For more than four decades, the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum has celebrated the greatest achievements in aviation and space history.
When the Museum’s building in Washington, DC opened in 1976, President Gerald Ford reminded the Museum’s first visitors about the remarkable technological advances made within the century. “The story of powered flight is an American saga,” he said. “The wonder is that it has all happened in the lifetime and memory of living Americans.”
This “American saga” is shared with Museum visitors every day through historical artifacts, notable speakers, and unique programming. This post honors the first 10 years of the building on the National Mall in Washington, DC, with highlights from the decade.
1976 to 1986
When the doors opened in 1976, the Museum’s central gallery, Milestones of Flight, displayed the most extraordinary collection of authentic aviation- and space-related artifacts in the world, among them the 1903 Wright Flyer, a piece of the Moon, the Spirit of St. Louis, the Bell X-1 Glamorous Glennis, Friendship 7, and the Apollo 11 command module Columbia.
Columbia carried Neil Armstrong, Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin, and Michael Collins on the first lunar landing mission in July 1969 and is the only piece of the Apollo 11 spacecraft to return to Earth. In 1979, Armstrong, Aldrin, and Collins gathered in the Museum’s Milestones of Flight Hall to celebrate the 10th anniversary of their historic mission. Collins served as the Museum’s third director from 1971 to 1978 and the first to serve in the Museum’s flagship building.
Other notable appearances at the Museum during this time included Sally Ride, Alan Shepard, Bob Hoover, Chuck Yeager, and Burt Rutan.
In 1981, the Museum temporarily diverged from the art of flight to delve into the art of cooking when the Smithsonian Institution Press published the Famous Personalities of Flight Cookbook. The cookbook featured high-flying recipes from Amelia Earhart, Orville Wright, and Neil Armstrong.
For visitors who were not in the mood for a ham loaf recipe from John Glenn or Michael Collins’ lamb curry recipe, the Museum opened Space Food, an exhibition that displayed freeze-dried, compressed, and packaged meals eaten by astronauts during their missions.
During this decade, the Museum also looked beyond human-made machines to learn about flight. It was a part of a project that constructed a flying replica of a giant pterodactyl Quetzalcoatlus northropi. The replica, called QN-THE TIME TRAVELER™, appeared in the Museum’s film On the Wing in 1985 which examined flight in its various forms.
In addition to creating films, the Museum also collected thousands of new artifacts including the Skylab orbital workshop, a Lunar Roving Vehicle, the reconnaissance aircraft Lockheed U-2C, and aerobatic champion Betty Skelton’s Pitts S-1 Special to name only a few.
The Museum’s Center for Earth and Planetary Studies also contributed dramatically during these years. Using LANDSAT images in 1981, the Center’s director Dr. Farouk El-Baz, discovered a circular crater located in a remote region of the Sahara Desert. The desert area bore a striking resemblance to the planet Mars, prompting a field expedition the following year.
As the story of powered flight continued to evolve, the Museum continued to collect and commemorate those moments in history. Leading up to the Museum’s 40th anniversary of its flagship building in Washington, DC on July 1, we will share more highlights from each of those four decades.