The Spirit of '76

Posted on Tue, July 5, 2011

This month we mark the 35th anniversary of the opening of the National Air and Space Museum building on July 1, 1976. To tell the truth, my memories of the months leading up to that moment are something of a blur. I reported to work at the Museum for the first time on February 4, 1974. As junior member of the Astronautics Department, my boss was Frederick C. Durant, III, an engineer and certified space cadet who had served as President of both the American Rocket Society and the International Astronautical Federation and was a key advisor to the U.S. military, intelligence, and civilian space-flight programs of the 1950s and '60s. Fred had come to the museum in 1964 to lead it into the Space Age. Close to four decades later, he remains one of the best bosses I have ever had. When I arrived at the National Air and Space Museum, Astro, as we called our department, consisted of just four curator/subject matter specialists and two support staff, shoe-horned into the northeast tower of the Arts and Industries Building, with a splendid view of the dumpster in the parking lot of the building (the target for empty soda cans tossed from the second story window on slow Friday afternoons) and the dust cloud rising from the construction site next door where the Hirshhorn Museum was being built. The space kept getting smaller as we added another curator and two more support staff by the time we moved into the office areas of the new building in the spring of 1975.


Smithsonian South Yard in 1974. The Arts and Industries building with "Rocket Row" along the west side is visible to the right. The white hut at center is the Air and Space Building, which was torn down after moving into the new National Air and Space Museum in 1976. Credit: Smithsonian Institution Archives


We were obviously focused on collecting objects and planning the galleries that would fill the new building on opening day. We got something of a head start while we were still at the A&I building – planning and producing a series of trial versions of exhibitions that would be included in the new building. If memory serves, these mini exhibits included: World War I Aviation, Exhibition Flight, Balloons and Airships, Life in the Universe, and Apollo to the Moon. While we were never able to “moth ball” these preview exhibitions and transfer them directly into the new setting, it did at least give us a real opportunity to develop the ideas and the general plan for what visitors would see on opening day.

The Lunar Module and the Wright 1909 Military Plane being prepared to be moved out of the North Hall of the Arts and Industries Building, August 1975. Credit: Smithsonian Institution Archives


Michael Collins, Command Module Pilot of Apollo 11, was the director of the museum, a fact in which all of us took genuine pride. At the same time there was never any doubt in our minds that Mike’s deputy, Mel Zisfien, was the guy looking over our shoulders. Mel managed the process of gallery development and watched over the team of curators, designers and fabricators who were creating the galleries. Suffice to say that Mel was both a big picture kind of guy, and a detail man who demanded to be kept up to the minute with regard to our progress, or lack of same. Looking back over the gulf of years what I most remember is the collection of incredibly bright, talented, and energetic -- if sometime quirky and exasperating -- people who populated the National Air and Space Museum staff in the months, weeks, and days leading up to the opening. It was a privilege to be included in their number.