I did not know that there were two air and space museums in Washington D.C. until my second time visiting. The first and most popular museum is right on the National Mall near the Capitol. The National Mall is the symbolic center of Washington D.C. Its layout is basically like a cross laid on its side, with the Lincoln memorial on the west end or top end, with his back to the Potomac, the Washington monument in the center with the White House directly north at the top of what would be the cross beam, the Capitol to the east at the base of the cross, and where the southern end of the cross beam would be there is a diverted area of the Potomac containing the Thomas Jefferson, Franklin Roosevelt, and Martin Luther King Memorials. Located all around the outskirts of this parkway are Smithsonian museums, all are free and belong to the Smithsonian Institute. The mall is within an hour walking distance of where I live, and so I am able to visit it often.
The second air and space museum is near Dulles airport in Virginia. It requires a metro ride with several transfers, which can take up to an hour, and an additional 20-minute car ride. The actual name of the annex is the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center and, surprisingly, with a sleek moniker like that, no one knows it by that name. It is usually called Aerospace Museum Dulles, and is unbelievably cool. If it is any indication of the size of the complex, the smaller hanger easily contains the entirety of the Space Shuttle Discovery, the Apollo 11 Command Module, an International Space Station laboratory, about 60 large missiles and satellite launch devices, and several miscellaneous space program artifacts. It is remarkable enough to see something in person that has successfully left and re-entered the Earth’s atmosphere. It is another experience to stand right next the Discovery, which has left and reentered the Earth’s atmosphere 39 times, more than any spacecraft to date. Burn marks from reentry are clearly visible all over the ship’s hull, and so distinct is the slant of the scorches that you can tell at which angle the spacecraft reentered. As a social science major, it is very humbling to stand next to spacecraft and other engineering marvels after being able to just barely scrape through an applied calculus course.
The main portion of the annex is larger than six football fields combined. Around 170 aircraft are on display. There are several walkways at higher levels to view planes, some suspended and some on the ground. It is one of the most beautiful displays of technical progress imaginable, and walking through it is like a walk through a mechanical rainforest, with a colorful canopy of propellers, wings, windows, fuselages, etc. suspended overhead. The logistics of fitting 170 aircraft into a space would be a monumental task in and of itself. Inside the hanger is the Enola Gay, which dropped the first atomic bomb, a Concorde, which is one of two types of commercial supersonic jets, and a replica of the Wright Flyer, which was the first aircraft to be built. Standing beside the Enola Gay and realizing it may be the single most important vehicle in terms of historical significance is chilling. There are military planes within the complex that are still completely classified in terms of technology, and probably will be for a lifetime. The SR-71 Blackbird is one such example, SR indicating strategic reconnaissance. Its placard indicates it was retired at the center after completing a continental speed record, ending its career in a joyride lasting about four hours from coast to coast.
If you have a spare day in Washington D.C., I would recommend venturing out to the complex. It is overwhelming in terms of engineering marvels, historical, and aesthetically pleasing. It would not be challenging to spend an entire day, between flight simulators, free tours, movie theaters, and even a plane repair center. Enjoy it!
David Losinski is a senior political economy major from Idaho Falls, Idaho.