It’s one thing to watch one of NASA’s Space Shuttles on TV; it’s an entirely different experience to see one in person, especially one that bears the scars of more than 39 missions to outer space. Yet there Henk and I were, standing in the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in northern Virginia, awestruck by the immensity of the 5-story tall Discovery in front of us. And if this storied legend wasn’t impressive enough, neatly tucked alongside the Shuttle was our very own CanadArm, proudly displaying the Maple Leaf. Henk and I felt like two astronaut wannabes who had just gotten a free ticket to Space Camp. But even though the Discovery may be one of the best things to see at the Air and Space Museum in Virginia, there’s plenty more as well.
The Wonders of Flight
It’s hard not to feel like a kid when you visit this museum in northern Virginia, (also known as the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Centre), because it’s here you’ll find some of the most impressive machines that have ever taken flight – both in the sky and in our imaginations. Like its sister museum in Washington, DC, this Virginia facility houses some of the most significant artefacts in the history of flight, from the most fragile early aircraft to the most technologically sophisticated and robust spacecraft.
A Massive Museum
The sheer size of the Steven Udvar-Hazy Centre is enough to drop your jaw, but there’s good reason why this 350,000 square foot hangar-style museum is as large as it is: housing the Discovery alone requires a massive space, not to mention the other 200 aircraft in the facility, including Air France’s 62-metre long (200+ feet) Concorde. There is also a large restoration hangar onsite, the Mary Baker Engen Restoration Hangar, where aircraft are meticulously restored by skilled technicians before they join the other exhibits.
Best Things to See in the James S. McDonnell Space Hangar
Like most kids, Henk and I headed first to the McDonnell Space Hangar to see the Discovery, but once there, we discovered all kinds of other very cool space-related exhibits, including satellites, space suits and re-entry capsules so tiny any claustrophobe would lose it just looking at them.
What I found particularly interesting were the very intimate human items used by the astronauts themselves, like familiar foods compressed into tubes for Russian astronauts, or personal hygiene materials like the optional makeup kit for female astronauts designed in the 1970s by the (mostly-male) NASA engineers.
It must have been interesting to overhear the men discussing what to include or exclude in these makeup kits. (According to astronaut Sally Ride, America’s first woman in space, these same engineers also asked her if 100 tampons would be enough for one week in space! )
Science meets Science Fiction
It’s not only serious space stuff here, though. There’s some fun science fiction space stuff, too: take for example this model of the Mother Ship from the movie Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
The designers who made this prop for the film had fun hiding a handful of random objects on the miniature Ship’s hull, like a Volkswagen bus, a submarine, a US mailbox, small cemetery plot and even a teeny tiny R2D2. Clearly a Star Wars fan was amongst the designers when it came to adding to this inside joke. (Now I want to watch the movie again just to see if I can spot any of these little ‘easter eggs’.)
The Boeing Aviation Hangar
Although the Space Hangar seemed like it would be the star of the show, Henk and I were equally impressed with the aircraft in the Boeing Aviation Hangar, which despite its huge size was absolutely filled with planes both on the floor and suspended in the air.
We found innovative passenger airplanes like the first commercial aircraft with a pressurized fuselage, the 1938 Boeing Stratoliner “Clipper Flying Cloud”, which was clad entirely in shiny riveted metal plates.
Of course, aircraft play a huge role in warcraft, and the Air and Space Museum has several of history’s iconic examples on display, like the WWII Sopwith Camel (fans of Peanuts will remember this as Snoopy’s aircraft of choice).
Perhaps the most infamous plane to be forever written into history is on display here, too – the Enola Gay, the plane that dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima on August 6, 1945. The Enola Gay evokes strong emotions in the visitors who come here, some positive (some visitors recognize that this ended the war definitively which was seen as a good thing); others have an understandably opposite reaction to the human suffering inflicted by its radioactive payload. However polarizing it may be, the Enola Gay remains one of the museum’s most important artefacts.
One of the most fascinating military planes in the Boeing Hangar is the menacing-looking Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird, a matte-black spy plane from the Cold War of the 1960s whose top speed of 3200+ mph allowed it to outfly any missiles that might threaten it.
Although built in 1964, the Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird still holds the world record as the fastest plane on earth (at least that we know about!) And there’s no denying it has a certain presence with its stealth style and aerodynamic profile.
Fascinating for Everyone
You don’t need to be a plane fanatic or a space geek to enjoy a visit to the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Centre – although if you are either, you will be in your glory here. And I have to admit that Henk (who is totally into astronomy as a hobby) and I were enthralled with the Space Hangar and its out-of-this-world exhibits, and we even got a badge that made us feel like astronauts in the making!
But even the more ‘down-to-earth’ planes and exhibits here were equally intriguing and fascinating in their own right, whether it was a feather-light contraption that didn’t look strong enough to support its pilot, or a sound-barrier breaking stealth plane.
All of these innovations blew Henk and I away, because they demonstrated that with enough imagination and desire, humans can achieve things we wouldn’t think possible.
I’d raise a Canadarm to high-five that idea any day.
TIP: Like all Smithsonian Museums, entrance is free at the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Centre, although there is a parking fee of $15 if you come before 4pm. After that, parking is free. There is also an IMAX Theatre here, an observation tower, and a pretty interesting gift shop so give yourself at least 2 hours for any visit.
Covid-19 UPDATE September 2020: The museum is open but with some attractions temporarily suspended. Be sure to check the website for details.
Special thanks to Visit Fairfax, who hosted Henk and I on our visit to the county and the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Centre.
Jane Canapini is a member of the Travel Media Association of Canada and the North American Travel Journalists Association. She established GrownupTravels.com in 2014 to share information and tips based on personal experience so her readers could get the most out of their travels.