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New Smithsonian Air and Space Center Has Room to Soar - 2004-01-05

Almost from the day it opened in 1976, the Smithsonian Institution's National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. has been among the world's most popular museums. Its impressive collection of historic artifacts, from the Wright Brothers' Flyer to the Apollo-Soyuz space capsules, attract more than nine million visitors each year. Last month the Smithsonian opens a new 70,000-square-meter museum annex in suburban Virginia to exhibit many more aviation artifacts, making the Smithsonian the largest air and space museum complex in the world.

The huge new museum is officially called the Udvar-Hazy Center named after its principal donor, Steven Udvar-Hazy, a native Hungarian and owner of a worldwide aircraft leasing company. The Smithsonian Air and Space Museum's director, General John Dailey, took a moment amid the busy preparations for the public opening day to point out some of the center's highlights.

"Well, right behind us, we have the SR-71, which was the fastest aircraft ever built. Right behind it is the space shuttle Enterprise, which was the first shuttle. We have the Concorde, the only supersonic transport ever operated. We have the prototype of the Boeing 707, which is the aircraft that brought America into the jet age of transportation," he said.

All of these and 77 more aircraft- fit under one roof. The designer of the building is Bill Hellmuth, nephew of the co-founder of the St. Louis-based architectural firm, Hellmuth, Obata, Kassabaum, or "HOK," best-known as an innovative designer of new sports stadiums in the United States. Mr. Hellmuth said his firm logically chose an aeronautical-looking style for the colossal main building.

"What we came upon was this idea of a space that was like the dirigible hangers that were built right before World War II. They were similar in size: about three football fields long and ten stories high," he said. "They were large enough that clouds could form inside. And it would rain!"

The main display hangar is just the first part of the Udvar-Hazy Center complex, which will eventually house 120 more aircraft and a modern restoration facility. The lack of space at the original Air and Space Museum on Washington D.C.'s National Mall led some staff to jokingly call it the "Air and No Space Museum."

Director John Dailey said the museum's collection exceeded its exhibit space a long time ago. "That's been our problem: we've only had ten percent on display at our museum on the Mall. And another ten percent on loan around the world. And 80 percent has been in storage for all these years. This is our opportunity to get it all out on display."

With enough space now to show most of the museum's collection, another challenge the staff faced was how to present the aircraft. One very controversial item has been the World War II plane Enola Gay, which dropped the first atomic bomb over Japan in 1945. Debate has raged over whether there should be interpretive material about the social and political consequences of the plane's historic mission.

Deputy director Donald Lopez explains the approach the museum took with the Enola Gay. "We handled the Enola Gay exhibit just as we handled every exhibit here. We tell what the airplane did, what it was going for, what its technical capabilities were. People can read books and learn about its history in lots of places and get different views. There are a lot of different viewpoints on it. We're not going to tell people what to think; we're going to put the facts out and let [visitors] make their own opinion."

But many observers want the Enola Gay display put into a clear historical context. Some American World War II veterans argue that the dropping of the bombs over Hiroshima and Nagasaki brought a quick end to the war with Japan. But Yui Hideki, who was covering the museum's opening for Japan's NHK Broadcasting, offered another perspective on the exhibit. "It's a very sensitive issue, because Japanese survivors and the families of the victims are not satisfied at all. They are very frustrated and hope the museum will explain why the atomic bomb was used. It doesn't say anything. It doesn't say anything about number of casualties - just simple explanations of the length of the aircraft; it doesn't say the consequences of the mission," he said.

Another craft on display at the center, the space shuttle Enterprise, is also attracting attention for what's missing not on its explanatory panel, but on the spacecraft itself. As Smithsonian curator Valerie Neal explains, although the Enterprise never traveled in space, it has become a valuable resource for investigators looking into the fiery loss last February of the space shuttle Columbia.

"After the Columbia accident, NASA contacted us within days to say that they might have to borrow parts from the Enterprise to aid in the accident analysis. As you look at the vehicle's wings, you'll see that some of the panels are missing from the leading edges of the wings. They borrowed the same panels that were suspect in the early days of the Columbia investigation so they could use them in testing. And they did use them in foam-impact testing, leading up to the conclusive test when a leading edge panel was severely damaged by foam that was fired at it," he said.

Perhaps the visitors who most anxiously awaited the opening of the Udvar-Hazy Center are the former pilots of the aircraft on display. Deputy director Donald Lopez said the museum has received hundreds of messages from military pilots, wondering what happened to the aircraft they flew in war. "I've been fortunate to be at the museum for 32 years, so I see my airplane all the time. But these people who haven't seen it it's such a main part of their lives. It's the most important thing they've done in their lives, for most of them. They can't wait to stand by with it and meet some of their friends they've been with it and tell stories just to bring their lives back to the period when they were there," he said.

And the actual pilots of the aircraft have sometimes played an important part in the restoration of the planes, as Mr. Lopez, himself a World War II ace pilot, explains. "A lot of times when they're restoring airplanes that I've flown, [the curators] have the technical orders, instructions and all that stuff, a lot of photos. But they always want to ask questions like, 'Did it look like this?' 'Where was this exactly?' 'How much did you use it?' Only questions that those who had flown it would know. So I think it's very helpful to have people on our staff who have flight experience," he said.

After decades of planning, private fund-raising and construction for the Udvar-Hazy Center, General Dailey says there are some curators who wish the process would never end. "They want to take as long as they can, because they're in love with that airplane that they're working on. And they don't want that job to end. So we have to keep them moving. That's why we have a deadline like this to be open for the [Wright Bros.] centennial and have these planes on display."

In fact, the new Smithsonian Air and Space Center still needs about $90 million to finish construction of all its facilities, whose total cost will be about $311 million. The next part of the museum to open will be the restoration center, where visitors will be able to watch historic aircraft being readied for exhibition.