To enter the National Air and Space Museum is to walk into aerospace history. Hanging from steel girders and rafters just inside are the Wright brothers’ 1903 Flyer and Charles Lindbergh’s Spirit of St. Louis. Also aloft over the vast entrance gallery are the Bell X-1 that sent Chuck Yeager hurtling through the sound barrier and the rocket-powered X-15 that propelled aviation out of the atmosphere and into space.
Surrounding these gems of aviation history are the museum’s space-age treasures—“Friendship 7,” which transported John Glenn, the first American in earth orbit, and the Apollo 11 command module that carried astronauts to the Moon and back. Nearby, visitors are invited to touch a moonrock brought back to earth by Apollo 17 astronauts in 1972. Other Moon-exploration objects range from the food supplies that looked like toothpaste tubes to a copy of the Lunar Roving Vehicle that the Apollo 17 astronauts drove. Looking far into the future, the museum takes visitors to Mars and on a walk across a simulated Martian landscape, where they can see an explorer in a spacesuit designed for planetary hiking.
Also in the gallery are two missiles, a U.S. Pershing II and a Soviet SS-20— symbols not only of the Cold War but also of the first international agreement to ban an entire class of nuclear missiles.
The entrance gallery fulfills the basic mission of the museum, which was established by Congress in 1946 to commemorate the development of aviation and to collect, preserve, and display aircraft and equipment. Teamed up with the aviation industry, the U.S. Air Force became a potent lobby for the creation of the museum as an air-power showcase. Congress underlined this in 1961, when it directed the Smithsonian Institution, which runs the museum, to “commemorate and display the contributions made by the military forces of the Nation. . . A third congressional mandate came in 1966, when U.S. efforts in space inspired a name change from National Air Museum to National Air and Space Museum.
But enthusiastic congressional interest in an aerospace museum did not produce an actual building. Year after year, pieces of the proposed museum’s collection were scattered around Smithsonian buildings. Finally, in 1972, Congress funded construction. The enormous glass and marble building—635 feet long and 225 feet wide—opened on 1 July 1976. Within 25 days, a million visitors had entered the museum, and people have been streaming in ever since.2 With more than 8 million visitors a year, Air and Space has the highest attendance record of any Washington museum.1
The museum has not ignored the U.S. Navy. In the Sea-Air Operations gallery, visitors board an aircraft carrier named the USS Smithsonian (CVM-76). On what appears to be a section of a hangar deck, they see generations of naval aircraft. Overhead is a Boeing F4B-4 fighter, a stubby Navy and Marine Corps biplane of the 1930s. Also on deck is an A-4C Skyhawk that flew off the USS Bon Homme Richard (CV-31) during the Vietnam War. Nearby is a Grumman Wildcat F4F of World War II.
In a ready room patterned after one on the USS John F. Kennedy (CV-67), a briefing officer appears on a screen and narrates a well-filmed combat exercise, complete with dogfights and bombing. On a bulkhead is a real combat chart that shows the order of battle when two VF-41 aircraft from the USS Nimitz (CVN-68) destroyed two Libyan SU-22 fighters over the Gulf of Sidra on 19 August 1981.
Elsewhere on the simulated carrier, would-be pilots of all ages line up to take the controls in an imaginary cockpit and try to make a carrier landing.
The museum displays in its galleries more than 60 historic aircraft and numerous artifacts of space flight. Many other aircraft appear as models—a practice that follows the long tradition of seafaring museums, which discovered that visitors will accept stand-ins for ships too large to preserve or exhibit.
Among the most striking models are those in a World War I exhibit that portrays a German Zeppelin Staaken bomber and a Sopwith Camel fighting in the night sky over London.
Another crowd-pleaser is the meticulously detailed, 10-foot-long model of the Enterprise (CVN-65), the first nuclear-powered aircraft carrier. Modeler Stephen Henninger built it over a span of about 1,000 hours a year for 12 years, at a scale of one inch to 100 inches. The carrier is in a 1975 configuration, with an air wing of 85 scale aircraft, including A-7 Corsairs, A-6 Intruders, F-14 Tomcats, and helicopters, all absolutely correct for the time. Visitors can see, through the two open starboard elevators, a perfectly detailed hangar deck, complete with aircraft.
The museum’s mandate for showing military aircraft has sometimes clashed with curators’ sentiments. Claims of antimilitary bias, in fact, speeded up its construction. In 1970, Senator Barry Goldwater (R-AZ), an aviation enthusiast, scolded the Smithsonian for “brainstorming major new sociocultural exhibits” instead of paying attention to “gigantic public interest in air and space.’4 Thus, he successfully led an effort to have the museum built in time for the nation’s bicentennial in 1976.
The most fiery controversy in the museum’s history ignited in 1993, when veterans’ groups balked at the way the war against Japan was being portrayed in the proposed script for an exhibit featuring the Enola Gay, the B-29 Superfortress that dropped the world’s first atomic bomb on Hiroshima on 6 August 1945. The 1995 exhibit was to use its forward section as the centerpiece of an exhibit entitled “The Crossroads: The End of World War II, the Atomic Bomb, and the Origins of the Cold War.”
One sentence in the first draft of the exhibit script particularly inflamed critics: “For most Japanese, it was a war to defend their unique culture against Western imperialism.”5
In the long ensuing dispute over the exhibit, the Smithsonian dropped that sentence and drastically revised the script. When congressional critics joined the veterans, the pressure increased, forcing the resignation of Martin Harwit, director of the museum.
The controversy died down soon after the exhibit, much smaller than originally envisioned, opened in June 1995. No longer is the Cold War on the agenda; the new title simply is “The Last Act.” Accompanying the gleaming section of the Enola Gay fuselage is a replica of an atomic bomb. In an accompanying film, crew members describe their training and the Hiroshima mission.
Aircraft of World War I and World War II share the galleries with pioneers of flight, including Amelia Earhart’s Lockheed 5B Vega, which she flew in May 1932 to become the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic. Farther along, the Gossamer Condor proves that aeronautical pioneering continues. Pedaling furiously, bicyclist Bryan Allen flew the Condor for 7 minutes, 2.7 seconds, showing that a human being could power an aircraft in sustained, maneuverable flight.
For people who would rather sit than walk, thrilling films bring aviation and space history to life on the five-story- high screen of the Langley Theater, named for Samuel Pierpont Langley, who, as third secretary of the Smithsonian, began the institution’s studies of heavier-than-aircraft. In the Albert Einstein Planetarium, star-gazers can learn about the origin of the universe.
On the third level, off-limits to museum goers, are researchers, including some devoted to the study of Earth through satellite observations. The images with which they work may be seen in a gallery called “Looking at Earth,” a good place for a visitor to end a journey through air and space. Here, by flicking through images on a monitor, an earthling can find out what home looks like from on high.
1. U.S. Code, sections 77a, 80a.
2. National Air and Space Museum Fact Sheet.
3. Michelin Washington D.C. Touring Guide.
4. “Time of Crisis for the National Air and Space Museum,” Congressional Record, May 19, 1970.
5. From unit main title, exhibit script, 12 January 1994.