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.

Exquisite Corpses

The Thinker by Rodin

I have seen dead people. Lots of them. I have seen their insides ripped out. I have seen them dissected every which way imaginable. In addition, I have examined diseased lungs, clogged arteries, arthritic knees, and babies in the uterus. However, after having examined literally hundreds of corpses rather than feel nauseous I feel more than a bit awed.

Fortunately, I did not have to visit a morgue to see such unusual sights. Instead, I visited the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago, Illinois. There on exhibition through early September is Gunther von Hagens’ The Body Worlds. This exhibition is full of human corpses, all of which have been “plasticized”. In 1977, Hagens invented a process that turns corpses into objects suitable for dissection and easy exhibition. There is no smell of formaldehyde or decaying flesh to offend visitors. Perhaps that is why the exhibit also feels a bit surreal. The plasticization process replaces body fluids and fat with special reactive polymers that leaves everything exactly and completely preserved. It allows human tissue and bone to be sliced, diced or just carefully exposed. The results are corpses (or more often, portions of corpses) that are preserved far better than any pharaoh could have hoped for. These corpses have achieved a weird form of immortality. Altogether, the exhibit shows over 200 corpses, or portions thereof.

The result is an exhibit that is both unique and a bit mind boggling. Thanks to Hagen, the rest of us now have the ability to view the human body like surgeons and coroners do. Peer into the inner ear canal and see the tiniest bones in the human body. Examine the brain stem from various perspectives. See the many intricate and tiny arteries that make up the human face. Linger over muscle groups pulled open for your inspection. Follow nerves from the brain to the tip of your toe.

I thought I would be squicked out. I thought I would be nauseous. Instead, I found the exhibit fascinating. I agree with my wife’s assessment: this exhibit is also art. However, it can be a bit unnerving.

After spending at least an hour in the exhibit, I find myself with mixed feelings. On the one hand, the exhibit rekindled my fear of death (never too far away since I am 48). The exhibit is undeniable proof that we are all mortal. We are bones, blood and tissue all intricately arranged and working in near perfect harmony. Except for our sex organs, under our skin we are all the same. The exhibit makes clear that our bodies are marvels of engineering and complexity. Yet they are also undeniably finite. It is a marvel that our bodies work so well for so many years without so much as a pit stop. Having now examined clogged arteries first hand, I feel the sudden and almost panicky need to change my dietary habits and start taking statin drugs. Yet for what? While we can extend the length or quality of our lives, our bodies are literally born to die.

On the other hand, you too may find that this level of intimacy with the inside of our bodies to be something of a spiritual experience. It is difficult to see how intricately we are engineered and not feel, well, just a tad closer to God than when you arrived. For those who believe in souls, our bodies seem like ideal vessels for connection to the environment.

The Body Worlds then is something like rubbernecking past a massive car crash. Once inside it is irresistible. No diagrams in medical textbooks can truly allow us to get such a holistic perspective of our bodies. If the exhibition comes to your city, I think you will find the entrance fee money well spent.

The Best Work of American Classical Music

The Thinker by Rodin

There is so much wonderful classical music out there that it is hard to pick favorites. Nonetheless there seems to exist a rough consensus among the classical music aficionados that Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 in E Minor is the best classical music that has ever been written. It has certainly withstood the test of time. Some might argue that Handel’s Messiah should have the honor. Arguably Messiah is perhaps the best work of classical music known to the masses. And it is a lot more hummable than Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. (Ode to Joy from the fourth movement is familiar to lots of people.) About once a year or so I slip the Ninth into my CD player. Although brilliant, played anymore than that it gets hard to appreciate its brilliance. My only wish is that someday Ode to Joy would be sung in English, so we unwashed Americans could better appreciate it. But I guess that would be sacrilege to classical music purists.

