The Early Years
The Smithsonian's connection to flight began with the birth of the Institution, first headed by Joseph Henry, a physicist, balloon enthusiast, and sky-watcher. In 1861, Henry made a pivotal contribution to American aviation when he invited Thaddeus Sobieski Constantine Lowe to inflate his hot air balloon on the Smithsonian grounds. This demonstration eventually led to the birth of American aerial reconnaissance during the Civil War.
It is no wonder then, that the Smithsonian's aeronautical collection began well before 1976, when the National Air and Space Museum was constructed on the Mall in Washington, DC. One hundred years before, in 1876, a group of 20 beautiful kites was acquired from the Chinese Imperial Commission, seeding what would later become the largest collection of aviation and space artifacts in the world.
The collections of the Museum were first housed in the Arts and Industries (A&I) Building, then after World War I, expanded to a Quonset hut erected by the War Department behind the Smithsonian Castle. Affectionately known as the "Tin Shed," the new building opened to the public in 1920, and would remain in use for the next 55 years.
The National Air Museum
In 1946, President Harry Truman signed a bill establishing the Smithsonian's National Air Museum to memorialize the development of aviation; collect, preserve, and display aeronautical equipment; and provide educational material for the study of aviation. The legislation didn't provide for the construction of a new building; however, and the collection soon outgrew the Museum's exhibition space. Since there was no room left in the Arts and Industries Building or the "Tin Shed," WWII aircraft and other items such as engines and missiles were stored at an abandoned aircraft factory in Park Ridge, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago. The U.S. Navy had a similar collection in storage for the Smithsonian at Norfolk, Va.
In 1951 as a result of the Korean War emergency, the Museum had to vacate the Park Ridge premises. In response to the immediate need for space, Paul Garber, the National Air Museum's first curator, located 21 acres in Silver Hill, Md., a suburb of Washington, D.C. With the addition of several prefabricated buildings the site became the storage area for the National Air Museum. Garber had managed to save the collection. To honor his achievement, the location was named the Paul E. Garber Preservation, Restoration and Storage Facility in 1980.
Joining the Space Age
Well before spaceflight became a reality, the Smithsonian took a leading role in funding one of America's most important rocket pioneers. In 1916, Robert Goddard wrote to Secretary Charles Greeley Abbot requesting a grant to support his research. The Smithsonian awarded him $5,000 to conduct his first practical experiments in rocketry, and eventually published his classic treatise, A Method of Reaching Extreme Altitudes.
Over the next 50 years, as the technology continued to advance, and as the collection expanded to include artifacts related to rocketry and spaceflight, it became clear that the Museum was entering a new phase. In 1966, President Lyndon Johnson signed a law that changed the name of the National Air Museum to the National Air and Space Museum to memorialize the development of both aviation and spaceflight. The Museum's collection on display expanded to include missiles and rockets, some of which were located outdoors near the Arts and Industries Building in an area that was known as "Rocket Row."
Funding to construct a new building was approved in 1971, and with the location determined: it would be on the National Mall between Fourth and Seventh Streets S.W., the Smithsonian Secretary, C. Dillon Ripley, hired former Apollo 11 astronaut Michael Collins as the National Air and Space Museum's director. Collins would guide the Museum through its construction, hire a team of top-notch professionals, oversee the creation of first-rate exhibits, and launch the Museum's Center for Earth and Planetary Studies. This new division was devoted to active research in analysis of lunar and planetary spacecraft data and the lead center for Earth observations and photography from the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project.
Groundbreaking took place on November 20, 1972 and in early 1975 the awesome task of filling the building with air- and spacecraft began. The goal of opening during America's bicentennial year was met, and the building was inaugurated with great fanfare on July 1, 1976.
The success of the Smithsonian's new National Air and Space Museum exceeded expectations. The five millionth visitor crossed the threshold only six months after opening day. Today, the National Air and Space Museum is one of the most visited museums in the world.
Two days before the 100th anniversary of the Wright brothers' historic 1903 flights, the Museum greeted the second century of flight by opening a spectacular new companion museum. Located on the grounds of Washington Dulles International Airport in Northern Virginia, the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center dwarfs the Museum in Washington, DC in size. It displays more than 150 aircraft in its huge Boeing Aviation Hangar and about as many rockets, missiles, satellites, and other spacecraft in its James S. McDonnell Space Hangar , with more artifacts being moved there all the time. The Center houses a new and larger restoration facility, an archives, collections processing unit, conservation laboratory, and collections storage for small objects.
The Flight Continues
The collection that started in 1876 with a group of 20 kites has grown to nearly 60,000 objects. A large portion of the major objects in the collection are on public display, either at the Museum or on loan to other Institutions around the world. Many more objects remain in storage. The Museum remains the preeminent American institution for memorializing flight, and for collecting, preserving, and presenting aviation and space technology. It also plays a pivotal role in planetary research. Today the Museum's Center for Earth and Planetary Studies has team members on all active missions to Mars (the Mars Exploration Rovers, Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, Mars Express spacecraft), Mercury (MESSENGER spacecraft), and the Moon (Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter).
What is to come will be limited only be the imaginations of future generations, many of whom will be inspired by a childhood visit to see the remarkable airplanes and spacecraft at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum.