At the newly renovated and reopened gallery spaces at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum visitors can lay their eyes on a mockup of the International Space Station and view the historic Wright Flyer aircraft in a new environment. Renovation work began on the 45-year-old museum abutting the National Mall in Washington, D.C., in 2018. The project, a 7-year endeavor with a $360 million price tag, is led by Quinn Evans Architects and, when complete, will completely overhaul several parts of the 604,000-square-foot complex. Core focus areas include a redesign of all 23 of its exhibition spaces, recladding the exterior, and modernizing outdated mechanical systems.
Originally built in 1976 with a design by Gyo Obata, the National Air and Space Museum occupies four city blocks with four marble volumes, each separated by glass and steel atriums. A portion of the building will be demolished to make way for the Bezos Learning Center, an educational facility on the site that will host programming and activities related to science and technology. It is named for Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, who generously donated $200 million to the project, $70 million of which will help fund the adjacent museum renovation. The remaining funds are going toward the design and construction of the new building. Five design proposals for the learning center were unveiled last month.
Under the latest renovation, interiors of the existing buildings were reworked to accommodate new artifacts while exhibition and programming space in the building’s west wing was renovated. The sprawling complex’s planetarium and museum store both got a refresh while a new eatery, the Mars Café, was added. Accessibility upgrades were also made throughout. Following a six-month closure, the space- and aviation-themed museum will partially reopen to the public on October 14, 2022.
“We are thrilled to finally unveil the first part of the newly renovated museum,” said Chris Browne, director of the museum in a statement. “Visitors will have a more modern and engaging experience, visiting favorite icons as well as many new artifacts never before seen at the museum in D.C. We hope each visitor will see themselves in these exhibitions and that young people will be inspired by all that is possible in aviation and space exploration.”
The partially reopened museum will allow visitors to experience eight new and updated exhibitions with 100 digital and interactive components. In the Kenneth C. Griffin Exploring the Planets Gallery, patrons can saunter along the surface of another planet through an immersive simulation; meanwhile, in One World Connected visitors peek inside a model of the International Space Station that allows them to view Earth as seen from outer space.
Hundreds of new artifacts will be on display in the newly renovated exhibition spaces, with objects that will pique the interest of cosmophiles and aviation geeks alike. Among these objects are the WR-3 air racer built by pioneering African-American racing pilot, airplane designer, and aeronautical engineer Neal Loving, and a T-38 aircraft flown by Jackie Cochran, the first woman to break the sound barrier. Star Wars and Star Trek fans can view a life-size X-Wing Starfighter, a prop from Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, and the prosthetic ear tip costume fabricated for Mr. Spock in the original Star Trek series.
Museum favorites like the 1903 aircraft famously flown by the Wright brothers will be reinstalled in the newly renovated Wright Brothers & the Invention of the Aerial Age. Astronaut Alan Shepard’s Mercury spacesuit and the Mercury Freedom 7 capsule he used to drop back down after Earth after becoming the first American in space will be displayed alongside the Apollo 11 command module. A new planetarium will connect with planetariums located across the country through screencasts.
The east wing of the museum remains closed as the renovation work continues. Work on the exterior of the museum will involve replacing the original marble and redesigning the main entrance to feature a wing-like entry that takes cues from aircraft design.