Friday, February 20, 2015

A Day in Flight at Udvar Hazy Center

If you ever happen to be out by Dulles Airport, plan a little extra time to stop by Udvar-Hazy Center, a satellite extension of the Smithsonian’s Air and Space Museum in Washington, DC.  The center is located in Chantilly, about a 10 minute drive from the airport.  There’s no entrance fee (we parents love that) but there is a parking fee of $15, not too much to ask for admission and since it’s out in the middle of nowhere, you do have to park in the lot. 

I’m not a space expert by any means, but who isn’t intrigued by the wonders of flight?  The two hangars house all kinds of aviation machines: helicopters, airplanes, even the space shuttle Discovery, along with other flight history artifacts.   We were there about 1 ½ hours and only made it through half the museum, so you definitely could spend a good amount of time there.

My father was in the Army and often talks about flying in helicopters.  At the museum there were old military helicopters, from the Vietnam War era, which had the kids wondering if those were the kind their grandfather talks about (who knew they were even paying attention to his stories.)  There were also countless other military machines, illustrating the discovery and history of flight.

When we got to the space shuttle, Discovery, the kids’ questions surprised me. What is it? Where was it going? And they were amazed by the video of one of the launches. It occurred to me that perhaps they’ve never really seen this thing take off.  I’m sure folks of a certain age, like me, remember the big deal it was, enough for school teachers to scramble to get the TV in their room, to watch a launch.  The Discovery flew its first mission in 1984 and was retired in 2011.  In a little less than 30 years, had space travel become such the norm that we weren’t all gathered by the TV to watch it take off (or was I just not paying attention)?  Either way, it was an awe-inspiring thing to see the space shuttle up close.

Along with all the planes and helicopters, there are also two flight simulators.  Tickets are $7-$8 per person for about a 5 minute experience. (Yes, a bit price-y if you’ve got a big family, but since we didn’t pay admission and I was in a good mood that day, we went with it.)  We chose the fighter jets option, paired off two per “airplane.”  One person is the pilot and the other, the gunner.  The kids and I screamed and laughed the entire time as our jets escalated, dropped, and rolled – these things actually do turn 360 degrees.  It was a hilariously good time and proved that, for the security of our country, none of us should be in military flight.

Fun artifacts? The answers to questions such as: What do astronauts eat? What do astronauts do all day in space? And questions you probably never thought about, like: How do astronauts go to the bathroom? Do the women astronauts even bother to put on lipstick?

Of course, we had to buy the requisite astronaut freeze-dried ice cream.

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