National Air and Space Museum

600 Independence Ave SW Washington

Must-See Museums in Washington D.C./National Air and Space Museum
VAMONDE Washington D.C.
Written By VAMONDE Washington D.C.

National Air and Space Museum

The National Air and Space Museum, of the Smithsonian Institution, is a museum favorite in Washington, D.C. It was established in 1946 as the National Air Museum and opened its main building on the National Mall near L'Enfant Plaza in 1976. In 2018, the museum saw approximately 6.2 million visitors, making it the fifth most visited museum in the world, and the second most visited museum in the United States. The museum contains the Apollo 11 command module, the Friendship 7 capsule which was flown by John Glenn, Charles Lindbergh's Spirit of St. Louis, the Bell X-1 which broke the sound barrier, the model of the starship Enterprise used in the science fiction television show Star Trek: The Original Series, and the Wright brothers' airplane. The National Air and Space Museum is a center for research into the history and science of aviation and spaceflight, as well as planetary science and terrestrial geology and geophysics. Almost all space and aircraft on display are originals or the original backup craft.

Architectural Facts

Because of the museum's close proximity to the United States Capitol, the Smithsonian wanted a building that would be architecturally impressive but would not stand out too boldly against the Capitol building. St. Louis-based architect Gyo Obata of HOK designed the museum as four simple marble-encased cubes containing the smaller and more theatrical exhibits, connected by three spacious steel-and-glass atria which house the larger exhibits such as missiles, airplanes, and spacecraft. The mass of the museum is similar to the National Gallery of Art across the National Mall and uses the same pink Tennessee marble as the National Gallery. Built by Gilbane Building Company, the museum was completed in 1976. The west glass wall of the building is used for the installation of airplanes, functioning as a giant door.

History

The museum's prominent site on the National Mall once housed the city's armory as well as the Armory Square Hospital where the worst wounded cases in the Civil War were transported to Washington after battles. The Air and Space Museum was originally called the National Air Museum when formed on August 12, 1946, by an act of Congress and signed into law by President Harry S. Truman. Some pieces in the National Air and Space Museum collection date back to the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia after which the Chinese Imperial Commission donated a group of kites to the Smithsonian after Smithsonian Secretary Spencer Fullerton Baird convinced exhibitors that shipping them home would be too costly. The Stringfellow steam engine intended for aircraft was added to the collection in 1889, the first piece actively acquired by the Smithsonian now in the current NASM collection. After the establishment of the museum, there was no one building that could hold all the items to be displayed, many obtained from the United States Army and United States Navy collections of domestic and captured aircraft from World War I. Some pieces were on display in the Arts and Industries Building and some were stored in the Aircraft Building, a large temporary metal shed in the Smithsonian Castle's south yard. The shed housed a large Martin bomber, a LePere fighter-bomber, and an Aeromarine 39B floatplane. Larger missiles and rockets were displayed outdoors in what was known as Rocket Row. Still, much of the collection remained in storage due to a lack of display space.

The combination of the large numbers of aircraft donated to the Smithsonian after World War II and the need for a hangar and factory space for the Korean War, drove the Smithsonian to look for its own facility to store and restore aircraft. The current Garber Facility was ceded to the Smithsonian by the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission in 1952 after the curator Paul E. Garber spotted the wooded area from the air. Bulldozers from Fort Belvoir and prefabricated buildings from the United States Navy kept the initial costs low. The space race in the 1950s and 1960s led to the renaming of the museum to the National Air and Space Museum, and finally congressional passage of appropriations for the construction of the new exhibition hall, which opened July 1, 1976 at the height of the United States Bicentennial festivities under the leadership of Director Michael Collins, who had flown to the Moon on Apollo 11. The Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center opened in 2003, funded by a private donation. The museum received COSTAR, the corrective optics instrument installed in the Hubble Space Telescope during its first servicing mission (STS-61) when it was removed and returned to Earth after Space Shuttle mission STS-125. The museum also holds the backup mirror for the Hubble which, unlike the one that was launched, was ground to the correct shape. There were once plans for it to be installed to the Hubble itself, but plans to return the satellite to Earth were scrapped after the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster in 2003; the mission was re-considered as too risky.

Controversy at the Air and Space Museum

Controversy erupted in March 1994 over a proposed commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the atomic bombing of Japan. The centerpiece of the exhibit was the Enola Gay, the B-29 bomber that dropped Little Boy on the Japanese city of Hiroshima. When the first draft of the script for the exhibit was leaked by Air Force Magazine, the responses were very critical. Two sentences described as infamous that sparked controversy was, "For most Americans, this war was fundamentally different than the one waged against Germany and Italy - it was a war of vengeance. For most Japanese, it was a war to defend their unique culture against Western imperialism." Veterans' groups, led by the Air Force Association and The Retired Officers Association, argued strongly that the exhibit's inclusion of Japanese accounts and photographs of victims politicized the exhibit and insulted U.S. airmen. Editorials would go as far as to call the National Air and Space Museum "an unpatriotic institution" due to the political nature of the initial proposed script. Due to harsh backlash from the Air Force Association, The Retired Officers Association, and numerous members of Congress, a revision was created and a second draft proposed. This second revision was greeted with a large amount of Congressional involvement that resulted in line-by-line reviews, which led to the less radical display that was seen in 1995. This was not met without resistance from the scholarly community, though. The Organization of American Historians felt as if Congress's attempts to police and penalize the Smithsonian Institution led to a "transparent attempt at historical cleansing." Also disputed was the predicted number of U.S. casualties that would have resulted from an invasion of Japan, had that been necessary, after the museum director, Martin O. Harwit, unilaterally reduced the figure by 75% on January 9, 1995, at the height of the dispute. On January 18 the American Legion called for a congressional investigation of the matter, and on January 24, 1995, 81 members of Congress called for Harwit's resignation. Harwit was forced to resign on May 2. Although the exhibit was "radically reduced" and criticized by the New York Times as "the most diminished display in Smithsonian history," the Air and Space Museum placed the forward fuselage of the Enola Gay and other items on display as part of a non-political historical exhibition. Within a year, it had drawn more than a million visitors, making it the most popular special exhibition in the history of the NASM, and when the exhibition closed in May 1998, it had drawn nearly four million visitors.

Fly Away to the Air and Space Museum
EXPLORE!

Cover photo: Macchi C.202 and P-51D Mustang from Wikipedia Content courtesy of Wikipedia

Find hotels near this post
Booking.com

Must-See Museums in Washington D.C.

National Air and Space Museum

We use cookies on this website. You are free to manage these via your browser settings at any time. For more information about how we use cookies, please see our Privacy Policy.