20 Years of the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center

The National Air and Space Museum’s second location celebrates a milestone anniversary

The Boeing Aviation Hangar at the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center is a vast open space filled with airplanes on both the floor and hanging from the ceiling, tilted at angles that convey the impression of flight.
Aircraft displayed in the Boeing Aviation Hangar are tilted at angles that help convey the impression of flight. Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum/Jim Preston
Twenty years ago this past December, the National Air and Space Museum’s Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Virginia, opened to the public. Since then, the Center has welcomed more than 24 million people through its doors.
Construction of the 760,000-square-foot facility began in June 2001. Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum
There are 1,989 aviation artifacts, 931 space artifacts, and 105 art objects currently on display. Highlights include the Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird, the fastest jet in the world; the Boeing Dash 80, the prototype of the 707 airliner; the Apollo Mobile Quarantine Facility used in the Apollo 11 mission; and the Mars Pathfinder Lander prototype. 

The Center also houses all of the Museum’s archival collections, including film, video, and microfilm. Visitors at the reading rooms can peruse all manner of research, including the Captured German and Japanese Air Technical Documents Collection and NASA recordings from the Apollo missions.

Sometimes researchers even find items in the collections that Museum staff didn’t know were there. Another storage facility at the Center is home to some 65 spacesuits from U.S. space programs, including Mercury and Apollo.

On March 7, 2003, this Piper J-3 Cub was the first artifact to be moved to the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Virginia. Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum/Eric Long

The Center that has enabled Americans to walk among these precious artifacts was named in honor of its major donor, Steven F. Udvar-Hazy, whose fascination with flight began as a child in Hungary, where he built meticulously detailed airplane models from common household items like pens and matchsticks. To him, aviation was not only a source of inspiration, but also a hoped-for means for his family to escape from communist Hungary. Eventually, he came to the United States and is credited with creating the multi-billion-dollar airplane leasing industry.

“I felt that this facility could really make a major contribution in terms of raising public awareness about the impact of aviation and aerospace on the world,” Udvar-Hazy said during a recent interview with him and his wife Christine. “The museum downtown wasn’t adequate to fully showcase what aviation and aerospace have done for our planet and our civilization.” Udvar-Hazy said he realized the need for a new display facility after he visited the Museum’s Paul E. Garber Preservation, Restoration, and Storage Facility in Suitland, Maryland, and saw “a lot of historical airplanes, particularly the Enola Gay B-29, in small pieces and in crates,” hidden from public view.

Steven F. Udvar-Hazy and his wife Christine attend a Museum event in 2018. Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum/Jim Preston
The expansive Center features two cavernous exhibit spaces. The Boeing Aviation Hangar—10 stories high and the length of three football fields—displays aircraft hanging at several levels, angled as if in flight. (Larger, heavier aircraft are exhibited on the floor.) The James S. McDonnell Space Hangar features the space shuttle Discovery as its centerpiece, surrounded by hundreds of smaller space-related artifacts. The Airbus IMAX Theater and Claude Moore Education Center add offerings to the visitors’ experience.
Space Shuttle Discovery is the centerpiece of the James S. McDonnell Space Hangar. Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum/Dane Penland

At the public celebration on December 2, the Museum’s curators gave in-depth talks on such iconic artifacts as the SR-71, Discovery, and the mothership model from Steven Spielberg’s 1977 hit film Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

Attendees also had the rare opportunity to go behind-the-scenes in the Mary Baker Engen Restoration Hangar, where people typically observe activity from behind windows on a second-story mezzanine. The restoration hangar, which is spacious enough to accommodate several aircraft at one time, has “made a huge difference,” said Christine Udvar-Hazy. “People are able to see the time and the effort and the little detail that goes into bringing history back for them to see.”

At the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center 20th Anniversary Celebration, visitors went behind-the-scenes to tour the Mary Baker Engen Restoration Hangar. Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum/Jim Preston

The 20th anniversary celebration also gave visitors the chance to meet the Museum’s director, Chris Browne, at the Grumman F-14 Tomcat he flew while serving in the U.S. Navy. “I never tire of coming here,” said Browne. “I never come here thinking, ‘Ah, been there, seen that, done that.’ It always seems new.”