You know how sometimes you go to a Smithsonian and think, “Looking at this priceless historic artifact is great, but what I really want to be doing right now is shooting Nazis”? It turns out that you can, at least virtually. Tucked away in corners of the National Air and Space Museum; its satellite, the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Va.; and the National Museum of American History are four types of virtual reality simulators, including one that turns you upside down. Having an abnormally strong stomach, I recently tried them all.
‘Wings: Flights of Courage’
National Air and Space Museum, National Museum of American History and Udvar-Hazy, $8
This sleek red simulator looked state-of-the-art from outside, but turned out to be similar to the ones I rode in the ’90s at ramshackle carnivals in church parking lots. I took a seat in the empty eight-person capsule, where a movie about the history of manned flight played on a screen meant to be the front window of the aircraft. Even with the machine bouncing along in time to the film, the grainy screen (which was probably cutting-edge around the time the Wright brothers were still bike mechanics) failed to convince me I was anywhere but in a dated VR machine. A highlight of the journey was when an actual fly landed on the screen and appeared to take a joyride with the Red Baron.
‘Robots of Mars: 3D Adventure’
National Museum of American History, $8
I sat down (alone again) in this eight-person simulator, donned 3-D glasses and took on the point of view of a young robot sent by his friends to reclaim a “gem of power” from an evil tyrant robot. The quest for a powerful bauble reminded me of “Lord of the Rings,” though it took a surprising turn when (spoiler alert?) the hero’s robot dog ate the gem and transformed into a huge, murderous robot dog. The situation never resolved itself — the robot jetted off, leaving his friends on Mars to deal with the dog, and the ride ended.
This screen was sharper than the one on “Flights of Courage,” but the lurching of the vehicle was strangely gentle given the frenetic action on the screen — a combination that resulted in an oddly muted effect, like riding a roller coaster after taking some Xanax.
‘Spacewalk: Danger in Orbit’
National Air and Space Museum, $12
The Air and Space Museum’s newest ride, which debuted April 26, is also its most popular. I stood in line for 20 minutes waiting for my turn to become an astronaut attempting to fix a faulty circuit on the International Space Station. I sat down with three tourists from Beijing and we donned Oculus Rift headsets. I was presented with the convincing POV of someone orbiting above the Earth, looking at the space station from the outside. The illusion was only somewhat punctured by the suddenly invisible people exclaiming things in Chinese around me.
An authoritative-sounding man began barking acronym-laden instructions. “Discovery Houston, you are a go for GBA EV1 command for propulsion system test,” he said. (I think.) “OK, copy that,” a woman — apparently me — replied.
From that point on, the ride was a “Being John Malkovich” situation, where I was passively stuck inside this woman’s body as she failed to fix the circuit. The situation went from bad to worse as space debris tore into the station and threatened our hero.
The commander seemed unconcerned about the damage to the space station, and showered “me” with unearned praise. “You’ve made it, ISS Houston EV1. Station systems are stabilizing. Great job!” he said.
The Chinese tourists and I agreed that, while we craved a little more interactivity, the ride was pretty cool — especially the astronaut’s-eye view of Earth.
‘Air Combat’ and ‘Air Combat: Tuskegee Experience’
National Air and Space Museum, National Museum of American History and Udvar-Hazy, $10
I took three gut-churning rides in the Smithsonian’s interactive flight simulators. They were, hands down, the most fun of all the VR experiences. These two-seater capsules put you in the pilot’s seat of a fighter jet chasing down enemy airplanes. Using two joysticks, you control your plane’s direction, speed and weaponry. Meanwhile, the capsule mimics the movement of the aircraft, even completing full barrel rolls at your behest.
My first go-round, I failed to shoot down a single bad guy because I had the button for throttle confused with the trigger. I tried again, and was very proud to blow out of the sky a grand total of two generic fighter planes. (The record is 21, my ticket seller said.)
For my third ride, I tried a variation that put me in the middle of World War II, in a propeller-driven aircraft. Without heat-guided missiles, I found myself utterly unable to shoot down a single Nazi plane.
The maker of the rides, Pulseworks, is considering creating fighter pilot simulators that use Oculus Rift-like headsets, CEO Raj Deshpande said. His team is also working on making the astronaut simulator more interactive by letting riders manipulate objects, perhaps with special gloves.
All of these Smithsonian rides are good fun, and a portion of the ticket sales goes toward supporting the museums. So give them a try — though not right after lunch, unless you think your stomach is as strong as mine.