Smithsonian Opens the National Air and Space Museum Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The opening of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum commemorated American contributions to aviation and to space science and inaugurated one of Washington’s most popular tourist attractions.

Summary of Event

On July 1, 1976, the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum (NASM) opened on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., in a building that was considered the epitome of modern architecture in the 1970’s. The Smithsonian’s interest in aeronautics appeared early in that institution’s history. The aeronautical collections were started with a group of kites obtained from the Chinese Imperial Commission at the close of the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia in 1876. These formed a logical beginning for the items that later made up the collections because kites were the first form of aircraft devised by human beings. Museums National Air and Space Museum Aviation;National Air and Space Museum Architecture;National Air and Space Museum Smithsonian Institution;National Air and Space Museum [kw]Smithsonian Opens the National Air and Space Museum (July 1, 1976) [kw]National Air and Space Museum, Smithsonian Opens the (July 1, 1976) [kw]Air and Space Museum, Smithsonian Opens the National (July 1, 1976) [kw]Space Museum, Smithsonian Opens the National Air and (July 1, 1976) [kw]Museum, Smithsonian Opens the National Air and Space (July 1, 1976) Museums National Air and Space Museum Aviation;National Air and Space Museum Architecture;National Air and Space Museum Smithsonian Institution;National Air and Space Museum [g]North America;July 1, 1976: Smithsonian Opens the National Air and Space Museum[02410] [g]United States;July 1, 1976: Smithsonian Opens the National Air and Space Museum[02410] [c]Organizations and institutions;July 1, 1976: Smithsonian Opens the National Air and Space Museum[02410] [c]Spaceflight and aviation;July 1, 1976: Smithsonian Opens the National Air and Space Museum[02410] [c]Architecture;July 1, 1976: Smithsonian Opens the National Air and Space Museum[02410] Arnold, H. H. Randolph, Jennings Collins, Michael Obata, Gyo

The Smithsonian’s collection of aerospace materials resulted from an interest shown by astronomer Samuel Pierpont Langley Langley, Samuel Pierpont when he became the third secretary of the institution in 1887. Langley directed that the Smithsonian include a department of aeronautics, but for years the museum had no suitable building in which to display its valuable and growing collection of aeronautical materials. In 1889, the Stringfellow engine became the first object accessioned into the collection.

At the end of World War I, the Smithsonian obtained a separate building for the display of its growing collection of aircraft, including the original Wright brothers airplane of 1903, which was presented to the Smithsonian in 1948 in accordance with the wishes of Orville Wright. This became the Air and Space Building, which housed the aeronautical collections until the new building opened in 1976. Another important addition was The Spirit of St. Louis, Spirit of St. Louis, The (airplane)[Spirit of Saint Louis] the airplane in which Charles A. Lindbergh Lindbergh, Charles A. made the first nonstop transatlantic flight in 1927; Lindbergh donated the plane to the Smithsonian in April, 1928, and it went on public display in the Arts and Industries Building in the following month.

During World War II, many important types of aircraft were developed, but a lack of space prevented the Smithsonian from expanding its exhibits to include all of them. One exception was the first jet-powered flyer made in the United States, the Bell XP-59A. During this time, a great improvement in the status of the Smithsonian’s aeronautics collections came through the efforts of General H. H. Arnold, commander of the U.S. Army Air Forces, who appreciated the educational value of aircraft exhibitions. Arnold gave orders that representative materials were to be assembled for the museum, and he requested the cooperation of prominent leaders of aeronautical organizations.

After the war, Democratic congressman Jennings Randolph, a champion of aviation, introduced a bill in Congress for the establishment of a national air museum. President Harry S. Truman signed the legislation into law on August 12, 1946. Public Law 722 created a national air museum as a separate bureau of the Smithsonian Institution to “memorialize the national development of aviation; collect, preserve, and display aeronautical equipment of historical interest and significance . . . and provide educational material for the historical study of aviation.”

In 1958, Congress authorized the preparation of plans and specifications for the construction of a new building for the air museum but appropriated no funding; it designated a three-block site directly across the National Mall from the National Gallery of Art for a “National Air Museum for the Smithsonian Institution.” President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed the legislation on September 6, 1958.

