On my recent trip to Washington, DC, I didn’t actually stay in the District (as Washington is called by locals). I was staying with friends in Reston, Virginia, about an hour outside of the main parts of DC via Metro. So on my final day, with an evening flight out of Dulles International Airport, and with my friends working, I searched for something more local to do for a few hours.

I considered Wolf Trap National Park for the Performing Arts, because as all of the regular readers here know, I am a sucker for any national parks unit. But I was told by my friends that unless I was seeing a show there, it didn’t have much to offer. So my scrolling of the map led me here, to the southeastern corner of the Dulles campus itself (although not connected to the airport). Here I discovered the Udvar-Hazy Center, one of two locations – the other being on the National Mall – of the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum.

Udvar-Hazy is known for its large observation tower

While the center on the mall is larger, it is more a true museum. The Udvar-Hazy Center is basically just a huge aircraft hangar, with a second hangar built off of the main one to house the space portion. It opened in 2010, funded by a donation by Steven Udvar-Hazy, the co-founder of International Lease Finance Corporation, one of the largest aircraft leasing companies. Hundreds of aircraft and other artifacts are on display here, things there just isn’t the room for at the main location in DC.

The collection is awesome, and a bit overwhelming, so I’m just going to mention a few of the highlights.

Just a portion of the collection

First, and most important to me as a space junkie, is the Space Shuttle Discovery. While here, gazing at the incredible spacecraft, I catch on with one of the free docent tours the museum offers. Discovery was third of five orbiting Space Shuttles to be built, and the busiest. It completed 39 missions over its 27 years in service. The guide points out that the different colors on the craft are different heat-resistant materials, headlined by more than 22,000 silicon-based tiles which all had to be individually inspected between each mission. Discovery is one of three Space Shuttles to be on display. (We have one near my home in Los Angeles that I have yet to visit.)


Nearby to the Shuttle is Friendship 7, an incredible piece of history of the space race. In 1962, John Glenn became the first American to fully orbit the Earth. His flight of just under five hours was in this tiny capsule, part of the Mercury program.

Friendship 7

Just outside the space wing sits an item on loan from the Mall campus: the Bell X-1 Glamorous Glennis. Bright orange and hard to miss, this very plane was the first to break the sound barrier, piloted by Chuck Yeager in 1947.

The sound barrier was broken in this plane

As far as famous planes go, there is perhaps none more well-known than the Enola Gay, the Boeing B-29 that dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima on August 6, 1945. (Bockscar, the plane that dropped the second atomic bomb on Nagasaki, is on display at the Air Force Museum in Dayton, Ohio.)

The Enola Gay

Two other planes greatly interest me, although I spend time wandering around looking at everything for at least a few seconds. First, this is the only American museum – as far as I know – to have a Concorde on display. The Concorde is the only supersonic passenger jet to fly so far, although the Boom seems to be on track to debut sometime this decade.

A Concorde

Second, it is hard to miss the jet black color and distinct outline of an SR-71 Blackbird. This plane flew at 85,000 feet, out of the reach of Soviet surface to air missiles (after the shooting down of a previously impervious U-2 at 70,000 feet, the Blackbird became the go-to for flights over the heart of Soviet territory) and was retired only in favor of satellites. Never armed, it was constructed of titanium, and as the US has no large titanium deposits, that metal was purchased from the Soviet Union, in what is a rather funny quirk of history.


One other aspect of the Udvar-Hazy Center needs to be mentioned: the observation tower. Here, one can watch planes land on Dulles’ runway 1-R, while listening to a live feed of the control tower. It’s a pretty cool experience for aviation fans.

A plane landing from the observation tower

Overall, it was a pleasant few hours spent visiting the National Air and Space Museum’s Udvar-Hazy Center in Northern Virginia. I can imagine this being a perfect way to spend a long layover at Dulles, or just a lovely day outside Washington, DC learning about the fascinating history of aircraft and spacecraft.

Like it? Pin it!

2 thoughts on “Udvar-Hazy Center of the Air and Space Museum

Leave a Reply