The Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center

One of my favorite parts of the Smithsonian is the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center. The Udvar-Hazy is a part of the National Air & Space Museum, but it’s not on the National Mall. The National Mall has limited space, so in 1999 they had the brilliant idea of putting a giant hangar near Dulles Airport in Virginia and filling it with all kinds of cool stuff that wouldn’t fit in the main Air & Space Museum.

If you have a long layover at Dulles Airport, this is a GREAT way to kill some time. Fairfax Connector operates a bus from Dulles to the Udvar-Hazy Center every hour. The trip takes less than fifteen minutes, and it only costs a few dollars.

They’ve got hundreds of fascinating historical aircraft, as well as a restoration hangar where they can work on several airplanes at once. This is a BIG place. They have Felix Baumgartner’s capsule, ultralights, stunt planes, dirigible cabins, and so much more. They have cool space stuff like the Gemini 7 space capsule. They’ve also got an SR-71 Blackbird. And an Air France Concorde. And the freaking Enola Gay.

And they have a Space Shuttle. Guys, this place is SO COOL!

There are four space shuttle orbiters left, after the tragic destruction of Challenger and Columbia. The remaining four are all retired into museums. Endeavour is at the California Science Center in Los Angeles, California. Enterprise is at the Intrepid Sea, Air, & Space Museum in New York. Atlantis is at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex in Florida. And Discovery is here, at the Udvar-Hazy.

I’m not likely to ever see Endeavour because I have no interest in going back to Los Angeles. I’ll see Enterprise next time I’m in New York for work, post-pandemic. Nikhil and I went to the Kennedy Space Center this summer and saw Atlantis. (Editor’s note: I thought I had blogged the Kennedy Space Center Visitor’s Complex, but I don’t see it here. I’ll have to come back to write that post later because the spacecraft on display are amazing.)

I mentioned Lorrie’s weekend visit back in my post about the Air Force Memorial. That same weekend, we drove out to Chantilly to see the Udvar-Hazy, and to get some quality time with Discovery.

An STS Orbiter is a very, very large thing. Larger than you might expect. The rockets at the back are just insanely large. Until you see them up close, it’s difficult to describe the immensity.

I call this photo “Lorrie looks at Shuttlebutt.”

The space part of the Udvar-Hazy has some displays pertaining to pop culture and how it intertwines with our space exploration. There are items from Babylon 5, Star Wars, and Buck Rogers, among others. There’s also a hero model used in the filming of Close Encounters of the Third Kind. You don’t ever see it in the movie, but there’s a bunch of little things glued onto the model in various places to give it more detail. Like trucks, and mailboxes, and R2-D2, seen in the photo below. (Here’s a fun pop culture trivia- there’s also a small R2-D2 on the deck of One-Eyed Willie’s pirate ship in The Goonies. That little droid just gets everywhere.)

For some reason, there’s even a tiny model of the Space Shuttle in the Space Shuttle’s wing, complete with tiny people. I love miniatures, so this was extra fun for me.

I took hundreds of photos in the Udvar-Hazy. If I showed the rest of them inline like this, the post would be insanely long. Instead, I’ll just throw 78 of them into a gallery!

Have you ever been to the Udvar-Hazy Center?

35/52 (and 14 of 30!)

Local Tourist, Day One… er, Three

Let’s time travel, dear friends, back to the day I arrived on the Amtrak. The train arrived early on Friday, August 7th, and I was on the platform by twenty to nine in the morning. It didn’t take them long to unload my car, and I was on my way to my new apartment pretty quickly. Once I arrived, I unloaded the car, taking multiple trips to do so. I snuck in a brief but fitful nap to try to offset the mediocre sleep from the train, before my first visit to Harris Teeter I described in yesterday’s post.

On Saturday, August 8th, I waited for Verizon to come and install my Internet – a process that took all of 90 seconds once they were here. Afterward, I drove to a nearby Best Buy and acquired a new television- my previous TV committed Seppuku about two weeks before the move, so I needed a screen. I also drove by a local friend’s house to pick up a small table and chair that she was willing to part with so that I didn’t have to use my toilet as a desk until the movers arrived. I also made my first visit to a new favorite place, a local Irish pub with delicious food. The corned beef and cabbage was delightful.

Which brings us to Sunday, August 9th. The first day in my new city that I had no specific goals or plans in mind. I decided, after a little waffling, to take a Capital Bikeshare over the Potomac and check out the National Mall. I’d seen it all before, of course, but not as a local! Here’s my local tourist afternoon in eight photos.

Photo the first: After blundering my way through the Arlington roadways on my rented bikeshare with the help of my phone’s little mapping robot, I made my way to the Arlington Memorial Bridge. I stopped about halfway across to look at the boats on the Potomac, and the pretty stellar view of the Lincoln Memorial and Washington Monument.

