Big Wings, Bigger Dreams: A Sleepover In The Space Shuttle's Shadow : NPR Ed Sleepovers at the National Air and Space Museum's huge annex near Washington, D.C., offer a real-life night at the Smithsonian.
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Big Wings, Bigger Dreams: A Sleepover In The Space Shuttle's Shadow

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Big Wings, Bigger Dreams: A Sleepover In The Space Shuttle's Shadow

Big Wings, Bigger Dreams: A Sleepover In The Space Shuttle's Shadow

Big Wings, Bigger Dreams: A Sleepover In The Space Shuttle's Shadow

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  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/491103864/497256729" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

The National Air And Space Museum's Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center. Ariel Zambelich/NPR hide caption

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Ariel Zambelich/NPR

Visiting a museum full of airplanes and rocket ships is a pretty awesome field trip. Now imagine camping out for a whole night in Smithsonian's huge hangar outside Washington, D.C. You're there with a few other lucky kids, some grownups, and aviation treasures like the space shuttle Discovery.

Sean Mclaughlin, 10, is one of those kids. He's picking out his pilot code name — using the aviation alphabet: Alfa, Bravo, Charlie, Delta, Echo, Foxtrot. He reads each word aloud, sitting just to the side of a F8U Crusader — the first carrier-based jet fighter to exceed 1,000 miles per hour.

Sean Mclaughlin (top, center) sits with a friend as they pick out their pilot code names. Audrey Strauss, 8 (bottom, left), tries on her decorative "nose cone", inspired by the nose cone of a plane. Nathan Ferraro, 10 (bottom, right), plays the role of a plane during a marshaling activity as his mom, Cora, takes a photo. Ariel Zambelich/NPR hide caption

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Sean finally settles on the perfect code name: Alpha Whiskey Yankee — the first step in his on boarding as a young pilot on this sleepover adventure at the Smithsonian's massive Udvar-Hazy Center.

This was the first year the Smithsonian offered sleepovers at the center, also called the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum's annex near the runways of Washington Dulles International Airport. The cost? $135 if you're not a museum member. Even though it was just about sold out this year, there are plans in the works for next summer.

The Brown family (left to right) Malachi, 12; Lisa Nelson-Brown; Will; and Maiyah, 7, ”go on a scavenger hunt at the museum sleepover. Ariel Zambelich/NPR hide caption

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The Brown family (left to right) Malachi, 12; Lisa Nelson-Brown; Will; and Maiyah, 7, ”go on a scavenger hunt at the museum sleepover.

Ariel Zambelich/NPR

In a building the size of three football fields — full of airplanes, parachutes, helicopters and space capsules — there's plenty of room for activities.

The kids arrived early in the evening, once all the tourists had gone, and quickly spread out over the giant space on an all-night scavenger hunt and quiz. Stops along the way included: making helicopters and learning to wave a jetliner safely into the gate.

In the wing of the museum devoted to space exploration, I find Soraya Okely, 8. She says she'd like to be an astronaut some day.

Space Shuttle Discovery on display at the Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Va. Ariel Zambelich/NPR hide caption

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"The things that I've done so far: Do all these quizzes," Soraya explains. "I've worn the space gloves. It's awkward and hard, but it's also fun because after you de-construct a plane you get astronaut ice cream!"

She'd like to go to Mars one day and this sleepover, she says, is good training. And that's kind of the point: There are volunteers throughout the museum offering tips and facts.

Volunteer Harold "Woody" Davis greets kids as they shuffle towards the glass case of items astronauts took into space. There's a package that a group of boys claim is vomit — but it turns out it's just chicken and gravy.

Kids participate in space-themed crafts and exercises, including trying to pick up small objects (top, left) and making their own satellites (top, right). Soraya Okely (bottom, center) gets help building a toy truck while wearing astronaut gloves as kids learn about dexterity in space. Ariel Zambelich/NPR hide caption

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"What would you take to space?" asks Woody. "Would you take borscht? Would you take makeup? Pizza?

Sean Mclaughlin — aka Alpha Whiskey Yankee — says pizza for sure. Or maybe French fries. He lives in Virginia not too far from the museum, and he comes here all the time. But tonight, he says, is special because he can take his time and read every detail, soaking it in.

"It's pretty cool when you've got the place all to yourself," he says. " 'Cause no one else is here. Usually, when you come it's really loud and there's lots of screaming. I'm like, 'I can't read this!' "

The other magical things about tonight? You can fall asleep next to fighter planes from World War II.

Bed Time

As 11 p.m. approaches, kids and parents are getting tired. You can feel the energy level dropping.

Pam Cross (left) watches her daughter, Healey, 8, as they brush their teeth in the museum bathroom before bedtime. Ariel Zambelich/NPR hide caption

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The adults urge the younger ones to change their clothes and brush their teeth. It's a familiar routine — the only hitch is the automatic faucets in the industrial bathroom, which make it a bit hard to brush your teeth and wash your face.

All the children must be accompanied by an adult. These chaperones are setting up the sleeping sleeping bags, air mattresses, cots. One dad even set up a free-standing hammock.

Soraya Okely changes into her space-themed PJs, printed with Saturn, the moon and the Big Dipper.

Soraya Okely (center), her dad, Cadeyrn (right), and friend Eli Shroads, 9, examine their handmade satellites before bed. Ariel Zambelich/NPR hide caption

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Soraya says that when she's falling asleep, she might say good night to all the space ships: "I hope I venture in you one day."

I ask her what she expects to see when she opens her eyes in the morning. "I'm gonna feel like I'm in my house," she says, "but it's been extended with spaceships."

Many of the kids brought their space-themed pajamas, sleeping bags, and pillows for the night at the museum. Ariel Zambelich/NPR hide caption

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Finally, everyone is zipped in for the night: pillows fluffed and stuffed animals tucked in — all in the shadow of the space shuttle's wing.

As the museum lights go dark — these spaceships dip into the dreams of the little discoverers.