Visit to the Udvar-Hazy Air and Space Museum

For those of you unaware, the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum will be switching out the Space Shuttle on display at their Udvar-Hazy facility this Tuesday, April 17. Here’s a photo spread of the shuttle’s decommissioning by The Atlantic. Last November I was in Washington, DC, at the annual Society for Neuroscience meeting. Megan decided to fly in for the last half of it and visit friends, and of course I volunteered to go pick her up at the airport since it was the perfect excuse for a day at the museum. There is a shuttle between Washington-Dulles airport and the Udvar-Hazy museum for 50 cents each way (exact change only) anytime you are faced with a long layover and want something interesting to do.

I’ve been to Washington several times before and even lived there for a summer back in 2006. It’s one of my favorite American cities, particularly because I enjoy visiting museums. However, the Air and Space Museum on the Mall is probably one of my least favorite museums. It’s just kind of boring, full of screaming children, and awfully crowded. I don’t like crowds. That’s why I scheme my way to first class upgrades in the first place. ;)

The Udvar-Hazy center, however, is huge and reminds me of Hanger One at Moffett Field in Mountain View, CA. The Smithsonian’s problem is that it has more exhibits than space to display them, so the Udvar-Hazy is its first real opportunity to put many of these aircraft on display. This is especially true for the larger craft that wouldn’t fit anywhere at the Mall location. Among the exhibits, which range from the early days of flight to the most recent technology, is an entire wing full of satellites, rockets, and a full-size space shuttle.

picture of a space shuttle inside museum

I say “full-size” and not “real-life” because Enterprise isn’t a real space shuttle. It’s an “atmospheric test orbiter” that never actually went into space. It still looks super awesome. Side shots of a shuttle from above don’t do them justice, and I’ve never actually seen one launch. Maybe it’s because they’re a bit squat. But when you’re walking around them, especially the tail, you realize just how big they are.

picture of space shuttle tail

However, the retirement of the shuttle fleet has resulted in their distribution to different museums across the country, and the Smithsonian has arranged to have Enterprise switched out for a more historically significant craft that actually has been “where no man has been before.” (Sorry, I just couldn’t help myself :) ). Discovery will be flown in on Tuesday, including a couple of low altitude flyovers in Washington, DC. I suggest you take the opportunity to step outside if you work downtown or even take a day off to go visit the museum.

(Keep in mind on Tax Day that less than half of one percent of your tax dollars go to fund NASA. It’s entire inflation-adjusted budget over the last 50 years has been less than $800 billion. In recent years the federal deficit has been increasing at a rate of over $1 trillion every year.)

The tour guides at the Udvar-Hazy are really awesome, and after a two-hour guided introduction to some of the more significant vehicles you still haven’t seen the entire collection. Besides the shuttle, my two favorite exhibits were the Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird and the Boeing 707.

The Blackbird was originally named the RS-71, but L.B.J.’s speech was changed at the last moment to read SR-71 during its debut, and of course no one can refute the Commander in Chief. The one on display is still leaking oil out of its seams. It turns out that it was designed that way since during supersonic flight the metal plates expand to create a seal. But on the ground, it’s proven near impossible to get all the oil out, and absorbent pads are changed out frequently.

picture of Blackbird airplane

The 707 was the first of Boeing’s successful string of jetliners that has since been expanded to include many other models including the 737 domestic workhorse, the 747 jumbo jet, and now the high-tech 787 made of carbon fiber composites. I’m not sure if this is the exact craft, but a test pilot, Tex Johnston, for one of the original 707s actually made it do a barrel roll over Lake Washington, then came around for a second one just to prove it was no fluke!

picture of Boeing 707 in museum

I took lots and lots of pictures there before heading back to meet Megan. I even watched a few planes land at IAD from the Udvar-Hazy’s own control tower/observatory. Unfortunately the one picture I didn’t get was of Air France’s A380 landing earlier during my wait for the shuttle. I was fortunate just to get a glimpse of it as it was touching down, and then on the shuttle bus I was too mesmerized by its hulking figure to think about taking out my camera for a shot. Oh well. I guess I’ll just have to book a flight on one to get a picture of me inside!

Here are some other pictures from my visit, and I’d just like to say, thanks Mr. Udvar-Hazy. Thanks a lot.

Scott created Travel Codex after learning how to travel better on a budget during grad school. He now flies over 150,000 miles every year.
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