Story and photos by Cindy Murphy-Tofig
High on everyone’s list when they visit Washington, D.C. is the Smithsonian’s Air and Space Museum on the National Mall. And it should be. The museum has hands-on exhibits, a planetarium, and tons of historic air and spacecraft.
But to get a sense of just how big – really big – the museum’s collection is, you have to cross the Potomac River and go to Air and Space’s center in Chantilly, Virginia.
The National Air and Space Museum Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center opened in 2003. Billionaire Udvar-Hazy, who recently retired from the international aircraft lease company he co-founded in 1973, donated $65 million for the center. Combined, the National Mall museum and the Virginia facility display the world’s largest collection of aviation and space artifacts.
Outside the center, a Wall of Honor memorializes more than 15,000 people who contributed to space exploration or aviation. Inside, the center boasts hangars full of artifacts that the museum on the mall can’t accommodate. Take the space shuttle Enterprise. The shuttle, used for test flights and ground tests, is the massive centerpiece of the James S. McDonnell Space Hangar, named for one of the founders of the McDonnell Douglas Corporation.
The history of man’s exploration of space surrounds the perimeter of the hangar. There’s the Gemini VII capsule, in which two astronauts orbited for 14 days back in 1965. And that fiberglass thing molded into the shape of a body? It’s astronaut John Glenn’s “training couch.” Astronauts used the custom-made couches while training in the centrifuge (centrifuge training helped astronauts better withstand the g-forces during acceleration and deceleration).
Everyone will find something fascinating in the space hangar. Space history buffs will love the rockets, satellites, engines, and missiles that fill areas of the hangar and are suspended from the ceiling 80 feet up. The younger set will think the manned maneuvering unit (a “backpack propulsion device,” or a jet pack if you ask my boys) is one of the coolest things there.
Getting to the space hangar, though, means you walked through the Boeing Aviation Hangar. Just try doing that without stopping.
The aviation hangar is as long as three football fields and broken up into sections. Historic aircraft from the different sections include the Enola Gay (which dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima), the sleek Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird (used on reconnaissance missions during the Cold War), and the McDonnell F-4S Phantom II and the Bell UH-1H Iroquois helicopter (both flown during the Vietnam War). Other highlights in the hangar include acrobatic planes (best viewed if you follow the walkway to the top level, since the planes hang from the hangar’s trusses 100 feet in the air), experimental aircraft, a Concorde, and helicopters that are part of a section on vertical flight. Kiosks scattered throughout the hangar give virtual tours of the insides of the various aircraft.
To see planes in flight, head over to the Donald D. Engen Observation Tower (named for the late director of the Smithsonian’s Air and Space Museum). You can watch flights take off from and land at nearby Washington Dulles International Airport. More than 23 million passengers traveled through Dulles in 2009, so there’s a good chance you’ll see either a plane coming in or going out while you’re up there. The height scared the 4-year-old in our group, but even he eventually got won over by the descending planes and views of the surrounding area. You can stay and observe as long as you like, but before you head out, take the elevator down to the lower level of the tower. The lower level has an air traffic control workstation and equipment on display.
A step into one of the flight simulators (near the World War II aircraft) or the IMAX theater can bring you even closer to the action. Head to the International Space Station or fly a fighter plane. Or like many museum visitors simply sit on one of the benches scattered around the hangars, look at the aircraft suspended from the hangar trusses, and dream.
If You Go
The easiest way is to drive, since the Metro (the Washington D.C. area’s public transit system) doesn’t go directly to the museum. For driving directions, go to www.nasm.si.edu/visit/directions/directions_uhc.cfm. Another option is Virginia Regional Transit, which runs a bus from Washington Dulles International Airport to the museum. www.metwashairports.com/dulles/813.htm
You have a ton of options. Pretty much every major hotel chain is in the area because it’s so close to Dulles Airport.
National Air and Space Museum
Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center
14390 Air & Space Museum Parkway
Chantilly, VA 20151
Free Admission (see exceptions below)
Hours: 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. every day except Christmas. The museum will stay open until 6:30 p.m. from May 28 through September 5. Be sure to check the website if you’re planning to head over late in the day, since a few private evening events are scheduled during the summer.
Parking: It’s $15 (free after 4 p.m.). You can also buy a $65 parking pass that’s good for six visits. There are no drop-off or pick-up spots at the museum’s entrance.
The observation tower is a popular stop, so you may have to wait for a while (there’s only one elevator, and it can’t hold more than 15 people at a time). Also, the tower doesn’t stay open as late as the rest of the building so try to get there first thing.
In addition to checking out the exhibits, stop at the information desk to learn about special events such as “ask an expert” presentations, book signings and other offerings. Also check out the IMAX movie schedule, and hit one of the flight simulators. Bring cash or your credit card – entrance to the museum is free, but the movies and flight simulators aren’t.
Free guided tours are offered, although many visitors simply wander around on their own. Check at the docent tour desk (inside the Boeing Aviation Hangar) for times.
Bring a picnic lunch and eat at one of the picnic benches outside (your only option inside the museum is a McDonald’s McCafe). You can’t bring anything to eat or drink inside the museum, so leave the cooler in the car. If you’d rather go out, head to nearby Herndon, Virginia. It’s about 7 miles away from the museum, and there are a bunch of plazas along Centreville Road and Woodland Crossing Drive that have chain restaurants, sushi places, vegetarian fare and other choices. There’s also the Reston Town Center, an outdoor shopping area about 10½ miles away. But be warned – heading into Reston also means hopping on Va. 267 (the main highway that leads to Dulles Airport) and paying a toll.
Top photo: The space shuttle Enterprise from the entrance of the James McDonnell hangar that houses it.