The West Wing of the National Air and Space Museum Prepares to Take Flight

The Smithsonian museum reopens to the public, transforming the way we tell the story of aviation

a red vintage airplane sits in an hanger
Neal V. Loving’s WR-3, shown at the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Virginia, will move to the redesigned galleries on the National Mall. NASM

To slip “the surlybonds of Earth,” as World War II aviator and poet John Gillespie Magee Jr. famously described it, is a freedom long aspired to by humankind, uniquely capturing our imagination. One of my favorite displays at the National Air and Space Museum, where I began my Smithsonian career, has always been the Wright Flyer. The humble aircraft and its improbable flight still spark the boyhood wonder I felt upon seeing it decades ago. On October 14, the west end of the museum reopens to the public, allowing imagination to again take flight.

The museum’s unparalleled collections of important aeronautic artifacts will still be familiar. But its redesigned wing containing eight new exhibitions, part of an ongoing renovation, will also transform the way we tell the story of flight. Forty percent of the new galleries’ artifacts will be on display there for the first time. Its new objects, stories and experiences, featuring historical aviation accomplishments and contemporary aerospace events, will inspire the next generation of innovators and explorers. Just as importantly, they will reveal a deeper, more expansive aerospace history, telling stories that have often been overlooked.

For instance, take Neal V. Loving, the aviation pioneer who helped create an all-black Civil Air Patrol squadron during World War II to train pilots. After he lost both legs in a glider crash, he continued to design, build and fly his own airplanes, becoming the first African American to earn a Professional Race Pilots Association license to race airplanes. His Loving WR-3, a two-seat aircraft with foldable wings to allow it to be towed by car, will be featured in the redesigned galleries.

Of course, aviation has not only transformed the way we travel; it has changed the way we see the world and inspired everything from art to literature. When filmmaker George Lucas was making the first Star Wars movie, he used footage of World War I and II aerial dogfights to show the special effects team what he wanted the action to look like. Visitors to the reopened museum will be able to see an X-Wing Starfighter used in Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, its wings spanning 37 feet, on loan from Lucasfilm.

From the first tentative 120-foot flight of the Wrights’ aircraft to the Apollo 11 command module Columbia that traveled a total of 953,054 miles on its moon voyage, the National Air and Space Museum embodies our innate desire to learn, to experiment and to explore. It also shows that a belief in making the impossible possible is no flight of fancy.

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This article is a selection from the October issue of Smithsonian magazine