The SAC Museum is struggling. Will the famous astronaut be able to save him?

Ed Burchfield knows the critical role that Strategic Air Command played in the victory of the United States over the USSR in the Cold War.

The retired Air Force colonel served for many years at SAC headquarters at Offutt Air Force Base near Bellevue, oversaw nuclear missile bunkers buried in central Montana, and worked on SAC-related projects at the Pentagon.

Burchfield is proud of this history. But the museum’s longtime board member, whom he helped move into his current home near Ashland, now believes the long-stranded SAC Museum must offer more than this story in order to survive.

The mass population simply won’t attract younger Nebraska residents in 2023, he said.

“As much as I love my fellow old SAC guys, ‘Hey guys, we’re gone,'” Burchfield, 79, said. The command is gone. here it is interesting to watch, see and watch, but we need to move on. That’s why the space fits.”

The museum’s plan to focus more on space travel came after retired astronaut and Ashland native Clayton Anderson took the job. The focus on space irritated some former Air Force and SAC veterans. But Anderson and others say it’s the museum’s last chance to thrive – or simply survive – after a quarter century of 10 different directors and recent financial troubles.

Courtesy of Strategic Air Command and Aerospace Museum

Retired astronaut and Ashland native Clayton Anderson returned to Nebraska last year to take over as head of the Strategic Air Command and Aerospace Museum near Ashland. Anderson plans to tie the SAC containment story to what’s going on in space. PHOTO CREDIT BY STRATEGIC AIR COMMAND AND AEROSPACE MUSEUM

Anderson, 64, was a member of the museum’s board but was living in Houston when the museum’s management convinced him to take over as president and CEO. He returned to work in his hometown with the goal of making the museum “the jewel of the Midwest.”

“The fact that the boy who dreamed of being an astronaut three miles from where he stands (the museum) is now back in that chair leading him is important, I think,” Anderson said recently, sitting in his office on top floor of the museum. . “I think it’s fateful. I think I should be here and do this.

“And how much do I know about how to run a museum? No, but I also didn’t know much about becoming an astronaut. And it turned out pretty good.”

Anderson first applied to be an astronaut in 1983 after graduating from Iowa State with a master’s degree in aerospace engineering and starting work as a NASA engineer. He applied 14 more times before being selected for the astronaut corps in 1998. In 2007 he spent five months on the International Space Station and in 2010 spent 15 days in space on the Space Shuttle Discovery. He retired from NASA in 2013.

Contributed by Clayton Anderson/NASA.

Clayton Anderson went through years of preparation before heading into space, including two weeks in an underwater habitat, two wilderness survival training, and hours in supersonic jet trainers. PHOTO CREDIT: CLAYTON ANDERSON/NASA

He now teaches part-time in Iowa State and has written five books, including an autobiography, “,” and three children’s books, one of which comes out this summer.

His penchant for persistence should serve Anderson in good stead at the museum, for he has a steep climb ahead of him. The COVID-19 pandemic has hit museums hard, including the one in Ashland – it’s hard to make money when no one can enter your building.

Last year, the American Alliance of Museums published a survey of more than 700 museum directors detailing the damage. Sixty percent of respondents have reported pandemic-related financial losses since March 2020, with an average loss of just over $791,000. “It will take years for the museum industry to recover to pre-pandemic levels of staff, revenue and attendance,” said Laura Lott, president and CEO of the alliance.

In 2022, attendance at the SAC Museum still hasn’t recovered. Last year, just 103,000 people passed through the museum’s doors, well below the usual annual attendance, which ranges from 120,000 to 140,000 visitors.

In the recent past, prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, Burchfield said, SAC & Aerospace Museum was “making good money from events — lots of events. And the (school) field trips funded by the Sherwood Foundation went very well. And so everything looked good, and then COVID came along and hit.”

Courtesy of OBI CREATIVE

Visitors to the Strategic Air Command and Aerospace Museum will experience what it’s like to fly like a bird in the “Above and Beyond” traveling exhibit now at the museum. PHOTO COURTED OBI CREATIVE

The museum did indeed receive $500,000 in federal COVID relief, Anderson said. He also received a financial commitment from philanthropist Walter Scott Jr just days before his death in September 2021.

According to Burchfield, Scott and a few friends were on Scott’s yacht, the Ice Bear. Scott told Omaha investment banker Mike Yanni to make sure the museum would survive. “And Mike said, I was told about it, he said, ‘Walter, I’m not on the board. I don’t know anything about it.” And, as Walter often said, “Mike, you’re not listening to me.” This ended the conversation.”