Pondering great classical music, I was wondering if there is a work of American classical music that critics could agree is our best work. I suspect if pressed many scholars would pick a work by Aaron Copland, most likely his Appalachian Spring. There is no question that Aaron Copland writes quintessential American music. After you have heard a number of Copland pieces you can almost always hear something else he has written by him and say, “Yep, that’s Copland”. While there are many American classical music composers out there, only a few have any name recognition whatsoever. Some others that come immediately to mind for me include Leonard Bernstein, Charles Ives and Alan Hovhaness. Your short list of American composers is likely different than mine.

But the best work of American classical music? That’s a tough question to answer. While I personally am drawn to the music of Aaron Copland I am often scorned for my choice. I like Appalachian Spring so much I had it played at my wedding. But while it was likely the best thing that Copland ever wrote, Copland was not an inventive composer. In fact he routinely stole snippets of American music. The main theme to Appalachian Spring, for example, is the well-known Shaker hymn, “Tis a gift to be simple.” Copland excelled at finding excellent bits of the authentic American sound and weaving them together into larger orchestral works that amplified and extended these sounds.

A “best” work though has to stand the test of time. That’s a bit of a problem for American classical music since, by European standards at least, we are still a new country. Most countries though have one composer that stands out. When you hear his music (and it’s almost always a he) you say you understand that country. For example, Jean Sibelius gives us the sound and spirit of primal Finland. Who though could carry this mantle for American classical music and also create works of music that are uniquely their own?

The answer came to me last night as I heard music drift upstairs from the TV room. My daughter Rosie was deep into TV. I don’t know what she was watching but the music was unmistakable. It was George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue. Suddenly it clicked into place. This single work is quintessentially American, wholly unique and as wonderful and amazing in its own way as Sibelius’s Finlandia is to the Finnish and Ralph Vaughn Williams’s Greensleeves is to the English. And Rhapsody in Blue is perhaps the most performed work of American orchestral music in American and in the rest of the world. And of course it is really, really good.

I remember fondly my first exposure to Gershwin. While I have an appreciation for jazz, it is not a genre that I have done more than sample. Sometime in the late 70s when I was finally on my own I wandered into a record store (this being in pre CD days) and found a two record collection of his best-known music. Of course it was just his works for piano and orchestra. You had to read the liner notes to realize he had a whole other career working with his brother Ira to create show tunes and popular music. He seemed an unlikely person to call a classical composer. Most people of his time saw him as a jazz composer. Perhaps Rhapsody is both jazz and classical music. But at 22 I remember thinking, “This is amazing music.” It is still true today.

George Gershwin is an odd selection for best American classical composer. Much of his music would be considered trite stuff. Fluffy musicals like Of Thee I Sing seems like Gilbert and Sullivan operettas: fun to go to but empty of content or meaning. Steeped in the jazz era, and the Ragtime music that preceded it, Gershwin drew inspiration from many authentic forms of American music, including Negro spirituals. So like Aaron Copland he heard authentic American music and integrated them into his own music. Unlike Aaron Copland however they were largely inspiration for the creation of new music. In Rhapsody in Blue it all came together. The work itself is rather short. The pace moves from sedate to frantic and journeys in places in between. But there is no confusing it with stuffy classical music from Europe. It is a work that is fully of the energy of the American experience. It often feels almost giddy. And now the music is almost ubiquitous. I find it woven into television commercials for airlines.

Gershwin’s list of pure classical music is rather thin. Concerto in F and An American in Paris are his best known other works. Both are wonderful. But it is Rhapsody in Blue that endures and captures our soul. So for me, it is America’s Finlandia. I see it as not just our most recognizable piece of American music, but also as our best work of classical music.

What do you think is the best work of American classical music?

Update: 9/19/13 – It should be noted that while Gershwin is the author, he wrote Rhapsody in Blue for piano. Ferdinand Grofe actually arranged it for orchestra, so he deserves some credit for this work of art. Arguably, some of Grofe’s work could be considered as best works of American classical music. His Grand Canyon Suite comes to mind.