The millions of visitors who pass through the doors of the National Air and Space Museum each year come to see the real thing, the actual air and space craft that shaped history – from the world’s first airplane to the actual capsule that carried astronauts to the Moon and back. Few if any of our visitors, however, realize that aerospace history was made on the site of the National Air and Space Museum in 1861.
National Mall in Washington, D.C., 1856. The smokestack of the Washington Gas Light Company can be seen in the foreground. The white arrow points to the Mary Anne Hall House, which at the time, was one of the city's best known brothels.
Thaddeus Lowe's balloon Enterprise being inflated in Cincinnati, 1861.
At the beginning of the Civil War, Joseph Henry (then secretary of the Smithsonian), lent support to aeronaut Thaddeus Lowe, who wanted to demonstrate to President Lincoln the potential for balloons to be used for military reconnaissance. That June Lowe made tethered ascents from the National Mall directly in front of where the Museum now stands—a site that was then occupied by the Columbia Armory. His demonstrations led to the development of a balloon corps for the Union Army and the birth of American aerial reconnaissance. Read more about his ascent and the birth of Civil War Ballooning on our blog.