Yanni confirmed Scott’s direction, saying that Scott spoke to him and Calvin Sisson, who runs the Suzanne and Walter Scott Foundation and is now chairman of the museum’s board. Scott, according to Yanni, “stated very convincingly that we need to get[the museum]back on track. And do it.”

In 1995, Scott, who was Kiewit’s chairman and CEO at the time, and Robert Dougherty, founder of Valmont Industries, decided that the SAC Museum needed a new home.

Bob Glissmann/Flatwater Free Press

One exhibit at the Strategic Air Command and Aerospace Museum chronicles the career of Ashland native Clayton Anderson, who is now the museum’s president and CEO. PHOTO BY BOB GLISSMAN FOR FLATWATER FREE PRESS

The Air Force Museum, which owned the aircraft and missiles on display at the museum’s then home in Offutt, inspected the museum and found serious violations of the loan agreement. Air Force Museum officials said the SAC museum needed to either protect the artifacts or take them back.

Dougherty and Scott contributed $4 million each for the new museum and convinced Omahan Lee Seamann, a decorated World War II pilot, to do the same. Organizers eventually raised an additional $20 million, and in May 1998, a 300,000-square-foot building opened near Mahoney State Park.

The museum has already tried to place more emphasis on space. In 2001, museum officials announced that the SAC Museum’s name had been changed to the Strategic Air and Space Museum. This angered many SAC veterans, but supporters of the change said it would be easier to attract visitors to the museum with space exhibits and the word “space” in the title. “Any old SAC guy just went berserk over the name of the museum,” Burchfield said. “But here’s the problem, who’s giving the money? It’s not the SAC guys. The military doesn’t write big checks…

“We need to make money. And if you don’t make money, you will close the doors.”

The museum has had 10 different directors in its 25-year history, and this figure includes most of the interim directors. Each change was a shift in focus – some minor, others major – slowing its pace, according to a former longtime museum employee who declined to be named.

Since Anderson took over, the director of finance and human relations, the director of marketing, the education team, the curatorial team, the guest experience manager and the event and rental coordinator have all gone, according to a former employee.

Anderson said he is working on replacing many of these positions, while some of the other jobs are under contract.

Bob Glissmann/Flatwater Free Press

Visitors to the Strategic Aviation and Space Museum inspect the reconnaissance aircraft SR-71 at the entrance to the museum. The museum’s collection also includes bombers, fighters, transport aircraft and missiles. PHOTO BY BOB GLISSMAN FOR FLATWATER FREE PRESS

The museum’s location — halfway between Omaha and Lincoln at Interstate 80 — has always been a problem, Burchfield said. “You need a reason to get off I-80 at exit 426… gas, food, etc,” he said. “We have never been able to do that.”

And now, he says, with higher gas prices and some people choosing to work from home post-COVID, it’s hard to get staff to commute back and forth every day. Burchfield acknowledges that the museum has lost “a few good employees” but said Anderson “is in the process of building his own team to take on the leader’s work ethic.”

Gary Gates, the museum’s former chairman of the board, said that to be successful, a museum needs to keep up with the times. “If you don’t stay relevant… with new exhibits, new ways of looking at things, you will only get one, maybe two visits per person. But if you keep up to date, they will come back again and again.”

One such traveling exhibition, Above and Beyond, opened at the museum in January. The interactive exhibit allows visitors to design and pilot a drone, fly with a flock of birds, see the world from space, and fly to Mars.

In addition to traveling exhibits, which are often expensive, Anderson plans to add more permanent interactive exhibits. “When I was a kid,” he said, “we went to museums and read everything… Everything was readable – there was no TV, there was nothing to touch, there were no buttons to press, iPad screens, which could be moved. on … Children and adults are entertained in different ways (today).”

Anderson envisions an interactive exhibit dedicated to three astronauts who previously served in Strategic Command, the unified command that replaced SAC. He said he spoke to all three and they agreed to help. Instead of just reading about them – or him, for that matter – “it would be a lot cooler if you walked up to the exhibit and the hologram (popped out) and stood next to you and there I was in this flight suit.” and told you about it. Or something like that.

The museum’s former CEO and consultants devised an $80 million plan that would, among other things, continue the storyline of Nebraska’s role in SAC history. The plan was also to add a space and rocket gallery and a planetarium. But he was still focused on the Cold War.

Anderson said he liked some aspects of the plan but wouldn’t spend so much money. Instead, he focused on tying the SAC containment story to space. “I think we are a wonderful museum,” he said, “but I think we can be much more.

“I believe that we cannot be stuck in the past and the Cold War. This is not what sells tickets. What sells tickets is the future, SpaceX, Blue Origin, Virgin Galactic. Robotics. Drones. Space. space stations. So that’s my goal here… to put us on a path where we’re building history, but we’re not just staying history.”

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