From Kites to the Space Shuttle

A new photo-filled book is a diary of life at the National Air and Space Museum.

The U.S. Navy’s Curtiss NC-4 became the first aircraft to fly across the Atlantic Ocean, in May 1919.
The U.S. Navy’s Curtiss NC-4 became the first aircraft to fly across the Atlantic Ocean, in May 1919. In 1926, Paul Garber persuaded the Navy to preserve the aircraft. The Aircraft Building was too small to house the massive flying boat, so the wings went to Alexandria, Virginia, for storage; the engines and propellers went to Norfolk, while the fuselage remained at the Smithsonian. In 1969, on the 50th anniversary of the flight, the aircraft was restored and placed on temporary display on the National Mall. Today, the NC-4 is on indefinite loan to the National Naval Aviation Museum in Pensacola, Florida. NASM (SI NEG. #SI-91-14704~PM)

With a stroke of his pen, President Harry S. Truman in 1946 created the National Air Museum. But the Smithsonian’s collection of aviation-related objects dates back far earlier, to 1876, when the Institution received a donation of 42 hand-painted kites from the Chinese Imperial Commission. Today, hundreds of aircraft, spacecraft, and rockets, plus thousands of related artifacts, have joined those antique kites in what is now the world’s largest aerospace collection, the National Air and Space Museum.

A new book, Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum: An Autobiography (edited by Michael J. Neufeld and Alex M. Spencer, National Geographic, 2010), offers an in-depth look at the history of the Museum, from Samuel Langley’s early model-airplane experiments in the halls of the Smithsonian Castle to the acquisition of the Spirit of St. Louis to the journey of the Mars rovers and beyond.

Each year, eight million people visit the Museum to see the aircraft and spacecraft that made history; over the next few pages, take a look into the newly published history of how the Museum came to be.

The U.S. Navy’s Curtiss NC-4 became the first aircraft to fly across the Atlantic Ocean, in May 1919. In 1926, Paul Garber persuaded the Navy to preserve the aircraft. The Aircraft Building was too small to house the massive flying boat, so the wings went to Alexandria, Virginia, for storage; the engines and propellers went to Norfolk, while the fuselage remained at the Smithsonian. In 1969, on the 50th anniversary of the flight, the aircraft was restored and placed on temporary display on the National Mall. Today, the NC-4 is on indefinite loan to the National Naval Aviation Museum in Pensacola, Florida. NASM (SI NEG. #SI-91-14704~PM)
Just one of 42 hand-painted traditional kites, donated to the Smithsonian (along with thousands of other items) by the Chinese Imperial Commission in 1876. The first flying objects crafted by human hands to enter the Smithsonian collections, the kites were obtained at the conclusion of the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia by Smithsonian Secretary Spencer Fullerton Baird, who persuaded exhibitors to avoid the expense of shipping their exhibits home by donating them. NASM A-10983-B
On display at the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in northern Virginia, are the twin-boom Northrop P-61 Black Widow and bright yellow Northrop N-1M flying wing. The Center will eventually hold 80 percent of the Museum’s aircraft collection. Dane Penland
In 1919, the Smithsonian received from the U.S. Army and Navy a significant collection of World War I aircraft which were housed in a temporary metal building behind the Smithsonian Castle. For a time, the renamed Aircraft Building, also known as the Tin Shed (in 1935), contained a huge Martin bomber, a LePere fighter-bomber, an Aeromarine 39B floatplane, and the skeleton of a de Havilland DH-4 light bomber. NASM (SI NEG. #SI-2003-6592~PM)
As Charles Lindbergh flew solo across the Atlantic on May 20, 1927, Smithsonian aeronautics curator Paul Garber composed a cable to send to the pilot, requesting the Spirit of St. Louis for the national collection. It was one of the first messages Lindbergh read after he woke up at the American Embassy in Paris following some much-needed postflight sleep. The arrival of the Spirit of St. Louis marked a significant milestone in the history of the Museum, for its installation in the Arts and Industries Building on May 13, 1928, focused the nation’s attention on the Smithsonian and its aeronautical collection. NASM (SI NEG. #SI-A-742-B)
The Oldest Surviving Pitts Special, Little Stinker, suspended upside down from the ceiling of the Udvar-Hazy Center’s entrance hall, is the first airplane visitors see. The Center opened in December 2003, and in its first two weeks welcomed more than 200,000 visitors; on June 9, 2004, the one millionth visitor passed through its doors. When the Center opened, 80 airplanes were on display; today, the number is almost 200. Dane Penland
Alan Shepard’s Mercury capsule was displayed in the Museum’s Aircraft Building in the early 1960. Between 1967 and 1980, the Museum acquired more than 5,000 NASA artifacts, including nearly every spacecraft flown by U.S. astronauts and virtually all of the ones ground tested or flown without pilots. With the close of the space shuttle program, hundreds of new artifacts will be coming to the Museum in the next few years. NASM (SI NEG. #SI-2006-28132~P)
The Restoration Shop at the Garber Facility in Suitland, Maryland (some years before the move to the Udvar-Hazy Center in 2010), was the place where the collections staff always had a variety of wood and metal projects under way. This day, work was proceeding on (in the foreground) the Hawker Hurricane, left, and the Nieuport 28. NASM (SI NEG. #SI-2000-9368~Q)
Paul Garber arrived at the Smithsonian in 1920, and eventually became the first curator of the institution’s aeronautical collections and later the founder of the National Air and Space Museum. He worked at the Smithsonian for 72 years. Here, he and helmeted exhibit designer Benjamin Lawless prepare to ride in a balloon on the National Mall on April Fools’ Day 1966. NASM (SI NEG. #SI-A-59835-I~P)
While Painting “The Space Mural — A Cosmic View” on a wall in the National Air and Space Museum in 1975, artist Robert McCall invited astronaut and artist Alan Bean to paint a single star high up near the rooftop domes. Artist Eric Sloane, working high on scaffolding on a mural on the opposite wall, was kept entertained by an assistant playing a concertina. NASM (SI NEG. #SI-2009-31389~P)
Museum Deputy Director Don Lopez gave a tour of the Museum to singer Michael Jackson in 1984. Visits by stars and heads of state are common, keeping the security force busy. NASM (SI NEG. #SI-84-4714-8~P)
The Immediate impetus for the National Air Museum came from General Henry H. “Hap” Arnold, head of the U.S. Army Air Forces in World War II. In 1945, he began to collect representative surplus and captured wartime aircraft. However, it wasn’t until September 11, 1972, that bulldozers began groundbreaking (right); the renamed National Air and Space Museum opened on July 1, 1976. At the opening, President Gerald Ford called the Museum the “perfect birthday present” to the nation. NASM (SI NEG. #SI-72-11326-002~PM)
Today, the millions of visitors who pass through the doors of the National Air and Space Museum on the Mall and the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center take in the largest collection of air and space objects owned by any museum in the world. Such a display was inconceivable in 1911, when the 1909 Wright Military Flyer arrived at the Smithsonian. Assistant Secretary Richard Rathbun opposed accepting the Flyer, arguing that space constraints made it “out of the question to hope for a comprehensive exhibit of actual aeroplanes.” Happily, time has proved him wrong. NASM (SI NEG. #2006-6405)