Ed Burchfield knows the crucial role the Strategic Air Command played in the United States’ Cold War victory over the Soviets.
The retired Air Force colonel served for years at SAC headquarters at Offutt Air Force Base near Bellevue, oversaw nuclear missile silos buried in central Montana and worked on SAC-related projects at the Pentagon. Burchfield is proud of that history. But the longtime board member of the Strategic Air Command & Aerospace Museum – which he helped move to its current home near Ashland – now thinks the long-struggling SAC Museum needs to offer more than that history to survive.
The massive bombers, missiles and sleek fighter jets simply don’t pull in young Nebraskans in 2023, he said.
“As much as I love my brethren, who are old SAC guys, ‘Hey, guys, we ain’t around anymore,” said Burchfield, 79. “The command is gone. And we got these big, greasy (aircraft) out here that are fun to watch and see and look at, but we’ve got to move on. And that’s why space fits in.”
People are also reading…
The museum’s plan to place a greater emphasis on space travel came after the hiring of retired astronaut and Ashland native Clayton Anderson. The focus on space has rankled some retired Air Force and SAC veterans. But Anderson and others think it presents the latest chance for the museum to thrive – or simply survive – after a quarter-century history that has included 10 different directors and recent financial woes.
Anderson, 64, was on the museum board but was living in Houston when museum leaders convinced him to take the job as president and CEO. He moved back to work in his hometown with the goal of making the museum “a gem of the Midwest.”
“The fact that the young boy that dreamed of being an astronaut three miles from where (the museum) stands is now back in that chair leading it — I think is important,” Anderson said recently while sitting in his office on the museum’s upper floor. “I think it’s fateful. I think I’m supposed to be here doing this.
“And do I know a lot about running a museum? No, but I didn’t know a lot about being an astronaut, either. And that turned out pretty good.”
Anderson first applied to become an astronaut in 1983 after graduating from Iowa State with a master’s in aerospace engineering and starting work as a NASA engineer. He would apply 14 more times before being picked to join the astronaut corps in 1998.
In 2007, he worked for five months on the International Space Station, and in 2010, he spent 15 days in space on Space Shuttle Discovery. He retired from NASA in 2013. He now teaches part-time at Iowa State and has written five books, including an autobiography, “The Ordinary Spaceman,” and three children’s books, one of which comes out this summer.
His penchant for persistence should serve Anderson well at the museum because he faces a steep climb. Museums, including the one in Ashland, were hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic — it’s tough to make any money when no one can come into your building.
Last year, the American Alliance of Museums released a survey of more than 700 museum directors that detailed the damage. Sixty percent of respondents reported experiencing pandemic-related financial losses since March 2020, with the average losses being a little over $791,000.
“The museum field will take years to recover to pre-pandemic levels of staffing, revenue and attendance,” said Laura Lott, the alliance’s president and CEO.
SAC Museum attendance still had not recovered in 2022. Only 103,000 people came through the museum doors last year, much below normal annual attendance, which has ranged from 120,000 to 140,000 visitors. In the recent pre-COVID past, Burchfield said, the SAC & Aerospace Museum was “making good money on events — a lot of events out there. And the (school) field trips that the Sherwood Foundation was funding were doing very well. And so things were looking good — and then COVID came along and ‘whack.’”
The museum did receive $500,000 in federal COVID relief aid, Anderson said. It also received a financial commitment from philanthropist Walter Scott Jr. just days before he died in September 2021.
As Burchfield tells it, Scott and some friends were on Scott’s yacht, the Ice Bear. Scott told Omaha investment banker Mike Yanney to make sure the museum survives. “And Mike said, it was reported to me, he said, ‘Walter, I’m not on the board. I don’t know anything about that.’ And, as Walter often said, ‘Mike, you’re not listening to me.’ That was the end of the conversation.”
Yanney confirmed Scott’s directive, saying that Scott was talking to him and Calvin Sisson, who runs the Suzanne & Walter Scott Foundation and now serves as chairman of the museum board. Scott, Yanney said, “made a very solid point that we needed to get the (museum) back on track. And go do it.”
