The Other and Bigger Air and Space Museum

The Thinker by Rodin

So here I am living practically right next door to Washington Dulles International Airport. Yet for nearly two years (since it opened), I have avoided a new museum treasure almost next door: the “Annex” to the National Air and Space Museum. I feel like a fool for having waited so long.

Yes, of course the museum on the National Mall is a treasure. It consistently rates as the top attraction for those visiting the Smithsonian. However, as big as it is, its size is limited. You can only stuff so many spacecraft and aircraft in its modest interior. Consequently, what is displayed there is the best of the best. The museum can only skim the surface of our national aerospace experience.

The Stephen F. Udvar-Hazy Center contains much of the other stuff that is too odd or simply too big to fit into the museum on the Mall. It sits south of one of the main North-South runways at Washington Dulles International Airport. It is not accessible from the airport’s terminals or many concourses. This is a shame because it would make a great place to visit between long layovers. If you are visiting the museum on the Mall, there are bus tickets that you can buy from that museum to the Annex. Having sampled the Annex though, if you are seriously into either space or aeronautics then you will want a full day to explore the Annex. If you are an aerospace fanatic, you may need a couple of days.

You can find the museum on the east side of the airport property. Rather than turn into the terminal, head south on Rt. 28 (Sully Road), which borders the east side of the airport. A new interchange allows for a convenient entrance and exit to the Annex. Unfortunately, parking costs $12. If you want to partake in some of the IMAX movies available, be prepared to use your charge card. Otherwise, you can wander the enormous museum at your leisure and for free, unless you decide you need a snack at the McDonalds McCafe.

The museum is organized into a space wing and a number of aviation wings. It is difficult to miss the main attractions. They include the space shuttle Enterprise (which never actually flew in space), the Concorde and the SR-71 (the world’s fastest airplane, now retired). All these engineering marvels are certainly worth viewing. Seeing them in person adds a new dimension. I did not appreciate just how large the space shuttle actually is. As for the Concorde, it is a much longer aircraft than I expected — over two hundred feet from nose to tail. For the money it cost to fly in it when it was still flying, I expected larger windows.

Since we had only a few hours, my brother and I largely limited our time to the space wing of the museum. We both grew up in the midst of the space race, so we remember intimately the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo manned spaceflight programs. At the time, we were huge space buffs and followed every trivial detail of the space program. The space wing is chock full of spacecraft, missiles and rockets. You would expect this of course. What I did not expect though was the huge variety. For a space buff, it is the place to go to fill in the missing gaps. I marveled at some of Robert Goddard’s rockets. I looked at a variety of missiles used by Germany, Japan and the United States in World War Two. You want satellites? There are dozens to choose from, as well as various other space capsules, models of Mars rovers and copies of probes that have even left our solar system. Many of the exhibits are extra engineering copies of the satellites that went into space. There are also scale models of all sorts of spacecraft when the original or a copy were not available. I was impressed by the models of satellite launch vehicles, all in a row. Most unexpected exhibit in the space wing: the mobile quarantine facility used by the Apollo 11 (and other) astronauts back from the moon. Carl Sagan at the time had NASA panicked that the returning astronauts might have picked up a new virus. In retrospect, it was a specious worry, since the moon supports no life.

There were also other exhibits that I did not expect. For example, if you wondered how the Apollo astronauts took care of their biological urges you can look at the “fecal disposal bags” they used in weightlessness. (I hope the technology has improved.) You can also see some samples of the shrink-wrapped food that they ate. (The pecan cookies still look edible.) Steps take you up a level so that you can see the exhibits closer to the ceiling. They also allow you to get a perspective of the space shuttle from something other than its side.

The museum is huge, and it is still a work in progress. More wings will be added in time, which means I can go back from time to time and enjoy watching the collection grow. It is not only huge; it is a gorgeous and airy museum that feels very 21st century. The museum includes an observation tower that will take you up seven floors. From there you can glimpse the large extent of Washington Dulles Airport, as well as watch aircraft take off and land on the north-south runway. Unfortunately, the museum is quite a way from the terminal, so the view could be better. The sixth floor includes an exhibit on air traffic control. You can watch terminals used by flight controllers that show and explain current flight traffic in the Newark area.

I have just scratched the surface of this museum. Nevertheless, I already know I will be back again. Since it is in biking range for me, it will be an easy ride once the interchange opens up to Centreville Road.

If you are coming to Washington principally to see the Air and Space Museum, you will kick yourself if you do not also devote a day to spend out in the Northern Virginia suburbs walking through the Udvar-Hazy Center.

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