I wonder how many of the 7 million people who visit the National Air and Space Museum on the Mall each year know that there’s another, arguably better and definitely bigger Air and Space Museum just 26 miles away. The Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center isn’t exactly a secret — it draws around 1.6 million visitors a year — but it could definitely handle more people. On a recent weekday, the center’s massive exhibit hall was only speckled with tourists, but they made up for their numbers with outsize enthusiasm.
“This airplane goes 2,000 miles per hour WITHOUT EVEN TRYING,” I overheard one preteen boy say to his family while standing next to the museum’s Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird. “It could go faster than any missile!”
On the other side of the plane, one of the museum’s volunteer tour guides was giving the grown-up version of the same talk.
“This puppy flew from L.A. to D.C. in 64 minutes,” he said. “How many of you made it from downtown to here in 64 minutes?”
No one raised their hand, and this is probably a clue as to why Udvar-Hazy is relatively under-visited. It took me two hours to get to the Chantilly, Va., museum on public transportation, and it would have taken more than an hour by car. (One smart tourist I chatted with said he made Udvar-Hazy his first stop after arriving at Dulles airport.)
The guide continued dazzling us with details about the Blackbird. When flying upward of Mach 3, the airplane’s titanium surface heated up to 900 degrees Fahrenheit, he said. In fact, some Blackbird pilots actually warmed up their lunches — tubes of food that they squirted through ports in their flight suits — by pressing them against the airplane’s quartz windows.
As that group continued on to the space section of the museum, I tagged along with another tour group that was approaching the museum’s most famous artifact, the Enola Gay.
“Does everyone here know who Enola Gay is?” the guide said.
I was baffled. Of course, I know what Enola Gay is — it’s the airplane that dropped the atomic bomb that, on Aug. 6, 1945, instantly flattened 6 square miles of Hiroshima and ultimately killed around 135,000 people, mostly civilians. But I had no idea who Enola Gay was.
“It was the pilot’s mother,” the guide said.
I had a lot of questions. What was the pilot’s relationship with his mother like? What did she think about having her name forever linked with a deadly atomic bomb? And what kind of name is Enola, anyway?
I didn’t get a chance to ask before the guide buried us in an avalanche of mundane facts — how many similar planes were built, and where, and by what companies. He never once mentioned the death toll at Hiroshima, or the argument for the bomb’s use — namely, that it brought a swift end to a war that would have cost even more lives had it continued. The nearby placard was also mute on these topics. That’s too bad, because just before the tour stopped by, I overheard British-accented children debating whether the bomb had killed a hundred people or a thousand.
The tour group moved on to a corner of the museum where a dozen or so German World War II aircraft are parked. The sight of that sea of swastikas painted on airplane tails turned my blood to ice. (I’m Jewish, and my great-grandfather emigrated from Germany just before the war — though you don’t exactly need a personal connection to have a major emotional response to the Holocaust.)
“The captured German stuff is really something else,” our guide said. He pointed out one technological marvel — the first jet bomber, an Arado Ar 234 B-2 Blitz. Then he moved his laser pointer to another, the Dornier Do 335 A-0 Pfeil, one of the fastest propeller-driven aircraft ever built.
“With aircraft like this, why didn’t Germany win the air war?” our guide asked. “The answer is, they came along too late. They were running out of pilots. They were running out of fuel, and they had ‘quality control’ issues,” he said, making air quotes. The Nazis used slave labor to build the airplanes, and some concentration camp prisoners intentionally sabotaged the parts, our guide explained.
Looking around the hangar, it suddenly dawned on me that most of these marvelous machines were built for killing or spying. In search of something more uplifting, I made my way to the spaceflight hangar, where I found my first tour group standing beside the space shuttle Discovery.
“Discovery went 39 times into space and back,” the guide said, adding that, in its astonishing 30-year career, the shuttle made major contributions to science — for instance, putting the Hubble telescope into orbit in 1990, and delivering parts, crew members and scientific equipment to the International Space Station on several occasions.
As I made the lengthy trip home from the museum, my mind buzzed with questions — about U.S. history, about the role of war in advancing technology, and about how ambitious scientific endeavors can be a rallying point for international cooperation. I guess that’s the hazard of visiting an incredible museum like Udvar-Hazy; it stays with you long after you’ve gone home.