In 1995, Scott, who at the time was the chairman and CEO of Kiewit, and Robert Daugherty, the founder of Valmont Industries, decided the SAC Museum needed a new home.
The Air Force Museum, which owned the aircraft and missiles on display at the museum’s then home at Offutt, had inspected the museum and found major violations of the loan agreement. Air Force Museum officials said that the SAC Museum needed to either protect the artifacts or they would take them back.
Daugherty and Scott committed $4 million each toward a new museum and convinced Omahan Lee Seemann, a decorated World War II pilot, to do the same. Organizers eventually raised an additional $20 million, and the 300,000-square-foot building opened near Mahoney State Park in May 1998.
The museum already has tried to put more emphasis on space. In 2001, museum officials announced that the name of the SAC Museum had been changed to the Strategic Air and Space Museum. This angered many SAC vets, but backers of the change said it would be easier to attract visitors to the museum with space exhibits and the word “space” in the name.
“Any old SAC guy just went ballistic over the name of the museum,” Burchfield said. “But the trouble is, who gives the money? It ain’t the SAC guys. Military guys don’t write big checks....
“We need to make money. And if you’re not making money, you’re going to close the doors.”
Over its 25-year history, the museum has had 10 different directors, a figure that includes most of the interim directors. Each change has represented a shift of focus — some of them minor, others significant — that has slowed its momentum, according to a former longtime museum employee who declined to be named.
Since Anderson took over, the finance and human relations director, the marketing director, the educational team, the curatorial team, the guest services manager and the events and rental coordinator have left, the former employee said.
Anderson said he has been working to replace many of those positions, while some other jobs are being contracted out.
The museum’s location — midway between Omaha and Lincoln off Interstate 80 — always has been an issue, Burchfield said. “You need a reason to get off of I-80 at Exit 426 ... gas, food, etc.,” he said. “We were never able to make that happen.”
And now, he said, with higher gas prices and some people’s preference for working from home after COVID, it’s difficult to attract a staff who will drive out and back every day. Burchfield admits the museum has lost “a few good troops,” but said Anderson “is in the process of building his own team that will take on the work ethic of the leader.”
Gary Gates, the immediate past chairman of the museum board, said the museum needs to stay current to succeed.
“If you don’t stay relevant ... with new exhibits, new ways of looking at things, you only get one, maybe two visits out of a person. But if you keep it relevant, they’ll come back and back and back.”
One such traveling exhibit, “Above and Beyond,” opened at the museum in January. The interactive exhibit lets visitors design and pilot a drone, fly with a flock of birds, see the world from outer space and experience a flight to Mars.
Besides the traveling exhibits, which often are costly, Anderson plans to add more permanent interactive exhibits.
“When I was a kid,” he said, “we went to museums and we read everything ... It was all reading — there was no TV, there was no stuff to touch, no buttons to push, no iPad screens to slide on ... Kids and adults, they are entertained differently (today).”
Anderson envisions one interactive exhibit that focuses on the three astronauts who formerly served at the Strategic Command, the unified command that succeeded SAC. He said he has spoken to all three, and they have agreed to help.
Instead of just reading about them — or him, for that matter — “it’d be way more cool if you walked up to the exhibit and a hologram (popped up) and stood next to you and there I was in that flight suit talking to you about it. Or something.”
The museum’s former CEO and consultants came up with an $80 million plan that would have, among other things, continued the storyline of Nebraska’s role in SAC’s history. The plan also would have added a space and missile gallery and a planetarium. But it still was Cold War-focused.
Anderson said he likes some aspects of the plan but wouldn’t spend that much money. Instead, he’s concentrating on linking SAC’s history of deterrence to space.
“I think we’re a wonderful museum,” he said, “but I think we can be way more.
“It’s my belief that we can’t be stuck in the past and the Cold War. That’s not what sells tickets. What sells tickets is the future, the SpaceX, Blue Origin, Virgin Galactic. Robotics. Drones. Outer space. Space stations. So that’s my goal here … start us on that path where we build on the history, but we don’t just be history.”
The Flatwater Free Press is Nebraska’s first independent, nonprofit newsroom focused on investigations and feature stories that matter. Learn more at flatwaterfreepress.org