Monday, March 30, 2015

Planes, spaceships and missiles at the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center

Space Shuttle Discovery

Chapel Hill was just the half-way point to our ultimate destination, Washington DC. The reason for our visit is a longer story involving cousin, fraternities and galas, but just as on our North Carolina stop the boys and I were mostly just along for the ride. We had arrived Friday afternoon leaving time to meet family also in town for the weekend, and then headed to Dogfish Head Alehouse in Gaithersburg (MD) for dinner. A brewing company based in Delaware, the restaurant had delicious grub… and the crowds to prove it. With the annual Rock ‘n Roll marathon taking place in DC that weekend among other things, we knew we were in for big crowds, but with a little bit of planning ahead and some consulting with a local DC-er we picked a destination for Saturday morning: the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center.

If you’ve been to the National Mall in Washington, DC, chances are you’ve visited Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum there. Being located in downtown DC has its advantages; an estimated 6.7 million visitors walk through the doors annually, making it the 5th most visited museum in the world. However, a drawback to the location is available space, as the 161,145 square feet of exhibition floor space can be restrictive when talking about displays of large airplanes. In order to present a much larger percentage of the missiles, airplanes and spacecraft in the Smithsonian’s custody, the companion facility was opened in 2003. Located in Chantilly, Virginia, the Udvar-Hazy Center is adjacent to Washington Dulles International Airport, and even boasts an observation tower that gives visitors a 360˚ view of the airport. We didn’t brave the lines to take the elevator up; it was Family Day at the museum, and despite the extra pair of hands helping with the three boys, it was still going to be a challenge to give the entire museum a proper tour.

It was immediately obvious I wouldn’t have gotten far without the company of our friend who has called the DC area home for 16 years, Dziesma, to help manage the boys + stroller in this enormous space with the weekend crowds. To give you an idea of the massive scale of this 760,000 square feet museum, there are two main hangers open to the public, the Boeing Aviation Hangar and the James S. McDonnell Space Hangar, housing 170 aircraft, 152 large space artifacts and thousands of aviation and space artifacts. Udvar-Hazy Center is also home to the Mary Baker Engen Restoration Hangar, where the preservation of the National Air and Space Museum's collections takes place. Visitors can watch the restoration of projects through a window overlooking the hangar, although it being a Saturday there wasn’t any work in progress. Finally, the museum is home to the Airbus IMAX Theater, the Emil Buehler Conservation Laboratory and the Archives – arguably the foremost collection of documentary records of the history, science and technology of aeronautics and space flight in the world.

The Mary Baker Engen Restoration Hangar

One of the most impressive displays is that of the orbital spacecraft, Space Shuttle Discovery. The third of five shuttles built for NASA’s Space Shuttle program, its first mission was from August 30 to September 5, 1984. Over 27 years it launched and landed 39 times, more than any other spacecraft to date, and it was finally retired upon returning from its final mission on March 9th, 2012, arriving at Udvar-Hazy on April 19, 2012. Discovery performed both research and International Space Station assembly missions, but might be best known for carrying the Hubble Space Telescope into orbit.

Also on display is the Enola Gay, the Boeing B-29 Superfortress that dropped the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan. After the war, the bomber operated from Roswell Army Air Field in New Mexico, and although it was flown to Kwajalein for the Operation Crossroads nuclear tests in the Pacific, it did not make the test drop at Bikini Atoll. It was transferred to the Smithsonian Institution and spent many years parked at air bases exposed to the weather and souvenir hunters before being disassembled and transported to the Smithsonian's storage facility at Suitland, Maryland, in 1961. The cockpit and nose section of the aircraft were exhibited at the National Air and Space Museum for the bombing's 50th anniversary in 1995 amid a storm of controversy, and once restored has been on exhibit at Udvar-Hazy since 2003. The last survivor of its crew, Theodore Van Kirk, died on July 28, 2014, at the age of 93.

The Enola Gay on the right, with the R on its tail

We spent hours admiring the helicopters, airplanes, space ships and historic artifacts on display, and then what felt like hours standing in line for lunch at the McDonalds. Despite that frustration it was an incredible experience, and I hope we have the opportunity to return once the boys are a little older. There is so much history on display, from the first days of flight to modern space expeditions, and it is mind-blowing to think of the distances traveled by these aircraft. Where else in the world can you hold a meteorite in your hand one minute, and admire the fastest jet-propelled aircraft (the Blackbird) in the world the next?!

Dziesma looking out over the hangar, with the Blackbird lower center 

The Smithsonian lists all the objects on display on the museum webpage along with detailed descriptions and other facts. There is no admission, but parking is $15 and the only food available the previously-mentioned McDonalds. The museum is stroller-friendly, although crowds can make navigating more difficult. Thank you very much to Dziesma, our extra set of hands and tour-guide extraordinaire for the idea to visit, the assistance with the boys, and the company! (You can read her version of the day’s events here, although I don’t know if it is to be trusted – she calls the boys ‘well behaved’…) 

My French-born son with the first supersonic airliner to enter service, the Concorde, the boys admiring the helicopters, and Vilis getting a better view


  1. I hadn't heard of that museum before - it sounds like it is worth a visit!

    1. Definitely! It's like exploring your great grandparent's attic - if it was clean, well-organized and displayed in enormous hangars!

  2. As always, very descriptive post and wonderful photos! And - really - I don't call children well behaved if they aren't. :)

  3. One teeny tiny correction: calling me a DC native would be a bit much as I've "only" lived here for 16 years, and it would also obscure my Midwestern roots of which I'm proud.

    1. OK - paldies, and thanks for keeping me honest!


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