Tomorrow the Smithsonian will be celebrating the 40th anniversary of the opening of the National Air and Space Museum building. We wanted to add our congratulations to the mix of all night parties, film festivals, and blog posts to celebrate this milestone at the museum. So let’s take a look at a few of the many celebrations that the National Air and Space Museum has seen in its 40 years.
Perhaps the biggest party that the National Air and Space Museum has hosted is a 1985 inaugural ball for newly re-elected President Ronald Reagan. Along side his Vice President George H.W. Bush and Mrs. Bush, the Reagans arrived to celebrate winning another four years in office. Bitterly cold temperatures may have cancelled outdoor celebrations, but inside the museum the winter weather could not cool the high spirits. That night, President and Mrs. Reagan danced beneath the Wright Flyer as they were serenaded from the bandstand . The festivities were themed around ‘We the People: An American Celebration.’ Crowds celebrated in the Milestone of Flight gallery, toasting a fresh start for the American government underneath the Spirit of St. Lewis and the Bell X-1, some of the most important aircraft in our nation’s history.
Just ten years later, the National Air and Space Museum took part in one of the biggest celebrations the Smithsonian has thrown – our 150th birthday party. For this sesquicentennial celebration in 1996 there were twenty three tents set up on the National Mall from for more than ten city blocks. In the Castle building, a new bell was dedicated and rung for the first time as fireworks and a concert rounded out the festivities. As one of the busiest museums of on the Mall, the Air and Space Museum hosted its fair share of the revelers.
However, the party that started it all was one for the record books. The National Air and Space Museum opened during America’s bicentennial and the inaugural festivities were magnified by the celebrations going on around it. On July 1st 1976, just days before 4th of July celebrations unfolded upon the National Mall, President Gerald Ford, the Vice President, and the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court gathered with the S. Dillon Ripley, Secretary of the Smithsonian, to cut the ribbon and welcome the public to the newest Smithsonian museum.
A radio signal beamed from NASA’s Viking spacecraft, orbiting Mars thousands of miles overhead, activated a machine that cut the opening ribbon on this gleaming new state-of-the-art building. Constructed from the same Tennessee Marble as the National Gallery of Art just across the Mall, glass panels broke up the stately marble and provided a skyscape for the milestones of flight that hung from the ceiling. The Washington Post reported that it was an instant hit, with over eight thousand visitors filling the museum to its official capacity.
Ford Attends NASM Opener, The Torch, August 1976, Smithsonian Institution Archives
SI Celebrates with Birthday Party on Mall, Smithsonian Institution Archives
NASM’s Udvar-Hazy Facility Marks 10 Years, Smithsonian Institution Archives
Louis Purnell, Airman and Curator, The Bigger Picture, Smithsonian Institution Archives