The National Air and Space Museum in Washington, DC opened on July 1, 1976. The official ribbon-cutting began with a signal sent from the Viking 1 spacecraft approaching Mars. Relayed to NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California, the signal arrived at the Museum via ground lines. It activated a mechanical “arm,” causing the ribbon to split in two. At the ribbon cutting, President Gerald Ford called the Museum “a perfect birthday present from the American people to themselves.” The opening was one of the highlights of America’s Bicentennial Celebration.
Walking through the doors on opening day, visitors found ten acres of exhibition space comprising 26 distinct galleries. They entered the building through the Milestones of Flight gallery, where they found the icons of the age of flight, from the Wright Flyer, the world’s first airplane, to Charles Lindbergh’s Spirit of St. Louis and the Bell X-1 that carried Captain Chuck Yeager through the speed of sound for the first time, to the Mercury Friendship 7 spacecraft that astronaut John Glenn rode into orbit, and the Apollo 11 Command Module, Columbia, that brought Michael Collins, Neil Armstrong and Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin home from the Moon.
The success of the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum exceeded expectations. Record crowds beat a path to the Museum from the first day the doors opened and have kept coming unabated year after year. The five millionth visitor crossed the threshold only six months after opening day.
But there was little time to rest on post-1976 laurels. In the early years, the Museum kept a fast pace, offering new exhibit galleries (nearly one per year), new movies, and public programs. In 1982, the groundbreaking Black Wings exhibit opened, exploring the long struggle of African Americans to take to the sky. In 1996 we opened a new interactive gallery called How Things Fly. It offers imaginative interactive devices that help people of all ages grasp the basic principles of flight, and entertaining talks and demonstrations on scientific principles. The gallery remains one of the most popular stops for children who visit the Museum.
In addition to its exceptional collection of artifacts and engaging displays, the Museum offers public programs geared toward visitors of all ages; teachers and students; life-long learners; enthusiasts and experts. Many of the most noteworthy names in aviation and space history have lectured at the Museum, from astronaut Neil Armstrong to aviation pioneer Chuck Yeager, and the Museum continues to host prominent scientists, engineers, pioneers in aviation, and leaders in space exploration year after year. For a list of upcoming lectures, see the calendar of events.