The National Air and Space Museum’s flagship location on the National Mall is once again open for visitors in its western half, with eight exciting new exhibits. The Smithsonian-run museum, which has been memorializing the history and development of aviation and spacecraft since opening in 1976, was closed to the public from March to October 2022, as part of a seven-year plan to revitalize the entire museum.
The renovation began in 2018 and will continue until approximately 2025. According to Christopher Browne, the director of the museum, the project received a $729 million budget through Congress, supplemented by $250 million to $275 million through donations (including contributions from some big-name donors like Amazon founder Jeff Bezos). By the end, all 23 original exhibits will be upgraded, and the building will get some important structural renovations as well.
Old favorites mix with lots of new-to-you items. The freshly reopened galleries feature some recognizable artifacts from previous galleries (it just wouldn’t be the same without Apollo 11’s Columbia space module), but don’t toss this aside just because you’ve been there before. Browne says 40 percent of the artifacts are new to the museum, and artifacts that had previously been on display will be presented in new ways.
“It’s a museum that we will have built on our past success, but it’ll be a new experience. … So, somebody said, ‘Well, I went to the space museum six years ago,’” Browne says. “You may have, but this is a different experience.”
The exhibits will also show the history of aerospace through a more diverse lens. Artifacts and stories from industry pioneers who may not be as widely known will be on display, including the T-38 plane that Jackie Cochran flew when she became the first woman to break the sound barrier.
The new exhibits will cover more than just stuff in the sky. They’ll take a broader look at topics like the development of global communication (aided in large part by satellites), and how the “quest to go faster” with racing cars and motorcycles has driven aerospace development, according to Browne.
“Our goal is that everybody that comes to the museum, however they present — wherever they come from, whatever their interest, whatever their background, gender, ethnicity, age — they’ll be able to see stories that they can personally connect themselves to,” Browne says.
Visitors can expect an interactive and engaging experience. Guests will be encouraged to look at things from new perspectives. In Exploring the Planets, you can see what the universe might look like if you were standing on each planet and get a chance to learn with tactile exhibits.
The renovated museum will be more sustainable and accessible. New water cisterns will reduce the facility’s water use to just 12 percent of what it used previously; ramps and vertical conveyors will provide mobility assistance; and an extra emphasis on hands-on experiences makes the museum more accessible for the visually impaired.
In addition to the eight exhibits, guests can visit the planetarium, the museum retail store, and the new Mars-themed café. Admission is free, but a timed-entry pass is required; passes become available 30 days in advance. The museum is open from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. every day except December 25.
This story originally ran in our November issue. For more stories like this, subscribe to our monthly magazine.