National Air and Space Museum

Coordinates: 38°53′18″N 77°01′12″W / 38.888333°N 77.02°W / 38.888333; -77.02

The National Air and Space Museum (NASM) of the Smithsonian Institution holds the largest collection of historic aircraft and spacecraft in the world. It was established in 1976. Located in Washington, D.C., United States, it is a center for research into the history and science of aviation and spaceflight, as well as planetary science and terrestrial geology and geophysics. Almost all space and aircraft on display are originals or backups to the originals. It is the second-most popular of the Smithsonian museums and operates an annex, the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center, at Dulles International Airport. The museum currently conducts restoration of its collection at the Paul E. Garber Preservation, Restoration, and Storage Facility in Suitland, Maryland.


Because of the museum's close proximity to the United States Capitol, the Smithsonian wanted a building that would be architecturally impressive but would not stand out too boldly against the Capitol building. St. Louis-based architect Gyo Obata of Hellmuth, Obata and Kassabaum accepted the challenge and designed the museum as four simple marble-encased cubes containing the smaller and more theatrical exhibits, connected by three spacious steel-and-glass atria which house the larger exhibits such as missiles, airplanes and spacecraft. The mass of the museum echoes the National Gallery of Art across the National Mall, and uses the same pink Tennessee marble as the National Gallery. Built by Gilbane Building Company, the museum was completed in 1976. The west glass wall of the building is used for the installation of airplanes, functioning as a giant door.


The museum was originally called the National Air Museum when formed on August 12, 1946 by an act of Congress and signed into law by President Harry S. Truman, some pieces in the National Air and Space Museum collection date back to the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia after which the Chinese Imperial Commission donated a group of kites to the Smithsonian after Smithsonian Secretary Spencer Fullerton Baird convinced exhibiters that shipping them home would be too costly. The Stringfellow steam engine intended for aircraft was accessioned into the collection in 1889, the first piece actively acquired by the Smithsonian now in the current NASM collection.

After the establishment of the museum, there was no one building that could hold all the items to be displayed, many obtained from the United States Army and United States Navy collections of domestic and captured aircraft from World War I. Some pieces were on display in the Arts and Industries Building, some were stored in the Aircraft Building (also known as the "Tin Shed", a large temporary metal shed in the Smithsonian Castle's south yard. Larger missiles and rockets were displayed outdoors in what was known as Rocket Row. The shed housed at large Martin bomber, a LePere fighter-bomber, and an Aeromarine 39B floatplane. Still, much of the collection remained in storage due to a lack of display space.

The combination of the large numbers of aircraft donated to the Smithsonian after World War II and the need for hangar and factory space for the Korean War drove the Smithsonian to look for its own facility to store and restore aircraft. The current Garber Facility was ceded to the Smithsonian by the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission in 1952 after the curator Paul E. Garber spotted the wooded area from the air. Bulldozers from Fort Belvoir and prefabricated buildings from the United States Navy kept the initial costs low.

The space race in the 1950s and 1960s led to the renaming of the museum to the National Air and Space Museum, and finally congressional passage of appropriations for the construction of the new exhibition hall, which opened July 1, 1976 at the height of the United States Bicentennial festivities under the leadership of Director Michael Collins, who had flown to the Moon on Apollo 11. The Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center opened in 2003, funded by a private donation.

The museum will receive several artifacts, including a former camera, that were removed from the Hubble Space Telescope and returned to Earth after Space Shuttle mission STS-125. The museum also holds the backup mirror for the Hubble which, unlike the one that was launched, was ground to the correct shape. There were once plans for it to be installed to the Hubble itself, but plans to return it to Earth were scrapped after the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster in 2003; the mission was re-considered as too risky.

The Smithsonian has also been promised the International Cometary Explorer, which is currently in a solar orbit that occasionally brings it back to Earth, should NASA attempt to recover it.


Controversy erupted in 1994 over a proposed commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the atomic bombing of Japan. The centerpiece of the exhibit was the Enola Gay, the B-29 bomber that dropped the A-bomb on the Japanese city of Hiroshima. Veterans’ groups, backed by some congressmen, argued strongly that the exhibit’s inclusion of Japanese accounts and photographs of victims insulted U.S. airmen. Also disputed was the predicted number of US casualties that would have resulted from an invasion of Japan, had that been necessary. Eventually the museum director, Martin O. Harwit, was forced to resign, and the exhibit was radically reduced to “the most diminished display in Smithsonian history."


Carl W. Mitman was the first head of the museum, under the title of Assistant to the Secretary for the National Air Museum, heading the museum from 1946 until his retirement from the Smithsonian in 1952.

The following have been, or acted as, director of the museum:

  • Philip S. Hopkins, 1958-1964
  • S. Paul Johnston, 1964-1969
  • Frank A. Taylor (acting), 1969-1971
  • Michael Collins, 1971–1978;
  • Melvin B. Zisfein (acting), 1978-1979
  • Noel W. Hinners, 1979-1982
  • Walter J. Boyne (acting 1982–1983, director 1983-1986)
  • James C. Tyler (acting), 1986-1987
  • Martin O. Harwit, 1987-1995
  • Donald D. Engen, 1996-1999
  • John R. Dailey, 2000–present

Gallery of exhibits

  • Ad Astra ("to the stars"), the sculpture at the entrance to the building

  • Mercury Friendship 7 spacecraft

  • Apollo 11 Command Module

  • Soviet SS-20 and U.S. Pershing II rockets

  • SpaceShipOne

  • Bell X-1

  • The Spirit of St. Louis

  • Pioneer H

  • X-15

  • Apollo–Soyuz Test Project Display

  • The space suit worn by David Scott on Apollo 15

  • Ballistic missiles

  • Apollo Lunar Module LM-2

  • Replica of lunar space suit

  • Original Star Trek production model of the USS Enterprise

  • Side view of a former Northwest Boeing 747-100B

  • Former Eastern Douglas DC-3

  • Lockheed U-2

In popular media

  • The Simpson family visits the museum, allowing Bart to sneak inside The Spirit of St. Louis in the third season episode Mr. Lisa Goes to Washington.
  • The main National Air and Space Museum makes an appearance in the Percy Jackson novel The Titan's Curse, where the quest members are attacked by the Nemean Lion while in the museum, destroying several exhibits.
  • The Air and Space Museum was used as part of the setting in the 2009 film Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian, but the film was actually shot in Vancouver.
  • The Air and Space Museum that is in Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, where Sam, Mikaela, Wheelie and Agent Simmons woke up Jetfire in SR-71 Blackbird mode, is the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center branch facility at Dulles International Airport.
  • The Air and Space Museum is a playable level in the video game Tony Hawk's Proving Ground.

Building Activity

  • updated a digital reference
    about 5 years ago via