Thursday, December 10, 2009

DC Day 5: Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center

The main building of the National Air And Space Museum we visited yesterday is strikingly provisioned with various important aircraft and spacecraft, and generously at that, but it's still mostly exhibits with explanations and educational material about air and space science and history, built around the artifacts. The other half of NASM, the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center which we visited today, is the opposite. There are a few educational exhibits, but mostly, it's just a mind-bogglingly huge room (a hangar, in fact) full, overfull, brimming over, with aircraft and spacecraft. Sitting and hanging and stacked up one on top of the other. So many you just stand there agape trying to find a way to focus on just one thing for a while, before you acclimate enough to start figuring out how to approach it.

It's really hard to imagine what it's like from pictures or words, because it's just so huge, and so full, and so overwhelming, that these things don't really encapsulate it at all. Most summaries just highlight some of the most prominent things present: an SR-71 Blackbird, the space shuttle Enterprise, the Enola Gay, a Concorde, etc. But it's the sheer diversity of things that's most striking. And it's not just airplanes of every sort, and helicopters, and spaceships. There's also a surprising number of missiles, and gliders, and aerobatic planes, and engines, and satellites, and other smaller artifacts of all sorts. (Seeming somewhat out of place amongst them: the model of the mother ship from Close Encounters. But also cool.)

We had enough time after viewing the exhibits to see a couple of IMax movies too. "Fighter Pilot: Red Flag" was great, following a huge multinational air force combat simulation over two weeks, mixing gripping high-speed flight video with a well-balanced insight into the people inside and behind fighter jets, and what motivates them. "Forces of Nature" wasn't nearly as good: it attempts to bring us an IMax view of volcanos, earthquakes, and tornadoes, but since no one's really able to film those with IMax cameras, they pretty much just went ahead and made a movie anyway from what bits they could get. The highlight here is the three scientists they focused on who are researching these things, and their successes (especially the new theories about earthquakes in Turkey and predictions that come from them) but that would have been just as good as an ordinary DVD. We also rode the simulators, but they're really weak: just five-minute poor-quality videos in a room that tips and jolts.

The big downside of the Udvar-Hazy Center is that it's off at the airport, nowhere near the public transportation system. It takes about two hours to get there through multiple steps of the public transportation system, and they don't run during the whole time the center is open, so you can't be there the whole day that way. Siobhan arranged rides to and from through a time bank. It's also true (and a bit annoying) that you can't drop someone off at the building; we had to be dropped up the road and walk the rest of the way.

But what got really bad was the traffic. We left at 4:10, but our ride, having left around 3:30 to pick us up at 4:30, didn't arrive until almost 5:30, and we didn't get back to the hotel until after 8:30, because a few accidents left the whole Beltway completely paralyzed. The ride was not just agonizingly long, but for me, even more uncomfortable because of a constant stream of idle chit-chat of the kind that makes my brain feel soggy, along with a smattering of talk radio and that kind of classical music radio that is selected to be as reminiscent as possible of mayonnaise. There were several points we had to spend outside in surprisingly cold weather, too, making the trip even more miserable.

But it was worth it. The Udvar-Hazy Center is a must-see place.

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