27 September 2009

Last labor day, Urmi and I trekked out to the Udvar-Hazy center, a branch of the Smithsonian Air and Space museum located near Dulles. Since it's not located on the National Mall, the center has tons of full-size airplanes, satellites, and other cool stuff. I was hoping to see a larger focus on "Space" than on "Air", but the museum is about 70% aerospace and only 30% space. I guess that the National Mall location has more of a space focus. In any case, both parts of the museum were very impressive, including an SR-71 Blackbird, Concorde, the Enola Gay, and even a Space Shuttle. Here are some of our photo highlights:

A picture of me with the Enola Gay, the B-29 Superfortress that dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima during World War II. I've also been to the atomic bomb museum in Hiroshima, which is a particularly impressive museum in it's own right.

Another picture of the Enola Gay from above. This plane is much bigger than I expected -- although I suppose that Little Boy, being an early, gun-type fission device, was quite a bit larger than atomic weapons shown in movies nowadays.

Weird story: Can you believe that the atomic bomb design for Little Boy was never tested? The Fat Man bomb detonated at Nagasaki and the Trinity test bomb were completely different designs and even used different fuel (Plutonium rather than U235). Despite the weaker fuel source and untested design, Little Boy is still the worst example of mass destruction in history. Modern fusion weapons are between 1000 and 2000 times more powerful.

Me with a replica of the Wright flyer. There's no way that this thing looks airworthy by today's standards. Actually, most of the planes in the center don't look like something I'd like to fly in -- aerospace engineering has come a long ways in the last fifty/sixty years.

Some stunt planes. Urmi was excited to see that the Oracle flyer was featured quite prominently. The Udvar-Hazy center has quite a few of these little stunt planes, which are impressively small. I wouldn't want to fly in one, at any rate, but they're fun to watch.

A protoype of the NASA Pathfinder solar-powered flyer. This plane is capable of self-powered, indefinite flight by flying high enough that it can get sunlight regardless of the weather. I don't know how it works at night (batteries presumably) but this plane set several altitude records before the program was cut. The plane is abolutely enormous (you can barely see my in the photo), with a 30m wing span, but it didn't move very fast -- about 15-25 mph. These planes were originally suggested as a potential replacement for communications satellites (providing city-wide wifi, for example), but I guess they were decided to be too risky.

A variety of satellites and space probes. The center had quite a few of these, but very little description of what they were. One of the coolest things they had a was a life-size replica of the New Horizons probe, which is presently 1/3 of the way to Pluto. Check out the mission website for some impressive pictures of Jupiter that New Horizons took during its gravity-assist on its way to the outer solar system.

A decommissioned Concorde. Concordes were (are?) an impressive feat of engineering: the only commercial grade jet capable of supersonic flight. There used to be a few dozen of these things operating routes between New York/Dulles and London/Paris, capable of making the trip in only four hours. They flew at nearly Mach 2 (conventional jets are capable of about 90% of Mach 1). Unfortunately, the design proved both uneconomical and somewhat dangerous; the planes were grounded in the early 2000s.

A space shuttle, the Enterprise. The museum was a bit unclear as to why this particular shuttle wasn't being used, but, according to the great and mighty Wikipedia, Enterprise was never intended for orbital space flight and was just used for testing purposes. In either case, the shuttle is huge and quite impressive, well worth seeing.

A hang glider. The museum did not have very many of these, but they had a small exhibit dedicated to unpowered flight. It was pretty cool to see all the different designs that people came up with for either self-powered flight or completely unpowered gliders.

So the Udvar-Hazy center is a pretty cool place. I wish they had more space stuff, but I suppose they keep most of that at the National Mall location since it tends to be smaller than the airplanes and easier to move around. Can you imagine landing a concorde on the national mall? Be sure to check it out if you ever go to Washington, DC -- it's located just a few miles from the Dulles Airport.

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