Challenging the accepted, defying the “impossible” and then reaching for the next achievement has been the hallmark of success in aerospace since Orville and Wilbur Wright lifted off from the sands of Kitty Hawk. Innovators who stopped inventing, pioneers who stopped pushing the envelope or industry leaders who did not look over their shoulders were surpassed or replaced. As we begin the transformation of America’s favorite museum, chronicling that amazing history of flight, we are taking to heart the constant need to break boundaries and look ahead at what is next. 

After 42 years, and a total visitorship greater than the population of the U.S., the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum on the National Mall in Washington is showing its age. Systems and building infrastructure designed with a 40-year service life need to be replaced, and so we are using that opportunity to reimagine all 23 galleries and public spaces for 21st century audiences. We will remain open throughout the renovation project, and many of our most iconic artifacts will remain on display for millions of annual visitors. 

As a college student intern at the museum’s Center for Earth and Planetary Studies (CEPS), I drew inspiration every morning before opening when I stood under the Spirit of St. Louis and next to the Apollo Lunar Module. Kids today come in and see those aircraft and spacecraft with the same wonder. I see it when I walk the floor. But they also take in information differently. To reach them, we are redefining how we tell the stories of those icons—both in the museum and digitally—to a global audience with more interactive and updatable content. That way, we can keep up with changing technologies and bring aerospace history-in-the-making to all of our visitors. 

As a CEPS intern and during much of my early career, it was not unusual for me to be the only woman in the room. As the great children’s advocate Marianne Wright Edelman said, “You can’t be what you can’t see.” With our increasingly diverse audience, we also recognize we need to do a better job of sharing the stories of all aviation and space pioneers in every one of our galleries. We want all visitors to see themselves reflected in our exhibits so they can envision making aerospace history themselves. It is entirely possible the first person to walk on Mars will come through our doors tomorrow, and I want her to be as inspired as I was when I first came to the museum. 

Our renovations started in December 2018. By late 2019, about half of the museum will be under construction, with the first gallery reopenings expected two years later. Work on the east end of the building will commence as the west end reopens, to ensure visitors during each 3.5-year phase still enjoy a once-in-a-lifetime experience. 

Many of the artifacts affected by our transformation will move to our Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center near Washington Dulles International Airport in suburban Virginia, which marked its 15th anniversary in December. Visitors can see the items on temporary display there while their home downtown is renovated or watch them undergo conservation in the Mary Baker Engen Restoration Hangar. The Udvar-Hazy Center also houses many of our larger treasures, from the Space Shuttle Discovery to an Air France Concorde and a Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird. 

Behind all these great artifacts, at both the Mall building and Udvar-Hazy Center, are the people and teams who had the idea or found the inspiration to challenge what came before. As we transform our museum, we will continue to focus on the innovators and ideas that pushed boundaries and conventions, overcoming preconceptions, limitations and gravity to create breakthroughs that amazed and changed the world. 

As the museum of  “Ideas That Defy” (#IdeasThatDefy), we are excited about the new ways we will be telling those stories to inspire the next generation of innovators, pioneers, entrepreneurs and explorers, whose own stories likely will appear in the pages of this magazine and halls of the National Air and Space Museum. I hope you will drop by our museums to see both old favorites before renovations and the amazing new galleries as they open.

Ellen Stofan is the John and Adrienne Mars director of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum. The views expressed are not necessarily those of Aviation Week.