Forty years ago, on the nation’s bicentennial, President Gerald Ford declared the newly opened National Air and Space Museum a “perfect birthday present from the American people to themselves.” Although the Smithsonian Institution’s aerospace collection had been established much earlier, it wasn’t until the building on the National Mall opened that hundreds of artifacts could be displayed in one exhibition space.
Four decades later, thanks to a $30 million donation from the Boeing Company, the Museum has renovated its entrance hall and begun work on other galleries and educational activities. In recognition of Boeing’s generous gift, the new entrance gallery has been renamed the Boeing Milestones of Flight Hall.
One of the first changes visitors will notice is an interactive wall that introduces them to objects on display within the Museum. By downloading the accompanying Go Flight app onto a smartphone or tablet, visitors can read stories about the artifacts, watch videos of their history, and learn about connections between the world’s most significant air- and spacecraft.
Because the app (available for Android and iOS) can track your location, when you’re in the Museum, it offers you a map to help direct your visit, hour-long guided tours, and a schedule of daily events. If you open the app at home, you’ll get a list of topics that can be tailored to your interests. Each time you open the app, you’ll get a different set of stories.
To celebrate the Museum’s 40th birthday, we’re highlighting 10 iconic objects of the hundreds on display. Through the Go Flight app, any one of these could lead you on a journey through a dozen historic artifacts, showing how one led to the next.
The NACA/NASA Full Scale Wind Tunnel Fan
It’s a piece of aviation history that would have been lost if not for the Smithsonian. In February 2015, one of the two fans that drove the 30‑ by 60-foot wind tunnel at NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia, was installed in the Boeing Milestones of Flight Hall. Built during 1930 and ’31, Langley’s wind tunnel was so immense that aeronautical engineers could, for the first time, conduct tests on full-size aircraft. Until 1945, the tunnel was the largest in the world.
During its 78-year career, the wind tunnel tested nearly every U.S. fighter, including the Lockheed Martin F-22. It also tested the Mercury space capsule, supersonic transport concepts, vertical-takeoff-and-landing aircraft—even submarines and NASCAR racers.
Although the U.S. Department of the Interior had designated the wind tunnel a National Historic Landmark in 1985, it was demolished over a period of two years, beginning in 2011. The drive fan is one of the only items remaining.