Astronauts, Aviators Celebrate National Air and Space Museum's 40 Years

national air and space museum's milestones of flight hall
Then and now: Views showing the National Air and Space Museum’s Milestones of Flight Hall in 1976 and 2016. (Image credit: Smithsonian)

Four decades after a signal sent from Mars led to the public opening of the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum, another transmission from space has led to the debut of a newly renovated exhibit hall on the museum's 40th anniversary.

Astronaut Jeff Williams, appearing in a video filmed aboard the International Space Station and projected onto the wall of the Washington, DC museum, launched the hall's public premiere and birthday celebration on Friday night (July 1).

"Your magnificent museum inspired millions over the past four decades, commemorating the spirit of exploration and the achievements of human flight," said Williams. "Please begin your countdown to re-open the Boeing Milestones of Flight Hall!” [Photo Gallery: First Look at Boeing Milestones of Flight Hall]

With that, the lights inside the museum began to flicker on, revealing the gallery through the building's glass façade.

The space-to-ground ceremony evoked the events of July 1, 1976, when then-President Gerald Ford joined Apollo 11 astronaut Michael Collins to watch a robotic arm cut a red, white and blue ribbon, opening the Air and Space Museum for the first time.

"We were supposed to cut the ribbon out here — the ribbon on the [National] Mall side of the building declaring it open — with a signal that came from a spacecraft between here and Mars... and I was holding my breath," recalled Collins, the museum's first director, in a video replayed at Friday's ceremony. "But believe it or not, all the electrons did their little things and the ribbon got snipped and the building got opened. It was good."

The source of that signal 40 years ago was NASA's Viking 1 lander, which 19 days later became the first spacecraft to touch down on Mars. The lander is now the property of the Smithsonian museum.

"Of course, we haven't been able to collect it yet," General Jack Dailey, the current director of the Air and Space, said. "We have unfinished business on Mars and it is up to this museum to inspire a new generation to take up the task."

President Gerald Ford and astronaut Michael Collins at the official ribbon cutting outside the National Air and Space Museum on July 1, 1976. The ribbon was cut by a signal transmitted by the Viking I spacecraft in orbit around Mars. (Image credit: Smithsonian)

Joining Dailey for the outdoor ceremony were 10 members of the museum's staff who were present for the opening in 1976, as well as Richard Kurin, the Smithsonian's Acting Provost and Undersecretary for Museums and Research, and Col. Nicole Malachowski, a U.S. Air Force fighter pilot who was the first woman to fly with the Thunderbirds.

"We're here to trumpet the significance of milestones," said Malachowski, who at 12 years old found her inspiration to become a pilot by visiting the museum 30 years ago. "The 40th anniversary of this museum is a milestone."

Two years in the making, the Boeing Milestones of Flight is the first hall visitors encounter after entering the museum. The gallery has kept some of the same artifacts that were first placed on display four decades ago, including Charles Lindbergh's Spirit of St. Louis monoplane, Chuck Yeager's Bell X-1 supersonic jet and John Glenn's Mercury capsule, Friendship 7. The hall also introduces exhibits new to Milestones, including a restored Apollo lunar module and the model of the Starship Enterprise from the "Star Trek" TV series.

The renovated Milestones of Flight, which also features a new digital experience to engage guests inside and outside of the museum, was made possible by a $30 million donation by The Boeing Company.

"As you make your way through the galleries tonight, I'd ask that you just imagine the artifacts and stories that will narrate our next 100 years, and we look forward to being a part of that," Greta Lundeberg, Boeing's vice president for strategy and advocacy, said.

In addition to the speakers at the event, the ceremony also included congratulatory messages delivered by video from aviation and spaceflight personalities, including pilots Patty Wagstaff and Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger and astronauts Kathy Sullivan and Jim Lovell.

"Happy birthday, National Air and Space Museum!" stated Lovell.

View more photos of the new Boeing Milestones of Flight Hall in collectSPACE's first look gallery.

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Robert Z. Pearlman Editor, Contributor

Robert Pearlman is a space historian, journalist and the founder and editor of, an online publication and community devoted to space history with a particular focus on how and where space exploration intersects with pop culture. Pearlman is also a contributing writer for and co-author of "Space Stations: The Art, Science, and Reality of Working in Space” published by Smithsonian Books in 2018. He previously developed online content for the National Space Society and Apollo 11 moonwalker Buzz Aldrin, helped establish the space tourism company Space Adventures and currently serves on the History Committee of the American Astronautical Society, the advisory committee for The Mars Generation and leadership board of For All Moonkind. In 2009, he was inducted into the U.S. Space Camp Hall of Fame in Huntsville, Alabama. In 2021, he was honored by the American Astronautical Society with the Ordway Award for Sustained Excellence in Spaceflight History.