The beginning of the conquest of space in the 1950’s and 1960’s helped to drive the renaming of the Air Museum to the National Air and Space Museum. In July, 1966, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed legislation that amended the original 1946 legislation to include the field of spaceflight, and the institution’s name was changed to the National Air and Space Museum as part of a congressional act authorizing a separate building to house its collections.

In 1971, Michael Collins, former Apollo 11 astronaut, was appointed director of the National Air and Space Museum. The next year, Congress appropriated $41.9 million in construction funds for a new building for NASM. The total volume of the new museum was reduced about 50 percent, however, when funding delays resulted in overall cost estimate increases. Although the museum was redesigned to save costs, the building that resulted contained only two-thirds to three-fourths of the display volume in the earlier design. The architect, Gyo Obata, designed a building that could hold large aircraft and spacecraft in such a way that their significance would be highlighted and museum visitors could view the collection easily.

The NASM building is 635 feet long, 225 feet wide, and 82 feet, 9 inches tall, with 161,145 square feet of exhibition space. Several features of the building represented innovations that were unique at the time and that were highly praised by art and architectural critics. The dimensions are impressive, but the building is actually quite simple, with only two lines of galleries on each of two exhibit levels, all directly accessible from one long central corridor. The interior provides expansive views, especially of the National Mall. Within the building are three main galleries and twenty smaller galleries. The huge halls are uncluttered by columns or other roof supports, and the extensive use of glass suggests the open environment of flight. Many airplanes and spacecraft suspended overhead are seen against the sky, which is visible beyond the glass roof domes.

The groundbreaking ceremony for NASM took place on November 20, 1972, after which work on the new building proceeded on two fronts: the actual construction of the building and work by the staff on the exhibition halls. In 1975, as a gift to the American people on the upcoming occasion of the U.S. Bicentennial, the Federal Republic of Germany provided NASM with a Carl Zeiss VI planetarium instrument and an automatic control system, making NASM’s Albert Einstein Spacearium the only fully automated planetarium of its type in the world. The Soviet Union lent the museum a full-scale mock-up of a Soyuz spacecraft. On February 2, 1976, NASM opened its Independence Avenue lobby to allow the public to watch the installation of artifacts in the Milestones of Flight gallery, where some of the museum’s most historically important items were to be displayed.

On July 1, 1976, as part of the Smithsonian’s contribution to the U.S. Bicentennial celebration, an official and very special ribbon-cutting ceremony took place. It began with a signal sent from the Viking 1 spacecraft that was then approaching Mars, which was relayed from space to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, then via ground lines to NASM, where it activated a mechanical “arm” identical to one on Viking 1. As the arm retracted, there was a puff of smoke, the ribbon was cut, and the museum’s doors were opened to the public. Speaking at the event, President Gerald R. Ford Ford, Gerald R. called NASM “a perfect birthday present from the American people to themselves.”


Within a year, NASM was the biggest tourist attraction in Washington, D.C., and it quickly became one of the most visited museums in the world. NASM maintains the largest collection of historic aircraft and spacecraft in the world. It is also a vital center for research into the history, science, and technology of aviation and spaceflight as well as planetary science and terrestrial geology and geophysics. Museums National Air and Space Museum Aviation;National Air and Space Museum Architecture;National Air and Space Museum Smithsonian Institution;National Air and Space Museum

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">“Aerospace Museum Boosts Past, Future,” Aviation Week and Space Technology 105 (July 12, 1976): 38-39, 41-42. Well-illustrated news overview focuses on NASM as an educational facility, highlights several of the artifacts, and presents background facts and figures.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Garber, Paul E. The National Aeronautical Collections: Smithsonian Institution National Air and Space Museum. 10th ed. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution, 1965. Describes the history of the collections then exhibited in the Smithsonian’s Arts and Industries Building. Includes an excellent introductory chapter on how the collections were established and the subsequent need for a museum to house them. Garber’s dream was to display the world’s entire aeronautical collection for the public to view and enjoy.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">National Air and Space Museum. Celebrating the National Air and Space Museum. New York: CBS Publications, 1976. Presents a very thorough overview of NASM and its collections as well as substantial text on the building’s construction and dimensions. This work now has a certain classic status, as it was the first guide published in observance of the museum’s opening.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. Official Guide to the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. Rev. ed. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution, 2002. Detailed and lavishly illustrated volume provides an excellent history of the museum’s development as well as a gallery-by-gallery presentation of the milestones of aviation.

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Categories: History