The Museum of the American Century

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  • In this popular article, the author takes his reader on what he terms an "Air and Space Tour of the American Century" at the Smithsonian Institution's National Air and Space Museum. Stops on the tour highlight various exhibits throughout the museum. Assisted by a number of museum curators, each exhibit is vividly described, with historical background and perspective on how they led to future advances in air and space study and travel. The tour starts in the Milestones of Flight gallery with the Wright Flyer, the actual first airplane to fly. Next is the Spirit of St. Louis. The author comments that Lindbergh's image hinged on his conquering the Atlantic alone, but as technology became more expensive and sophisticated, the true story of flight as it developed over the 20th century became one of increasingly collaborative effort, not of solo heroics.
  • Third stop on the tour is the Hall of Air Transportation, which displays the DC-3, the first passenger aircraft capable of turning a profit without carrying mail. Next is the World War II gallery; according to the author, it demonstrates that the history of flight is inextricably linked to the reinvention of war. Coming back through the Milestones gallery, the author sees the Apollo 11 command module, and notes a curator's comment that going to the moon was a historical process that resulted from a 40-year confrontation between the U. S. and the Soviet Union, and that the arms race contributed to the space race. This brings the author to the Space Race gallery (then closed for repairs), which tells of the establishment of NASA as the U.S.'s response to the U.S.S.R.'s 1957 Sputnik launch. Next stop is the Einstein Planetarium, where Edwin Hubble's mind-bending work in astronomy is discussed by a curator.
  • The author notes that the museum works to fulfill its mandate to memorialize the development of air and space flight, but sometimes does not present subjects in a clear context. He refers to the 1995 Enola Gay exhibit controversy as a victim of conflicting perspectives and notes the lack of reminders of the Vietnam War as evidence of this. The author also faults the museum for not directly confronting the fact that "Big Government" has been instrumental in driving advances in the air and space arena since World War II. He illustrates his point by using Wernher von Braun as an example of government and the scientific community working to develop new technologies for use by the government. The author's last stop on the tour is the Beyond the Limits gallery, where the key technology behind the computer revolution is shown to have been rooted in the development of a missile's computerized guidance system.


  • Heyman, Ira Michael 5/30/1930-11/19/2011
  • Enola Gay (Bomber)
  • National Air and Space Museum


Smithsonian Institution History Bibliography


Twenty photographs accompany the article.

Contained within

The Washington Post [Newspaper)

Contact information

Institutional History Division, Smithsonian Institution Archives, 600 Maryland Avenue, S.W., Washington, D.C. 20024-2520,


September 17, 2000


  • Airplanes
  • WW II
  • Technology
  • Flight
  • Secretaries
  • Controversies
  • Aeronautics
  • Museums
  • Space flight
  • World War, 1939-1945
  • Space vehicles
  • Biography
  • Museum curators


Washington (D.C.)

Physical description

Sunday Magazine section, pgs. 8-16 and 25-28

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