‘Reopening D.C.’: Smithsonian National Air & Space Museum

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WASHINGTON, D.C. – The phrase “heads-up” takes on a whole new meaning at the Smithsonian National Air & Space Museum. Visitors will find everything from planes to satellites hanging from the ceiling of the museum’s Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Virginia. You’ll also notice the museum itself is built like an airport hangar.

“This is a very important facility for us because it allows us to display the big stuff: the bombers, the airliners, the large military aircraft, and commercial and civilian aircraft that we cannot otherwise fit in our Mall building location,” said Jeremy Kinney, Associate Director for Research and Curatorial Affairs at the National Air and Space Museum.

Kinney is the lead man responsible for getting all of these cool artifacts inside the museum, including Japanese planes present at the Pearl Harbor attack; the plane that dropped the atomic bomb on Japan and effectively ended the World War II, the Enola Gay; and the world’s fastest jet-powered airplane, the Blackbird. It flew from Los Angeles to Washington, D.C. in just over an hour.

From there, visitors will find their way to the space exhibit where they will be greeted by the one and only Space Shuttle Discovery. The shuttle later became the first operational shuttle to be retired.

“A lot of these objects reflect World War II where they are collected as technical objects in the heat of battle,” Kinney explained. “But also, we were always talking to agencies like NASA to leading pioneers of flight and saying ‘hey, can we have that airplane?’.”

Smithsonian actually operates two Air & Space Museums: the Udvar-Hazy Center in Northern Virginia, and the flagship location along the National Mall in Washington, D.C. Each location offers visitors a unique experience.

The National Mall location is still open, but it’s partially closed amid a seven-year renovation project. It’s there you’ll find Neil Armstrong’s space suit he wore to the moon, and the Wright Brothers first-ever plane. New exhibits will open to the public in 2022, the final project is scheduled to be completed by 2025.

“What we’ve done between the two facilities is to tell stories that we can interpret very heavily downtown, but also show the big stuff here at the Udvar-Hazy Center,” Kinney said.

Like many places in Washington, COVID-19 closed the doors of the Air & Space Museum for parts of the last 18 months. Some volunteers are still helping visitors virtually through live video conference kiosks.

The pandemic also slowed down renovation work on the National Mall location. But Kinney tells us the work and the museum’s attendance are, shall we say, taking off, once again.

“The National Air & Space Museum documents the history of flight in and out of the atmosphere,” he said. “It’s primarily for the United States, but it’s also a world story.”

Author’s Note: This week, WNY News Now is launching its “Reopening D.C.” series to learn how some of the top tourist destinations in the Washington, D.C. area are reopening their doors to visitors this summer during the COVID-19 pandemic, and also to offer viewers a virtual tour of these locations.

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