight beyond the atmosphere into space. After completing its initial test flights in 1959, the X-15 became the first winged aircraft to attain velocities of Mach 4, 5, and 6 (four, five, and six times the speed of sound). Because of its high-speed capability, the X-15 had to be designed to withstand aerodynamic temperatures on the order of 1,200 degrees F.; as a result, the aircraft was fabricated using a special high-strength nickel alloy named Inconel X.

Air-launched from a modified Boeing B-52 Stratofortress aircraft, the X-15 required conventional aerodynamic control surfaces to operate within the atmosphere and special "thruster" reaction control rockets located in the nose and wings of the aircraft to enable the pilot to maintain control when flying on the fringes of space. Indeed, the X-15 design was so much like that of a space vehicle that during the formative days of Project Mercury, America’s first attempt to put a man in orbit, North American and National Air and Space Administration (NASA) engineers gave serious consideration to utilizing a growth version of the X-15 for the manned orbiting mission. This plan was dropped in favor of using a blunt-body reentry vehicle. Because of the potential dangers to the pilot should the X-15’s pressurized cockpit lose its atmosphere while the aircraft operated in a near-space environment, X-15 pilots wore specially developed full-pressure protection ‘spacesuits’ while flying the experimental plane.

Three X-15 research aircraft were built and flown, completing a total of 199 research flights. The National Air and Space Museum has the historic X-15 #1, Air Force serial 56-6670. The X15 #2 (56-6671) was rebuilt following a landing accident as the advanced X-15A-2, having increased propellant capacity and, hence, a higher potential performance. The X-15A-2 was the fastest X-15 flown, and it is now on exhibit at the Air Force Museum, Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio. The X-15 #3 (56-6672) featured an advanced cockpit display panel and a special adaptive control system. The aircraft made many noteworthy flights until it crashed during atmospheric reentry, following pilot disorientation and a control-system failure. The pilot, Capt. Michael Adams, was killed.

The X-15 flew faster and higher than any other airplane. A peak altitude of 354,200 feet (67± miles) was reached by the X-15, and the X-15A-2 attained a speed of Mach 6.72 (4,534 mph) while testing a new ablative thermal protection material and a proposed design for a hypersonic ramjet. Various proposals were set forth for modifying the aircraft to accomplish new and even more radical tasks. At one point, NASA scientists planned to test a hydrogen-fueled supersonic combustion ramjet engine mounted on the X-15s lower vertical fin. A mock-up of this proposed installation was flight-tested on the X-15A-2. Other ideas included modifying the X-15 with a slender delta wing and using the aircraft as a booster for small satellite launch vehicles. None of these ideas, however, came to fruition.

The X-15 spearheaded research in a variety of areas: hypersonic aerodynamics, winged reentry from space. life-support systems for spacecraft, aerodynamic heating and heat transfer research, and earth sciences experiments. A total of 700 technical documents were produced, equivalent to the output of a typical 4,000-man federal research center for more than two years.

Development of the X-15 began in 1954, in a joint research program sponsored by the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (forerunner of NASA), the U.S. Air Force. the U.S. Navy, and private industry. North American was selected as prime contractor on the project following a competition in which Douglas. Republic. and Bell also participated. By the time of its first airborne test, flight research was too complex to rely on simple air-to-ground communications near a test field. The Air Force and the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics developed a special 485-mile-long test corridor stretching from Wendover Air Force Base. Utah. to Edwards Air Force Base. California. It was planned that the X15 would be air-launched from a Boeing B-52 near Wendover. then fly down this corridor, the High Range. to Edwards. monitored by tracking stations at Ely and Beatty. Nevada. and at Edwards. The range lay along a series of flat dry lakes. where the X-15 could make an emergency landing. if necessary. Nothing this extensive had previously existed in flight research, and it foreshadowed the worldwide tracking network developed by American manned spacecraft ventures. The X-15 would complete its research mission and then. followed by special Lockheed F-104 chase aircraft. would land on the hard clay of Rogers (formerly Muroc) Dry Lake. Because the X-15 featured a cruciform tail surface arrangement. it was necessary for the designers to make the lower half of the ventral fin jettisonable prior to landing so that the conventional two-wheel, nose-landing gear and two tail-mounted landing skids could support the aircraft.

Dizzy Gillespie [ca. 1984-1990 : black-and-white photoprint]

Archives Center - NMAH
Gillespie playing trumpet.

Gold Nugget

National Museum of American History, Kenneth E. Behring Center
This small piece of yellow metal is believed to be the first piece of gold discovered in 1848 at Sutter's Mill in California, launching the gold rush.

James Marshall was superintending the construction of a sawmill for Col. John Sutter on the morning of January 24, 1848, on the South Fork of the American River at Coloma, California, when he saw something glittering in the water of the mill's tailrace. According to Sutter's diary, Marshall stooped down to pick it up and "found that it was a thin scale of what appeared to be pure gold." Marshall bit the metal as a test for gold.

In June of 1848, Colonel Sutter presented Marshall's first-find scale of gold to Capt. Joseph L. Folsom, U.S. Army Assistant Quartermaster at Monterey. Folsom had journeyed to Northern California to verify the gold claim for the U.S. Government.

The gold samples then traveled with U.S. Army Lt. Lucien Loeser by ship to Panama, across the isthmus by horseback, by ship to New Orleans, and overland to Washington. A letter of transmittal from Folsom that accompanied the packet lists Specimen #1 as "the first piece of gold ever discovered in this Northern part of Upper California found by J. W. Marshall at the Saw Mill of John A. Sutter."

By August of 1848, as evidence of the find, this piece and other samples of California gold had arrived in Washington, D.C., for delivery to President James K. Polk and for preservation at the National Institute. Within weeks, President Polk formally declared to Congress that gold had been discovered in California.

In 1861, the National Institute and its geological specimens, including this gold and the letter, entered the collections of the Smithsonian Institution. The Marshall Nugget remains in the collections as evidence of the discovery of gold in California.

David Boxley Totem Pole at the National Museum of the American Indian

National Museum of the American Indian
David Boxley, a Tsimshian carver from Alaska, created a totem pole for the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C. Boxley, who grew up in Metlakatla, and his son finished the work in the museum's Potomac atrium, where the Tsimshian dance group Git--Hoan (People of the Salmon) celebrated the unveiling. "There's few of us," Boxley told the Washington Post. "But we're alive and well. We wanted to let people know we're alive and well." The totem features a chief holding salmon, a group of villagers, and an eagle—the symbol of Boxleys' clan.

Apollo 11 - Buzz Aldrin Mobility Experiment (Kangaroo Hop)

National Air and Space Museum
Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin tests mobility on the lunar surface, July 20, 1969. NASA Video from Apollo Lunar Surface Journal More information and videos: Original source video:

Pressure Suit, RX-2-A, Constant Volume, Litton

National Air and Space Museum
This RX-2-A Advanced Extra-Vehicular Suit is an experimental constant volume suit was manufactured by Litton Industries who made a series of "hard" suits during the early 1960s. These experimental suits were designed to maintain an almost perfectly constant volume while enabling a full range of body motions. They could operate at higher pressure, thus reducing the time-consuming oxygen pre-breathing period before extra vehicular activities.

It has more sophisticated shoulder joints than the RX-2, and closes with a dual-plane closure at the back. It operated at 5psi instead of the 3.7psi of the Apollo soft suits.

Transferred to the National Air and Space Museum from NASA in 1977