When our sons were younger, no trip to Washington, D.C., was complete until we went to the Smithsonian, and the museum we most often toured was the Air and Space. It's impressive and inspiring, but we were blown away last weekend when we decided to go to the new addition, the National Air and Space Museum's Udvar-Hazy Center outside of Dulles Airport. What a fascinating museum on so many levels: architecturally, historically, educationally - even emotionally.
For example, across the aisle from the space shuttle Discovery is a display of missiles the size of minivans or larger designed to carry multiple nuclear warheads to their targets. It made my heart sad to compare the amount of money spent on building and maintaining weapons of mass destruction against the money spent on NASA's space projects, which yielded scientific advances that continue to benefit ordinary people.
The day after our visit to the museum, we attended President Obama's swearing-in. In his inauguration speech, he called for America to take the lead in R&D that would address the consequences of climate change. I thought back to the missiles at Udvar-Hazy and wondered how much money is budgeted for nuclear weapons in an era so different from the Cold War. I'd prefer tax dollars to be redirected into more peaceful, useful initiatives.
- Space Shuttle Discovery. I expected to see something as smooth and sleek as a yacht, but up close, it looks like a tugboat - interesting to look at, callused, a lot of miles on this baby. And man is it big!
- We spent a lot of time looking at the shuttle and talking about our reactions to it. Maybe it's because we grew up during the Space Age. Maybe it's because I always wanted watch a launch in person.
- Aviation as art. I was smitten with the sculptural quality of some of the collection: the Flying Cloud, an Air France SST, the SR-71 Blackbird.
- The military played an enormous role in aviation history, but the museum has many examples of civilian-initiated advances, too: single-person planes built from kits, experimental aircraft that have coasted around the world.
- There didn't seem to be much acknowledgement of the role women played in aviation. There was a case of Amelia Earhart stuff, and one wing of the museum honors Mary Baker Engen, wife of a former FAA director and a major fundraiser for the Smithsonian's Udvar-Hazy.
- Kudos to the thought given to the challenge of displaying so much 3-dimensional material in what is essentially a hangar. We were there for nearly 5 hours and spent at least half of that time on the ground floor. Signage was confusing - did the sign in front of us refer to the artifact in front of us, immediately above us, or way up top? Ramps lead to the second viewing level on the periphery of the hangar, and then the third. Aha! Signage refers to the what's hanging at eye level.
- If you are pressed for time, skip the observation tower, which gives you a view of the Dulles runways. The volunteer there is very well-meaning, I'm sure, but he made it seem that every plane on approach was sure to crash.
|Blackbird as sculpture|
|Close-up of some of the shuttle's tiles|
|Showcase of WW2 bomber jackets|
|The swoops and curves of the SST|
|More Blackbird as sculpture. Towers over humans.|
|Blackbird, full size|
|For scale, check the plane hanging above the SR-71|
|The Enola Gay|
|Detail of Pan Am Stratoliner Clipper Flying Cloud|