- The Washington Times - Monday, July 2, 2001

Eight minutes after the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum opened yesterday, officials knew the 25th birthday of the block-long building that houses such treasures as the Spirit of St. Louis would be a busy day. They were right. It was like a run on a bank during the Great Depression.
More than 4,000 people streamed in when the doors opened at 9 a.m. Another 4,000 followed in the next 20 minutes. The museum was on track to break the house record of 112,000 visitors in one day.
Two of them were Stephen Wade of Clearwater, Fla., and his daughter, Tara, 10, who was peering through the window of John Glenn's Mercury capsule Friendship 7.
"It's so small [inside]," she said.
That was exactly the kind of thing her dad had hoped she'd say. Mr. Wade had wanted Tara to see what history looked like up close. "They see so much space stuff in the movies, I think it's important they see what it was like for the real people who really did this."
There was fanfare enough for those who like that sort of thing. A birthday cake shaped like an old Sopwith Camel, another cake that looked like the 161,000-square-foot building on Constitution Avenue. Somewhere in this cavernous display case was the real birthday cake of a size that could only be guessed at. Just call it huge. Historical re-enactors representing pioneers of the earliest days of aviation explained their place in history alongside current space shuttle astronauts, while an Air Force band performed and dancers demonstrated the Lindy Hop under the Spirit of St. Louis.
But for the most-visited museum in the world, with 9 million visitors annually and 219 million total, museum Director John R. Dailey knows it's not the hoopla that draws the crowds.
"The collection is what attracts the people," the former NASA administrator and retired Marine general said. "These are inspiring exhibits." His favorite is the F4B-4 Boeing fighter hanging in the Sea-Air Operations gallery. His father flew that plane in the 1930s. But for most people, he says the Milestones of Flight gallery is the most awe-inspiring.
"It's nice to remember where we've come from, where we are, and the courage and ingenuity it took to get us to these places," he said. "Our goal is to get people back to feeling good about America and about what we've done."
The museum was established by Congress in 1946 as the National Air Museum "to memorialize the national development of aviation." The charter was amended in 1966 to reflect the growing field of space flight, and in 1972 Congress appropriated $40 million for construction of the current building on the Mall.
The museum just completed a three-year, $22 million renovation that had one-third of the building closed at any given time. Each of the 30,000 panes of glass in the walls and skylights was replaced. The 1976 design had begun to leak, and displays were showing signs of damage from sunlight.
In 1946, you couldn't fault Congress for thinking the museum would end up as just an endless row of planes, some with props, some with jet engines. But the course of history is never predictable. The space capsule that Tara was peering through would have been as big a shock to them as it was to her.
Underneath the spruce-and-ash-framed, muslin-covered biplane — the first that ever left the ground under its own power in 1903 on the beaches of North Carolina, named by Orville and Wilbur Wright the "Wright Flier" — was parked the capsule that landed men on the moon and returned them safely to Earth. Next to it is the Breitling Orbiter 3, an orange gondola resembling a submarine, that floated at the base of a balloon nonstop around the world in 21 days in 1999. All amazing. All impossible to foresee 55 years ago by those congressmen.
But why pick on those fellows? A lot of things are impossible to see, even from the shorter distance of 25 years. But never underestimate the imagination of an aviator. An addition to this mammoth building was needed almost instantly. On the day it opened, only 80 percent of the collection fit into the brand-new museum.
Two years from now, that addition will open at Dulles International Airport. It will be another giant; the $238 million, 10-story, 300-yard-long companion museum, the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center, will have as its centerpiece the space shuttle Enterprise, a test vehicle that existed mostly in the minds of NASA engineers when President Gerald Ford dedicated the building on Constitution Avenue.
It will open its doors in December 2003, on the 100th anniversary of the Wright brothers' first flight.
Yesterday's festivities kicked off a year-long celebration that will include the September debut of a new exhibit, "Explore the Universe;" a popular film series in the museum's Langley Theater; and special events in honor of the 40th anniversary in February of John Glenn's orbital flight and the 75th anniversary in May of Charles Lindbergh's solo trans-Atlantic flight.

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