Sunday, January 13, 2008

The Other Air and Space Museum

The largest collection of historic air and spacecraft in the world traces the history of human flight in grand fashion at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum. The Smithsonian has two Air and Space facilities. The original Air and Space Museum located on the Mall in Washington D.C., is home to about 10% of the Smithsonian’s collection. The larger collection of full size planes and space vehicles that could never fit inside the Washington location have been on display at the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center, Chantilly, Virginia since 2003.

This is the hall of fame of aviation and space travel. What I found most fascinating was the history that surrounds each of the items on display. Like the first space shuttle, USS Enterprise, which never flew in outer space and the fastest plane ever built, the Lockheed SR-71. Often referred to as the Blackbird, this spy plane was operational until 1999. On July 27, 1976, the SR-71 set a speed record of 2,092 mph. Another record was set with the fastest time between New York and London with a breathtaking 1 hour and 54 minute flight. Compare the SR-71 speed with the commercial Concorde, also on display at the Center that could reach 1,350 mph.

One of the more controversial exhibits, the B-29, Enola Gay, that dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan, drew record crowds when only part of it was on display at the Smithsonian Mall location. At the Udvar-Hazy annex, the entire plane has been restored and is on display. There are another 150 aircraft and about the same number of space artifacts, to include uniforms, space suits, and even examples of experiments sent into outer space. There are pre-1920 aircraft, commercial aircraft, rockets and planes used in World War I & II, Korea, and Vietnam. Space modules from the Mercury, Apollo and Gemini flights are on display with many of the satellites that have circled the globe.

This center is more than a hanger full of relics that have ventured and returned from space. This is a place for anyone who has looked to the sky and wondered what it would be like to soar above the clouds. Such flights of fancy captivated a young Steven F. Udvar-Hazy, whom the Center is named. As a boy, his father took him to an air show in Budapest, before they immigrated to the United States, where his passion for aviation was set for life. As a Hungarian immigrant, he came to America with his family nearly 60 years ago with next to nothing. His financial endowment, the largest single donor to the museum, has brought the Center more than displays and memorabilia. He has provided a place where the future of flight can be cultivated in others.

In addition to the space exhibits in the James S. McDonnell Space Hanger and three levels of aircraft in the Boeing Aviation Hanger, there is the IMAX movie theater, simulators and the Donald D. Engen Observation Tower that overlooks the Dulles runways. There are also exhibits that cover the impressive and heroic role women have pioneered in aviation and space as well as the historic role of America’s first black military aviators.
The price for the exhibit is free but there is a $12 dollar parking charge unless you take the shuttle bus from Dulles International Airport for 50 cents.
For me a visit to the Udvar-Hazy Center captures not only the technology but also the spirit of flight. Before Orville and Wilbur made their first flight, Leonardo da Vinci said it best centuries ago, “When once you have tasted flight, you will forever walk the earth with your eyes turned skyward, for there you have been, and there you will always long to return.”