Walk into the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museums and prepare to be awed — the first spacecraft and the Discovery shuttle are among the vast collection of NASA artifacts at its two locations on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., and its companion facility at the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Va.

“The contributions in space science have been remarkable,” said Valerie Neal, curator and chair of the museum’s Space History Department.

The Washington Examiner recently toured the space sciences collection inside the massive hangar at the Udvar-Hazy Center.

“How much we know now about the planets, about the processes electrical and chemical that happen in the border area between our atmosphere and space,” Neal said. “But a lot of the work that NASA does just goes quietly on, and people lose sight of that.”

From its inception, NASA has been at the forefront of space exploration and research, and museum exhibitions include the earliest satellites launched in the 1960s to probe the upper atmosphere.

“Over the years NASA’s [been] involved in putting up a great variety of instruments and observatories, landers and rovers and telescopes to learn more about this whole cosmos that we live in,” Neal said.

She points to the Hubble Space Telescope as just one example of the community of observatories and satellites that continue to study the universe, providing invaluable data to help advance innovation.

“The Hubble images in particular are striking but images of the Earth in different parts of the spectrum like the infrared show us features of our own planet that we can’t really appreciate without that technology.”

The collection includes exhibits on astrophysics, biology, planetary science, solar physics and more. Neal says it’s an exciting time in NASA’s history, with much of the current focus on Mars exploration and the potential privatization of space flight.

“The robotic exploration of our solar system is a tremendous success story,” Neal said, “and I think it’s satisfying people’s lust for adventure and exploration and their curiosity about the world around us."