Since opening in 1976, the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum has inspired and educated visitors from around the world about aviation, space travel and the universe. Its newest director wants to extend the museum’s reach farther still, especially online.

“Not everyone is going to be able to come to Washington, so that’s why our digital presence is incredibly important,” said Ellen Stofan, who was named director of the Air and Space Museum in April.

“One of the exciting things that we’ve done recently, for example, is that we’ve digitized the entire interior of the Space Shuttle Discovery,” Stofan explained in a radio interview. The Discovery is one of the NASA space shuttles, best known for launching the Hubble Telescope into orbit, and is housed in the museum’s Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Virginia.

The museum also hosts a podcast featuring experts in different areas of space science and an educational STEM program aimed at engaging young students. “We’re trying to use every venue we have to engage people beyond our walls,” said Stofan, a former chief scientist at NASA who was instrumental in the long-term plan to land humans on Mars.

She has the right stuff

Ellen Stofan speaking and gesturing (© NG Images/Alamy)
Ellen Stofan at NASA Headquarters in Washington (© NG Images/Alamy)

The daughter of a NASA rocket scientist, Stofan found her passion at an early age and first got to know the Air and Space Museum as a sophomore in college, when she completed an internship with the museum’s planetary science team.

“Ellen’s scientific background, leadership skills, communication acumen and strategic thinking have positioned her superbly to lead the National Air and Space Museum,” Smithsonian Secretary David Skorton said when she was named to the post.

“Her passion for science, coupled with her love of education, will ensure that the museum will continue to be a global treasure and world leader through its extensive programming, exhibitions and scholarship,” Skorton said.

A global reach

The Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, located on the National Mall in Washington, is often referred to as “America’s favorite museum.” It has tallied the most visits of all the Smithsonian’s museums, with 7 million visitors in 2017.

Some of the museum’s largest contributions lie within its Center for Earth and Planetary Studies, which is devoted to research and analysis.

Scientists at the center conduct studies to increase global understanding of space and technology, as well as the latest findings about the solar system. Today, the center has team members involved with active missions to Mars and the moon.

Learn more about the Smithsonian, including how an Englishman — who was born in France, died in Italy and never visited America — laid the foundation for the institution, which today is administered and largely funded by the U.S. government.

This story was written by freelance writer Maeve Allsup.