Although Washington, D.C. is a veritable showcase for the United States’ complete history, certain monuments or exhibits testify to specific struggles and triumphs this country has endured and overcome. The western anchor of the National Mall is the Lincoln Memorial, which in addition to honoring a man whose vision allowed this country to rebuild after a seemingly irreconcilable split is apparently visited nearly 24 hours a day. I thought that at night the memorial would be empty and more deeply personally connecting than when shared with strangers, but even at 10:30 PM I was not alone in my quest for a one-on-one appointment with the sixteenth president. Nevertheless, no matter the hour there is something undeniably humbling about standing before Mr. Lincoln; for all the leadership courses and “dealing with conflict” seminars that are offered today, it’s hard to ignore those who seem to possess an innate sense of direction. Washington, D.C. is full of these reminders — and as magnificent as the Lincoln Memorial is, it is far from the only tribute to hallmarks of ingenuity.
Though DC is home to politicking and government, it also houses the Smithsonian Institution. Though its best-known campuses surround the Mall, one museum in particular is actually a couple dozen miles removed from the perpetual crowds and lines in Washington, D.C. itself. The Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center is an offshoot of the National Air and Space Museum, but rather than serve as another interactive science center, it instead houses some of the most distinguished and influential planes and aeronautical exploration vehicles since the Wright brothers first flew in 1903. The Boeing Dash 80, predecessor to the jetliner that transformed commercial aviation; the Enola Gay, of World War II fame; and Concorde are all on display here. Unlike its sister campus, the planes themselves are not for walking through or touching; instead, the intent is to preserve these legacies of the air so that future generations can continue to see the transformation from the first fixed-wing fliers to today’s sleek transports. Indeed, free tours throughout the day highlight some of the most significant contributions to commercial, military, and astronautical flight. I may always be enamored with commercial aviation, but two aircraft — neither of which was the Dash 80 — drew my attention for nearly the entire day.
The contradiction in design beauty and mission usage of the Lockheed Martin SR-71 appears glaring at first, but with further consideration the plane is elegant, both in terms of its overall sleekness and in delivering exactly what its designers intended. This is an aircraft serving one mission only: to run reconnaissance routes higher and faster than any other plane of its time. The SR-71 flew missions up to 85,000 feet in altitude at speeds of nearly 3.3 Mach. To put it in perspective, a trip across from Washington, D.C. to Los Angeles that takes somewhere around 5.5 hours in today’s typical commercial jets would take only a fifth of the time in an SR-71. One hour to go cross-country. Maybe this is the true Dreamliner!
Retired since 1999, the plane is now relegated to showcase duty only, but even on static display it’s impossible not to notice its smooth curves set against an all-business demeanor. Arguably the most shocking part of taking in the plane: it was designed in an era without Matlab, Excel, or graphing calculators. That engineers fifty years ago could conceive such a design and execute it with no mission casualties is incredible, and to have those efforts culminate in a machine that still holds the speed record for jet-powered aircraft is impressive and slightly disappointing at the same time. Where is our urge to push today’s boundaries for flight?
The SR-71 is a superb piece of engineering, but this post about exploring new frontiers would not be complete without a mention of a second incredible vehicle on display at the Udvar-Hazy Center: the Space Shuttle Discovery. Until my visit to the facility, I had seen only pictures or video of the craft; previous visits to DC were only of the main campus and thus avoided seeing even the Enterprise, which while not spaceworthy would have still been a jaw-dropper. It may be a bit uglier and less graceful looking than I had imagined, but this was one of the highlights of my trip.
There is little more fascinating than the unknown of space. I’ve never studied space exploration much, so commenting here on the technical aspects of the Space Shuttle program would be underwhelming for the reader. I do know, however, that seeing this wonder parked for good brought tears to my eyes and lumps to my throat; yet, I couldn’t bring myself to leave. Seeing its thermal tiles upfront — the seemingly innocuous foam bricks that failed Columbia and her crew twelve years ago — was as humbling as standing at the Lincoln Memorial, though this time for the amount of technical capital that went into creating such an aircraft.
That a vehicle could leave the surface of the planet and ascend hundreds of miles into the atmosphere and return safely is a massive testament to how far engineering and the sciences have come. As the SR-71 came and went, we were still capable of deploying a manned, largely reuseable orbiter to the International Space Station. I don’t think I’ve ever been as emotionally moved by seeing an engineering feat in person as I was by Discovery. Sadly, from a technical and a social perspective, I’m not sure when I will again.
Two days before I pondered the fate of the Space Shuttle program, I visited the National Mall before sunrise to try to get some unique shots of the various memorials. It had rained all night; even as I left the hotel, there was still a light drizzle. Two hours before sunrise, the rain stopped and the cold and wind began to move in. The Mall was largely deserted, and the National Park Service was still making repairs to the Reflecting Pool and so had not filled it. The wind whipped the clouds around the Washington Monument, and I decided to brave the windchill and stay around for sunrise itself. It was largely silent. I heard the very first plane depart Reagan International Airport just before 6 AM.
By 7 AM, it was clear the sun wasn’t going to cast any magical light on the Lincoln Memorial, so I headed east and found myself at the Constitution Gardens. Being off the main strip, it may be a less-visited part of the National Mall, but either way at such an early hour the place was empty anyhow. The solitude that I normally find on distant mountaintops came surprisingly easily given the political turmoil brewing a few miles east, and the quiet calm gave me some time to think to myself about the significance and insignificance of presidents and the tiny role each citizen plays in the great big realm of federal politics. Finding this peace at the tribute to the US Constitution felt somehow right; perhaps this reflection is what the writers of the Constitution wanted.
In hindsight, one aspect of my trip became clear by the time I left the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center: whether for exploring political biographies or technical marvels, Washington, D.C. had begun to grow on me.