The Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum

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This past week, my wife and I had a visit from some friends of ours in from Michigan.  Among the entertainments we had planned for them was a visit to the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington, DC.

The drive took longer than expected, but it was worth the trip.  We began our tour at the Udvar-Hazy Center, "America's Hangar," which is out at Dulles International Airport in Chantilly, Virginia.  This is where all the big planes are kept, including an Air France Concorde, the Enola Gay, and the Space Shuttle Discovery.

The one drawback to this museum was that there are just so many great planes that they all get lost in the jumble.  I would hate to have been on the crew that had to figure out how to fit them all in there, and which order they'd have to go into the building so that the ones hanging from the rafters didn't foul the ones rolled in on the main floor of the concourse.  There are so many bits of junk jammed in there, it reminded me of my garage.  Way cooler than my garage, but just about as up-to-the-gunwhales overloaded with crap.

So that's what makes a tour of the Udvar-Hazy Center so hard to begin.  The natural starting point is in the entry lobby, where you are greeted by the SR-71 Blackbird, one of the coolest and most beautiful planes ever designed.  If you look up, you'll see fighter planes from many wars suspended in endless mock dogfights, and if you look ahead, you see it--the Discovery, in all her reentry-scorched glory, at the same time both bigger than you imagined, and far smaller than you imagined.

It's an almost holy moment, as you walk toward the Shuttle as it lies in its own trancept, bathed in light both natural and artificial.  She dominates the room, and her companion relics--rockets, satellites, and the impossibly tiny capsules from the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo missions--flank her, fading into the shadows around this leviathan of space.  To stand under her engines, and look up, up, past the bells, to her erect tailfin almost ten stories above, and then down the length of her belly where only three bolts once held her attached to her transport vehicles, can impress upon you the enormity of her accomplishments.  She is at once both massive and incredibly fragile, as her skin of heat-resistant tiles can be damaged by the lightest touch.

We had a very chipper, personable, and knowledgable docent who was younger than some T-shirts I own, a self-described "space geek" who treated us not only to the story of the Discovery, but to rare photos she'd conned some of the engineers into taking for her--including one of Discovery and Enterprise parked on the grounds, nose-to-nose, during the change-over of the exhibit.  I wish the Smithsonian would make that into a post card!

I could have spent days just wandering around the Udvar-Hazy Center, reading placards and snapping photos, and communing with these precious pieces of history.  Perhaps that's the greatest thing one can take away from a visit to the Smithsonian--the sudden tangibility of history.  For me, it's one thing to just read about a person or event, but to stand next to the actual artifact suddenly takes the story out of the realm of the imagination and makes it stunningly, startlingly real for me.

Here they've got pieces from the Hindenburg.  They have just about every flying machine from the original Wright Flyer on up (although that is housed at the Air and Space Museum downtown--more on that, later).  They have a Japanese fighter plane nestling under the wing of the Enola Gay.  They have test rockets with fins made out of wood.  They have jet packs and a Scrabble board that went to the Moon.  They've got the vest Gene Kranz wore during the Apollo XIII mission.  It's like your grandmother's attic, if your Grandma was the most amazing aerospace geek in the world.

The jumble, however, makes getting good photographs difficult, if not impossible.  The swarms of people--mostly children--also can make art photography difficult, but incredibly, most people were extremely conscientious about not walking in front of anybody else's lens.

The visit was also highly personal for us, as my brother-in-law's name is inscribed on one of the stainless-steel panels lining the Walk of Honor.  Not only had he once been a docent at the Air and Space Museum, but he had contributed to the development of one of the exhibits on display there.

After a short but circuitous drive, we took the Metro into the main Smithsonian complex.  Everything seemed a lot smaller than it looks on TV, for some reason--sequestration, I guess.  Even though we'd gotten on the road as early as possible, it's foolish to believe you can do justice to the museum complex in a single day; we were fortunate that the two museums we wanted to see, the Natural History Museum and the Air and Space Museum, were both open until 7.30.

It was pretty cool to see the Spirit of St. Louis, SpaceShip One, and Glamorous Glennis suspended side by side, with the X-15 opposite them--all planes that made important "first voyages" in aviation history.  Not all of the vehicles in the museum were originals--Skylab and the LEM were both trainer versions which never flew in space--but plenty of them were the real deal.  The Wright Flyer is exhibited in its own room, decorated to look like a small town in Ohio at the turn of the century, with ephemera from the Wright Brothers displayed alongside the complex, fragile plane.  The canvas was replaced, but the spars and cables are mostly all original.  I was shocked to learn that this plane was once crated up and stored behind the Wrights' shop, and survived a flood before being salvaged and restored for display.  What a horrible thought, that we came so close to losing the most important airplane in American history!

There were many, many scale models on exhibit, of planes that they either can't get, or no longer exist, or perhaps, never existed, such as the design concepts for various space craft.  In the basement gift shop, they've got the actual filming model of the USS Enterprise from the original TV series (they also own the model from Close Encounters of the Third Kind) which is much larger than I'd expected it to be.

My wife, who has a thing for taxidermy, wanted to look in the Natural History Museum, so we finished up our visit looking at all the mammals, rocks, and bones in there.  The displays are arranged in dynamic poses and the level of artistry is very good, compared to the rather static dioramas I remembered from a long-ago visit.  Again, though, the museum seems a lot smaller than I'd remembered.

There was so much to see that much of it blurred together.  The Hope Diamond was a let-down; as my wife said, the enormous size of the jewels in the Harry Winston gallery made the pieces look totally fake.  I heaved a sigh of relief.

What was cool, however, were the meteorites on display.  They even had pieces of moon rock and Mars rock that one could actually touch.  It sounds sappy, but I got such a charge out of touching another world, I can see why they included so many interactive exhibits to get the kids enthusiastic about science and the wonder of discovery. And it was really nice to see so many children interested and engaged by science running around.  It really gives me hope for the future.

We left out of there bone tired, foot sore, and with full cameras and arms loaded with swag.  It was a day to remember, and a trip I'd recommend to anyone.