WASHINGTON — Welcome to the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum. To your left: the Spirit of St. Louis, the Apollo 11 command module, and the Skylab orbital workshop. And to the right, the dark lord Darth Vader, Princess Leia Organa, and an eight-foot Wookiee named Chewbacca.
So what are "Star Wars" costumes, props, and production models doing in the nation's shrine to achievement in aviation and space?
They could be inspiring kids to do real science. "Many of the great pioneers of science have been inspired by science fiction," says "Star Wars" creator George Lucas.
Museum officials say the "Star Wars: The Magic of Myth" show, which opens today, could be the most popular exhibit ever for the capital's most-visited museum. But they insist that a key goal is to encourage young people to choose science as a career.
"Science fiction is the inspiration for real-life space travel. Scientists needed an active imagination and fantasy to want to fly to the moon," says curator Mary Henderson, who also wrote a companion book for this show.
"You also need to see this exhibit in the context of our whole system. Visitors can go down the hall to see real flying and scientific reality," she adds.
The Air and Space Museum's last major show was not a crowd-pleaser. The 1995 Enola Gay exhibit, which questioned the decision to use atomic weapons against Japan in World War II, had to be drastically scaled back after protests from veterans' groups and lawmakers.
Today's show has a much clearer flight path. "Star Wars," the exhibit, is drawing on the universal appeal of the film trilogy, which racked up $1.8 billion at the box office and another $4 billion in retail sales.
"Few cultural events have had a more galvanizing effect than 'Star Wars.' We want to share in this bonding event with our consumers," says Dale Williams, spokesman for WestPoint Stevens, the exhibit's promotional sponsor.
"Star Wars" has also been a boon for publishing. Sponsor Bantam Books has published some 50 original novels and short-story collections based on "Star Wars," with more than 30 million copies in print in North America alone.
"George Lucas helped us to debunk one of the great myths of our time: that all the young readers have been spirited away. 'Star Wars' proved that books can still fly," says Irwyn Applebaum, a spokesman for the New York-based Bantam Books.
On Oct. 15, Lucasfilm Ltd. granted the rights to a new program of "Star Wars" fiction and nonfiction titles to rival Ballantine Publishing Group, which has already published 55 "Star Wars" books of its own. The first of three new "Star Wars" films is expected to be released in May 1999.
Visitors to the exhibit can see an Imperial Stormtrooper, Han Solo in carbonite, Luke Skywalker's light saber, and some of the most memorable creatures in the history of film.
The exhibit catalog explains that the films' appeal comes from the magic of myth: "A myth shows us what we're up against; it identifies the 'bad guys' - who often turn out to be within us, the part of ourselves that would hold us back - and it helps us find a way to defeat them. And that, finally, is part of the myth's magic too: It offers hope."
But those who attend the exhibit and a related new film on special effects are more likely to be impressed simply with the quality of the filmmaking.
* This exhibit will run through October 1998. It is free, but the museum only provides same-day tickets. Advance tickets are available by calling 800-529-2440.