The Space Age has transformed our lives in numerous and mostly invisible ways. It began at the middle of the last century and continues to this day. To tell this story, the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum is planning a new exhibition, RTX Living in the Space Age, that is anticipated to open in 2026. The exhibition will share how the Space Age impacts the lives of people worldwide through the stories of people and objects which brought it about. The exhibit will immerse visitors in three levels of interaction—the missile pit, the first floor, and the balcony—with the objects and themes of the gallery. The displays will take full advantage of the atrium's two-story height.
The gallery will encourage meaningful intergenerational conversations among families. The exhibition team’s aspiration is that visitors will leave the exhibition with new questions and ideas after learning the history of the Space Age through objects and human stories. We hope that they will walk away with the understanding that there are consequences and vulnerabilities to the Space Age technologies that challenge assumptions of convenience.
The introduction to the gallery will beckon visitors with the sight of an illuminated star that once stood at the “Astroland” amusement park in Coney Island, New York. This early artifact of the Space Age will be surrounded by visual images and text that offer our visitors quick clues about the past, present, and future of the Space Age.
Our chronological story of the Space Age will begin with the hall’s missile pit, which will house rockets and launch vehicles—the tools that allowed us to send objects and humans into Earth orbit and beyond. The story will begin with the Nazi German V-2 rocket that both the United States and the USSR adapted after World War II to send the first human-made objects into Earth orbit. Three additional launch vehicles will expand the story by showing how we learned to send nuclear weapons to their targets, how increasingly large and sophisticated objects launched into orbit, and how they sent human beings into space throughout the 20th century, and where we might be heading in the 21st century.
When one speaks of the Space Age, naturally, astronauts come to mind. What is often unseen is the fact that the labor required to send humans into space requires armies of specialists, technicians, engineers, and physicians to keep spacefarers alive and productive in space. The human spaceflight unit in the gallery will focus on those who have made astronauts’ work in space safe and fruitful. A section on spacesuits will focus on how they were built as human-shaped spacecraft. The selection of spacesuits will begin with the training suit of the first suit designed to allow an astronaut into open space and continue with prototypes representing decades of design to tell the stories of design, materials, and aesthetics that have changed what a spacesuit looks like since the 1960s. True astronaut aficionados will be able to walk through a back-up of the first American space station, Skylab, to see how the earliest inhabitants of low Earth orbit lived.
The Space Age has transformed the way we rely on technology, particularly how we find our way. Instead of paper maps to get from one place to another, we now depend on collections of orbiting satellites that relay highly accurate positioning, time, and navigation information to ground station complexes. The data is then interpreted by ubiquitous computer software programs. Originally developed as a military aid to navigate the globe, policymakers soon saw the civilian benefits to navigation satellite systems. Beneath a model of the United States’ most recent navigation satellite, visitors will learn how the systems have expanded over time and how navigation has emerged from a primarily military concern to our current casual civilian use.
Among the large objects in the exhibition are the German V-2, the U.S. Skylab Orbital Workshop, models of massive navigation and communications satellites, the Structural Dynamic Test vehicle of the Hubble Space Telescope and instruments that were returned to Earth after repair missions, and a Civil Defense Siren once used to alert a population to Civil Defense drills. Smaller, and no less fascinating objects, will include everyday personal items that astronauts used to thrive in space. Examples include sensors and detectors that generate the data that drive the Space Age, an Elephant monitor used to track animal migration, and parts of a Civil Defense kit to be used in the event of a nuclear attack.
We will tell the tales of people of the Space Age and have people speak in their own words to describe the roles that they have played. Our stories of people and interviews in the gallery and online in our “beyond the walls” content will feature the expected political and policy leaders, but also incorporate stories that will surprise. These stories will include those of a Jewish engineer in the Soviet Union, who led an obscure laboratory and overcame entrenched antisemitism to become the chief designer for outfitting cosmonauts through the Cold War and beyond; a woman whose work for a Navy contractor pioneered the calculations that made our Global Positioning Satellite system possible; and a young man whose job guarding nuclear missiles in Montana gave him new perspectives on protecting Earth and space environments from the increasing debris that humans have deposited in orbit.
We look forward to sharing these stories of those that helped shape the Space Age alongside the real objects to illustrate and bring to life how these technologies continue to change our lives.
The gallery is made possible by the generous support of RTX. To learn more about upcoming galleries visit our exhibitions page.