Thursday, August 16, 2007

Fun at the Smithsonian

Based in northern Virginia last weekend, but about 30 miles west of downtown D.C., we agonized over what to do with the kids short of driving to the nearest Metro station and hustling everyone into the city to brave the tourist crowds around the Mall and Smithsonian. With temperatures hovering around 90, the adults voted that their constitutions couldn't endure a trip to see the Constitution. Then my sister-in-law reminded us of the relatively new (late 2003) annex to the Smithsonian's popular Air and Space Museum, the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center, located next door to Dulles Airport.

It's essentially a giant hangar that's been turned into a museum, complete with gift shop, Imax theatre, an on-site McDonalds (?!), and an observation tower from which one can view the surrounding countryside as well as flights landing at Dulles. It's a spectacular facility, with an incredible collection of aircraft and memorabilia on display, including the Enola Gay (the B-29 that dropped the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima), an SR-71 Blackbird, the Enterprise (the prototype of the current space shuttle fleet), and scores of other aircraft from the dawn of flight to the latest high-tech fighters.

My father, always interested in planes, could have stayed for days; he was like a child in a candy shop. He was particularly anxious to get into the observation tower so he could watch the planes take off and land at Dulles. For some, the flight path came very close to the tower. And I must admit, the large aisles - even with a pretty good crowd - were far preferable to the elbow-to-elbow conditions that can often prevail at the downtown Air and Space Museum on hot summer days. I just wish I'd had more time to inspect some of the aircraft more closely.

For my boys, the highlight of the day was a chance to ride in two simulators - one that took passengers on a shuttle mission to the International Space Station, and another that carried us on a jarring ride through aircraft history, from a World War I biplane, a World War II-era P-38 and P-51, to a modern supersonic fighter. The second simulator was not for those with weak stomachs. Like all Smithsonian museums, there's no admission charge to get in. Parking, however, costs $12. Still it's worth it. The only incongruity is the presence of the McDonald's in the facility. Obviously they gave the museum a bid for the concession contract that officials couldn't turn down.

1 comment:

One Wink at a Time said...

Damn McDonalds, it's like a blemish on an otherwise pristine canvas.
Have not been to the Smithsonian since my kids were in grade school and was thrilled back then. For some reason "Gossamer Albatross" always stayed with me.