After years on the launchpad, the Smithsonian’s renovated National Air and Space Museum is ready for blast off.
Doors reopen Friday, October 14, for the museum that’s been closed for seven months due to massive renovations. The public can now visit the totally rebuilt west wing that’s been closed since 2018—the other half, getting similar repairs and replacement, won’t reopen until 2025.
The shiny first phase, one of a sweeping seven-year renovation project, includes eight new or reimagined exhibitions, including some of the museum’s most famous attractions. “I can’t tell you how excited and pleased we are to be at this moment and to be able to share this day with you,” museum director Christopher Browne told a group at a preview last week.
Since its opening in 1976, the space-age museum charting human flight has consistently been one of the top draws on the National Mall. In 2019, the year before the pandemic began closing museums for months at a time, the Air and Space Museum was second only to the National Museum of Natural History as the most popular of the Smithsonian museums, with 3.2 million visitors. It was also one of the most visited museums in the United States.
Browne said that since its opening, what he calls “America’s favorite museum” has drawn more than 350 million visitors to see attractions from the Wright brothers’ original Flyer to Charles Lindbergh's Spirit of St. Louis to the Apollo 11 space capsule that landed on the moon. “But after greeting 350 million people, it became pretty worn out, and many of our recent visitors can attest to that,” he added. Skylights leaked on the artifacts below. Exterior stone was unmoored by the 2011 earthquake that closed the nearby Washington Monument for years.
“It started as an HVAC replacement project,” says Kara Katsarelis, the Smithsonian’s revitalization liaison between the museum and its facilities team. But as they continued to take a look at the heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems that needed upgrades, they uncovered other things requiring upgrades and replacement, in what became a huge project.
“Basically, the entire building was rebuilt,” Katsarelis says. “We have significant steel upgrades throughout the structure. The floor had to be reinforced. We’ve gone through the lifetime of the roof, and the skylights and gutter system had to be fully replaced.”
“The building was literally taken down to its bare steel,” Browne said in a later interview. “And in fact, when we got back down to the bare steel, we discovered a lot of the welds were missing, and we actually introduced hundreds of tons of new steel into the structure. Because the structure frankly was not built to the standard it needed to be.”
Trusses holding the tons of historic air and spacecraft were replaced and reinforced; upgraded skylights reduced the amount of natural light coming into the building, protecting the artifacts. The familiar buildingwide gray carpeting has been removed to allow for sparkling terrazzo floors.
Codes have changed since the 1970s, Browne said, requiring further renovations. “Everything had to be upgraded to meet new blast standards. Snow loads have changed.”
“After the earthquake in 2011 we started to see failures with the exterior stone, so all of that started to be the initial driver for the project itself,” Katsarelis says. Eventually, more than 12,000 exterior stone panels had to be replaced with a durable granite.
“Once that scope came together we realized: Wow, we have to take everything out of the museum to be able to do all of those upgrades,” she says. Planes and other artifacts had to be disassembled; 1,557 artifacts were moved, with many trucked to storage hangars near the museum’s Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Virginia, more than 20 miles away while the rebuilding process went on.
Some of the largest aircraft on that side of the building—including the Douglas DC-3 and the Ford 5-AT Tri-Motor, made for some superwide loads on the highway during nocturnal transport missions, drawing some attention.
“We usually get a couple of Twitter posts in the middle of the night when they’re moving,” Katsarelis says. “People see them and take pictures because it’s a sight to see: An airplane on the back of an open load trailer… There’s an incredible amount of coordination that had to happen for every one of these large aircraft moves.”
Remaking the structure of the museum allowed curators to reimagine its content. “That brought in the next phase of transformation—redoing the galleries,” Katsarelis says.
The new galleries reflect the activity that occurred in the last few decades. Three generations of Mars rovers are in the newly named “Kenneth C. Griffin Exploring the Planets” exhibition (named after a benefactor) as well as an immersive experience called “Walking on Other Worlds.”
An interactive display in the “One World Connected” gallery shows what it’s like to see Earth from the International Space Station’s domed window. The Challenger III and the Lear Jet 23 are both in the other named gallery, the “Thomas W. Haas We All Fly” exhibition. Fully 55 percent of the 1,240 artifacts in the west end are new to the museum.
“The aerospace and aviation world has changed incredibly,” Browne said, “and who’s participating in it has changed. It’s become a much more diverse and inclusive space that we want to celebrate.”
Browne made his remarks beneath the T-38 Talon supersonic trainer flown by Jackie Cochran, the first woman to break the sound barrier. “She went on to set eight speed records with that aircraft,” Browne said. “In point of fact, when she died, she had more records than any man alive. That’s an important story. That’s a connection point, perhaps for a young girl coming into this museum for the first time. Because if seeing is believing, we want our visitors, particularly our young visitors, to see themselves in the stories, the possibilities—how they can connect, and how they can start a lifetime of learning.”
Other stories newly emphasized in the galleries include the WR-3 air racer built by Neal Loving, the first African American pilot certified to race airplanes and aerobatic aviation champion Sean Tucker’s custom-built aerobatic biplane, the Aviation Specialties Unlimited Challenger III.
Altogether, eight new or revamped galleries hold some of the museum's most significant artifacts of the museum, from the 1903 Wright Flyer to the Apollo 11 command module and the spacesuit Neil Armstrong wore inside it. Alan Shepard’s Mercury spacesuit and the capsule he flew, the Mercury Freedom 7 is on display for the first time since 2015.
The Spirit of St. Louis is there—sort of, tucked behind a cordoned off area near the still-closed east end of the museum where visitors can watch conservators restore the aircraft that made the first successful solo nonstop trans-Atlantic flight from New York to Paris in 1927.
Some of the stories are straight out of popular science fiction, though. The full-sized X-Wing Starfighter from Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, on loan from Lusasfilm, hovers near the revamped observatory (whose replaced Zeiss projector is literally now a historic artifact at Udvar-Hazy). A pair of prosthetic ear tips made for Leonard Nimoy to portrayi Mr. Spock in the “Star Trek” TV series is on display, an addendum to the popular “Star Trek” Starship Enterprise that is behind glass near the entrance.
While many museums have shied away from hands-on, interactive displays since the onset of the pandemic, the National Air and Space Museum is doubling down on them. Fifty new digital interactives have been installed in the west end galleries; another 50 will be in the east end when it reopens.
Hands-on models at the foot of many major artifacts allow the visually impaired to understand their designs. “There was some belief that we would eventually emerge to the point where we could touch things again,” Browne said, “But what we didn’t want to do was diminish the access for folks who, in the case of being sight impaired, it’s all about the touch and the feel—and the tactile.” Visitors needn’t touch the interactive exhibits if they so choose. “But we don’t want to disadvantage young learners especially, who really connect to that kind of engagement,” he said. When the seven-year renovation is finished in 2025, there will be 23 exhibition and presentation places including classrooms for the first time.
To accommodate expected demand, the Air and Space Museum will be issuing advance, timed-entry passes when it reopens, with about 8,000 tickets available each day. (The first weekend’s passes are already gone.) “They’re using timed passes just to help visitor flow,” Katsarelis says. “Because our capacity is less than when the whole building is open.”
“The measure of success I really hope to achieve,” Browne told the assembled crowd at the preview, “is that learners, whatever their age, particularly young learners, however they come to us, however they present, whatever they look like, wherever they come from, whoever they are, that at certain parts of in this collection, in this storytelling, they can connect on a personal level and get that moment of awe and inspiration that we know can lead to amazing things.”
The west end of the National Air and Space Museum will be open daily from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. beginning October 14, 2022. Admission is free, but advance timed entry is required, through the website.