The National Air Museum was created as a separate bureau of the Smithsonian Institution by an act of Congress on August 12, 1946. Twenty years later, its name was changed to the National Air and Space Museum as part of a congressional act authorizing a separate building to house its collections, which opened to the public on July 1, 1976.
The Air and Space Museum collection dates back to the closing of the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia, when the Smithsonian received a group of kites from the Chinese Imperial Commission. In 1889, the Stringfellow engine became the first object accessioned into the collection. The collections of the museum were first housed in the Arts and Industries Building, then after World War I expanded to a Quonset hut in the South Yard known as the National Air Museum, and after World War II, outdoors along "Rocket Row." Additional storage was secured in 1952 at the Paul E. Garber Preservation, Restoration, and Storage Facility in Suitland, Maryland. The beginning of the conquest of space in the 1950s and 1960s helped to drive the renaming of the Air Museum to the National Air and Space Museum, and finally congressional passage of appropriations for the construction of the new museum occurred in 1971.
Developments Since the 1970s
The new museum, featuring a Tennessee marble exterior, was designed by the architects Hellmuth, Obata, + Kassabaum. After the groundbreaking ceremony held in November 1972, work on the new building proceeded on two fronts—the actual construction of the building, and work by the staff on two dozen exhibition halls. The dimensions of the building are 635 feet in length, 225 feet in width, and 82 feet, 9 inches in height, with some 161,145 square feet of exhibition floor space. The staff moved into the museum in 1975 and completed preparations for the July 1, 1976 opening, part of the Smithsonian's contribution to the American Bicentennial celebration. Notable museum collections include the 1903 Wright Flyer, the Spirit of St. Louis, the Winnie Mae, Apollo 11 command module Columbia, and a lunar rock. During the 1980s, the museum began to focus more directly on its research component. Fellowships were established in the curatorial departments, outreach in the form of lectures and other public programs increased, and the National Air and Space Museum Archives was created.
On December 17, 2003, the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center of the National Air and Space Museum opened near Washington Dulles International Airport in Chantilly, Virginia. Also designed by architects Hellmuth, Obata, + Kassabaum, when the Udvar-Hazy Center’s sections are completed the building will total 760,000 square feet. The extension allows the display of many more and larger air and space artifacts, including the space shuttle Enterprise and a Concorde airliner.
- Chronology of the National Air and Space Museum
- Bibliography of the National Air and Space Museum
- Images of the National Air and Space Museum
- Additional Records and Collections from the National Air and Space Museum
- National Air and Space Museum Records from the Smithsonian Institution Archives
- Historic Picture Highlights of the National Air and Space Museum from the Smithsonian Institution Archives
- Additional Records and Collections of the National Air and Space Museum across the Smithsonian
Today in Smithsonian History
James Smithson makes his will while residing in Bentinck Street, Cavendish Square, London. The conditions for the bequest to the United States are: "In the case of the death of my said Nephew [Henry James Hungerford] without leaving a child or children, or the death of the child or children he may have had under the age of twenty-one years or intestate, I then bequeath the whole of my property, . . . to the United States of America, to found at Washington, under the name of the Smithsonian Institution, an Establishment for the increase & diffusion of knowledge among men."More
Did you know...
That astronaut Michael Collins, from Gemini 10 and Apollo 11, was director of the National Air and Space Museum from 1971 to 1978, overseeing the construction and opening of the museum in 1976?