The Smithsonian reopened the National Air and Space Museum’s Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center to the public Wednesday, May 5, on the 60th anniversary of the first American spaceflight—and for the first time, the Mercury mission’s Freedom 7 capsule that carried Alan Shepard into space was on display.
On May 5, 1961, he made the first crewed American flight into space. Shepard would go on to walk on the moon.
But if the historic Freedom 7 space capsule isn’t enough, visitors will for the first time also get to see to a Blue Angels F/A-18C on display, which the museum acquired in November after it flew into Washington Dulles International Airport.
The Hornet, as it is known, has been a long-lived show aircraft for the Navy’s Flight Demonstration Team, the Blue Angels, serving for 34 of the team’s 75 years of existence—more than twice as long as any other aircraft type.
The particular Hornet at the Air and Space Museum today was delivered to the Navy in 1987 and flew in Operation Desert Storm, the First Gulf War in 1991 and helped enforce the no-fly zone over southern Iraq in 1994.
The airplane saw service in both the Atlantic and Pacific oceans and the Mediterranean and Red seas before being turned over to the Blue Angels in 2015. It was active with the team until the end of the 2020 season, when the Blue Angels switched to the Super Hornet.
And for visitors who like the Mercury capsule’s spacefaring capabilities and the Hornet’s fighter capabilities, the Air and Space Museum is renovating an X-Wing Starfighter.
The full-sized vehicle, with a wingspan of 37 feet, appeared onscreen in “Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker” and is on long-term loan from Lucasfilm. It is currently undergoing conservation in the Restoration Hangar, work that is visible to the public, before it goes on display in late 2022 outside the Albert Einstein Planetarium.
“Despite taking place a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, Star Wars introduced generations of fans here on Earth to outer space as a setting for adventure and exploration,” stated Margaret Weitekamp, space history chair at the museum. “All air and space milestones begin with inspiration, and science fiction so often provides that spark—the iconic X-wing displayed amid our other spacecraft celebrates the journey from imagination to achievement.”
The museum is now open from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. seven days a week, with new health and safety measures in place due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Visitors will need free, timed-entry passes to get in.
The Air and Space Museum is the first Smithsonian institution to reopen after closing due to the pandemic; six more Smithsonian museums and the National Zoo will reopen to the public later in May.
Learn more at airandspace.si.edu/udvar-hazy-center.