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First look at Air and Space Museum's new 'Milestones of Flight' Hall

June 30, 2016

— After 40 years, the National Air and Space Museum finally has its elephant.

The proverbial pachyderm, in this case a restored Apollo lunar module gleaming with gold foil and a silverly metal skin, is now one of the first artifacts the public will encounter as they enter the Smithsonian museum's newly-renovated central hall, the Boeing Milestones of Flight.

Gen. Jack Dailey, the director of the Air and Space, likens the moon lander to the iconic exhibit of a mounted African Elephant that guests first encounter inside the nearby Museum of Natural History on the National Mall in Washington, D.C.

"The heart of the museum lives here," said Dailey at a press preview of the new Milestones of Flight gallery, which opens to the public on Friday (July 1), marking the 40th anniversary of the National Air and Space Museum. "This hall is a place of discovery and exploration, and truly one of the world's great public spaces."

The re-arranged and, as Dailey describes it, "transformed" Milestones of Flight still stretches between the museum's two entrances, but now features a streamlined, modern design that introduces guests to the types of aviation and space treasures that are contained within the building's other galleries.

"This serves very well as a table of contents for what is in the museum," said Allan Needell, the curator who oversaw the relocation and restoration of the Apollo lunar module. "We can't have everyone just dwell in this [hall] for the whole time, they'd miss everything else we have in the whole building, so it is designed in such a way to help you understand what else is here, and give you some background, some introduction to what you will find."

A milestone for Milestones

As the Air and Space Museum's central space, the 19,000-square-foot (1,765-sq.-meter) Milestones of Flight Hall has welcomed 327 million visitors since it opened on July 1, 1976. Largely unchanged for the past 40 years, it has now underwent its first major redesign, a two-year renovation made possible by a $30 million gift by The Boeing Company.

The Apollo lunar module is one of several new additions to Milestones. Also new to the hall is the Discoverer XIII satellite re-entry capsule, the first human-made object to be recovered from orbit; the backup to Telstar I, the world's first active communications satellite; and the studio model of the Starship Enterprise from the original Star Trek television series that first aired 50 years ago this September.

"Rethinking what we mean by a 'milestone' at the National Air and Space Museum allowed us to think about inspiration and imagination as important themes that run through all kinds of aviation and spaceflight stories and really could be summed up and symbolized in that one piece," said Margaret Weitekamp, who as curator of the museum's social and cultural dimensions of spaceflight collection championed the inclusion of the Enterprise in Milestones.

Still on display inside the hall, although in new locations, are Charles Lindbergh's Spirit of St. Louis monoplane, Chuck Yeager's Bell X-1 supersonic airplane, John Glenn's Friendship 7 orbital capsule and the Gemini 4 spacecraft. SpaceShipOne and the X-15 rocket plane still hang from the ceiling and the engineering backup to the Viking 1 Mars lander remains on exhibit.

Guests can also still touch the moon, one of the few moon rock touchstones in the world.

"These things don't change. This is history," said Dailey. "These are the machines that made things happen and set those milestones, which is what this is about."

Modern Milestones

While many of the artifacts have not changed, the way in which the public interacts with them has. In addition to revealing the new layout for Milestones, the National Air and Space Museum is also introducing a new digital experience.

"The Boeing Milestones of Flight Hall will serve as the model for our new approach to more interactive, dynamic exhibitions and enable us to share the story of flight like never before," Dailey said. "With our new digital experience launching along with the gallery on July 1, we're poised to take our mission beyond the walls of the museum."

Three components make up the museum's new "GO FLIGHT" experience — a 16 by 12 foot (5 by 4 meter) interactive wall in the Milestones Hall, a mobile app and a redesigned website. Whether onsite or online, users can use the technology to "favorite" artifacts, allowing them to design personalized tours of the museum and explore unexpected connections with other items in the collection.

A key part of the GO FLIGHT experience is the ability for users to share their own stories within the app and on the website.

"We are transforming this museum from the icon it has been for the past 40 years by preparing it for the future," said Dailey. "We don't know exactly what that is. We don't know what a visitor in 10 years is going to want to see or how they would want to see it, but we're trying different things."


Photographs credit:

A view looking down at the Boeing Milestones of Flight Hall at the National Air and Space Museum. The barrier in front of the Apollo lunar module will be removed when the hall officially opens on July 1, 2016. Among the artifacts pictured here are the X-15 rocket plane (at right, foreground), Charles Lindbergh's Spirit of St. Louis monoplane (at left) and SpaceShipOne (behind the nose of the X-15).

For the first 40 years, the layout of the Milestones of Flight Hall displayed artifacts across the floor. The new design opens the center area to allow the public to enter the museum and orient themselves before exploring the air and space artifacts to either side.

One of the first exhibits that the public encounters when entering the museum from the National Mall is a "proof test article" of the Viking 1 lander that was the first spacecraft to touch down on Mars on July 20, 1976. Twenty days earlier, a signal sent from the Viking 1 spacecraft orbiting the Red Planet activated a mechanical arm identical to one on the Viking 1 lander to cut a ribbon officially opening the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C.

John Glenn became the first American to orbit the Earth aboard the Mercury spacecraft Friendship 7 (at right). Edward White became the first American to walk in space when he exited the Gemini 4 spacecraft (left), leaving James McDivitt inside.

The Apollo lunar module had earlier been displayed outside the Wright Place Food Court before being moved into the Boeing Milestones of Flight. As part of its relocation, the moon lander underwent a conservation and preservation effort.

The museum's lunar module, LM-2, was the second Apollo lander to be built. It had been originally intended for a crewed test flight in Earth orbit and downgraded to an unmanned test before its spaceflight was canceled. It was then used a ground test vehicle before becoming a display piece. For its exhibit in the Boeing Milestones of Flight Hall, the National Air and Space Museum altered its cosmetic appearance to match LM-5, better known as the Apollo 11 lunar module "Eagle" that Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin flew to Tranquility Base in 1969.

Curators added details to the lunar module display to make it the most complete and accurate exhibit of an Apollo lander in existence. The spacecraft's Modularized Equipment Stowage Assembly (MESA) is deployed, revealing the TV camera lens (at left) like the type that filmed Neil Armstrong coming down the ladder and taking the "small step" onto the moon. A canister like the type that held the U.S. flag planted on the lunar surface is attached to the ladder's left side (and even has a flag inside). And an original replica of the "We Came in Peace For All Mankind" plaque is attached to the lunar module's leg, just as it was on the Apollo 11 lander.

One of the memorable experiences the original Milestones of Flight Hall offered visitors was a rare chance to "touch a piece of the moon." The lunar touchstone is still there, now integrated into the display of the Apollo lunar module.

One of the new additions to the Boeing Milestones of Flight Hall is the backup to Telstar 1, the world's first active communications satellite, launched in 1962. The artifact was previously part of the collection at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History.

A new display case near the Independence Avenue entrance to the museum will rotate in and out artifacts around a common theme. For its first display, the museum chose items it acquired from the personal collection of the late Sally Ride, the first American woman in space.

This model of the Starship Enterprise was used in the original Star Trek television series, which first aired from September 1966 until June 1969. Donated by Paramount Studios in 1974, it was previously displayed in the museum's gift shop. Before moving it into the Milestones of Flight Hall, the model underwent an extensive conservation and restoration, returning it to as close to its original condition as possible.

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