Don Engen's tragic death is a reminder that no matter how complex our technological world has become, the vision, example and leadership of one individual still counts.
The director of the Smithsonian Institution's National Air and Space Museum when he died, Don also devoted his life to public service as a naval aviator, a test pilot and a renowned aviation safety expert. For all his many accomplishments, he was a surprisingly humble person, who treated everyone -- from presidents to the cleaning person -- with the same measure of genuine respect. He was consistently dedicated to the principles of public service above self, a trait that enabled him to empower those around him to get the job done.
Don was the father of the Dulles Center of the National Air and Space Museum, a magnificent gift to the nation that should open in 2003. As administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration in 1985, he leased a portion of federally owned Washington Dulles International Airport to the Smithsonian for the expansion of the National Air and Space Museum. When plans for the expansion later fell into a bureaucratic abyss, Don became an active part of the Air and Space Heritage Council and of the Washington Airports Task Force, thus providing the focus for aviation groups to keep the project alive.
With encouragement from the aviation community and from Michael Heyman, secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, in 1996 Don was appointed director of the National Air and Space Museum. He immediately stated his goal -- open the Dulles expansion before Dec. 17, 2003 -- the 100th anniversary of the Wright Brothers' first flight. Within six weeks of his appointment, Don had obtained the final authorization from Congress. Two years later, detailed designs for the project had been completed, and a financial plan was in place. When Don tragically crashed last month, he was well on the way to bringing in the private-sector donations necessary to begin construction. It was his leadership and drive that brought progress after a decade of floundering.
"So what?" you say. "It's just a museum." But it is institutions like the Air and Space Museum that inspire the budding Don Engens and the John Glenns of tomorrow. For educators, the museum brings the humanities and the sciences together. For the economy, the National Air and Space Museum brings tourists -- one in every three visitors to Washington is drawn to the National Air and Space Museum.
Historians will likely view the Wright Brothers' flight in 1903 as the defining moment for the 20th century. Many technological advances today had their genesis in the challenge of reaching the moon, of crossing the Atlantic for the first time, of breaking the sound barrier, of observing the earth's crops or weather from space and of creating the global airline systems upon which the world's economy depends. The National Air and Space Museum is to our nation's technological heritage what Ellis Island is to our cultural origins.
Don Engen's friends and associates in the Smithsonian, on Capitol Hill and in the aviation community now have a responsibility to ensure that the Air and Space Museum expansion he launched sustains its momentum and opens on time for the centenary of flight. It was Don's legacy to bring the project this far. It is our duty -- as well as our opportunity to honor that legacy -- to make it a reality.
-- Leo Schefer
is president of the Washington Airports Task Force.