Our Future in Flight

With a new facility in the works, the National Air and Space Museum prepares for the 21st century

As the Smithsonian enters a new millennium, and we undertake a coordinated effort to raise significant private funds, I will be devoting a number of Smithsonian Perspectives to individual museums and research facilities. This column looks at our (and the world's) most visited museum: the National Air and Space Museum (NASM).

The twin sciences of aviation and spaceflight hardly seem new to us, but of the many subjects covered by the Smithsonian they are among the youngest. The past 100 years have witnessed the Wright brothers' first flight, on December 17, 1903, and the lunar landing of Apollo 11, nearly 30 years ago. These achievements and other evidence of origins and growth are reflected at NASM.

The Smithsonian's aeronautical collection began with the acquisition of a group of kites from the Chinese Imperial Commission at the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia. It has grown to include more than 30,000 artifacts, and it is the world's definitive aerospace collection. The 1903 Wright Flyer; the Spirit of St. Louis; the sound-barrier-breaking Bell X-1, Glamorous Glennis; and the Apollo 11 command module, Columbia, are all on display in "Milestones of Flight," the central hall of NASM. And while more than half the museum's 23 exhibition galleries have changed in the past 20 years, "Milestones of Flight" appears much the same as it did two decades ago.

The museum visitor, however, has changed, and so have our means of presentation. When the National Air and Space Museum opened in 1976, nearly all the visitors who walked through its doors could say exactly where they were when astronaut Neil Armstrong took his "one small step" into the annals of history. Many remembered John Glenn's Mercury spaceflight aboard Friendship 7 (also on display in "Milestones"). The museum's visitors had personal memories of and emotional ties to these and other aircraft and spacecraft on display.

Today's visitors, however, are far less likely to have such a personal connection to the artifacts. Museum staff must, therefore, pay careful attention to accompanying exhibit materials, which provide the context that allows visitors to understand and appreciate what is before them. When we do our job well, a teenager born decades after the achievements of the Wrights, Lindbergh, Earhart or Yeager can still marvel at the technological accomplishments and appreciate the bravery of the pilot and crew. Together, the National Air and Space Museum's twin responsibilities — preservation and presentation — ensure that visitors, educators and researchers can continue to follow aviation and spaceflight advances into the next century.

How does the world's most visited museum prepare for the new millennium? For a decade the Smithsonian has been planning a facility that would serve as an extension of the National Air and Space Museum. Plans are now nearly complete for a world-class restoration center and museum at Dulles International Airport in Chantilly, Virginia, 26 miles from Washington. This state-of-the-art facility will allow visitors to observe NASM's staff as they restore the aircraft and spacecraft in our extraordinary national collection.

The 710,000-square-foot extension, large enough to hold the current Air and Space Museum, will exhibit more than 200 craft — suspended from the ceiling at two levels as well as displayed on the floor. It will also feature an education center and simulation exhibits, allowing visitors to study the history and future of air and space travel.

The Dulles Center will be a true public-private partnership. Congress has provided $8 million for the center's design, and Virginia will provide $39 million for the infrastructure: roads, parking and utilities. The cost of building construction, however, must come from private sources. The National Air and Space Museum must raise the $130 million needed to build the facility. We will ask those who revere the memory of our air and space pioneers, and those who are committed to inspiring future discoverers, to help us meet this challenge.

We plan to complete the Dulles Center and open it to the public before December 17, 2003, in time to celebrate the centennial of the Wright brothers' first flight.

Samuel Pierpont Langley (Smithsonian Secretary from 1887 to 1906), well known for his studies in aviation and astronomy, would be impressed that we are preparing for the exciting advances yet to occur.

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