Photo the second: There was a rack for the the bikeshare pretty close to the Lincoln Memorial, so I made the decision to re-rack my bike and walk the rest of the way. This gave me time to poke around the Lincoln for a little bit.

Photo the third: Walking east from the Lincoln Memorial, I moved along the Reflecting Pool, enjoying the fact that although it was still a hot day, the breeze was actually cooling me off. That never happened in Florida.

Photo the fourth: Just past the Reflecting Pool is the World War II Memorial. To be perfectly honest, I didn’t know much about this one- I know there’s at least a dozen different Memorials that I haven’t seen before, but this is a big one. I probably saw it on a previous visit, but it didn’t make an impression until I stumbled across it on this day. This is a big place. I bet it gets really crowded on especially hot days.

Picture the fifth: Continuing east, I reached the Washington Monument. Somehow in all the times I’ve been by here over the years, I never noticed before that there are two different colors to the marble, starting at about 150 feet up. This is because construction halted for about twenty-three years for a variety of reasons including the American Civil War. When they resumed construction in 1877, the marble came from a different source so it has different shading.

Picture the sixth: Still the Washington Monument, but the sun and clouds were doing neat things and I thought it would be an interesting photograph.

Picture the seventh: I continued east along the National Mall, past several of the Smithsonian museums, and toward the Capitol.

Picture the eighth: This is where I concluded my tourism for the day. I stopped at the Smithsonian metro station beneath the National Mall, and took the metro back to the station closest to my apartment. I’m very happy that I can walk a few minutes from my apartment to the Metro, and then take a fifteen minute train ride directly to the National Mall.

When post-pandemic life resumes and there’s more cool stuff going on in the city, I think I’m gonna be doing that a lot.

Have you been to the National Mall? What’s your favorite thing to see there?

28/52 (and 7 of 30!)

Orlando To Arlington: One Night On The Amtrak Auto Train

When it came to the logistics of how to move to Virginia, I gave it a great deal of thought.  I had movers carry the furniture, but there was still a bunch that traveled with me- things I wouldn’t entrust to a mover or things I knew I would need right away before the movers would get to my destination.    I considered three ways to do this:

  • Fly up and have some auto transporter move my car.  This would be the most expensive option, of course.
  • Drive up.  It’s about 850 miles between Orlando and Arlington, which means at least twelve hours of I-95 driving.  While this is theoretically the least expensive option, there’s gas to consider, and very probably a hotel in the middle.  Also, I hate driving more than a few hours.
  • Take the Auto Train. Amtrak’s Auto Train runs every day in both directions between Sanford, Florida (just north of Orlando) to Lorton, Virginia (just south of Arlington).  I didn’t even know this existed until I started researching ways to get up to Virginia for the move.  A one-way ticket for both me and my car cost a little more than five hundred dollars.  As you might have guessed based on the title of the post, I chose this option.

On Thursday, August 6th, it was finally time to move to Virginia.  I woke up, checked out of my final Orlando hotel, had a quick I-Hop breakfast, and drove my packed-up car to the Auto Train station in Sanford.

I foolishly let the little mapping robot in my car tell me how to get to the station instead of just following the signs.  I took a really winding backroads path to the Auto Train station, but at least I finally found it.

When you arrive, you follow the markings on the pavement to the first check-in.  The special rail cars on the left side are called autoracks, and that’s where the cars go.  I’ll talk more about those later.   The train on the right side is the passenger compartment-  they’re separated in Sanford because they need to load the cars and passengers separately, but they get linked up before we depart.

When you get to the first check-in, the attendant will scan your printed ticket.  I paid a small extra fee to be one of the first thirty cars unloaded when we got to Virginia, so the door of my car got a magnet slapped on the driver’s side door with a priority number.

One really cool thing about the Auto Train is that you can pack up your car like a giant checked bag.  You won’t have access to your car during the trip, but it’s still a good way to carry a lot of stuff.  I packed the things I would need for one night in a smaller bag, including my laptop and some sleep clothing, and left the rest in the car.

After the first check-in, you pull up to a canopy where vehicles are being taken in different lanes.  This is where I said goodbye to my car for the duration- they have you take your carry-on bag for the train and leave the keys in the car.

I’ll focus for a moment on the car’s journey-  there’s a dedicated staff at the Amtrak station that functions sort of like valet parking, except that in this case, they’re parking your car in the autoracks.

The autoracks are really neat.  They’re bi-level, which is why you can see some ramps going up into them while the closest car in this photo is driving down a ramp into the lower part.    I watched them take my car in, and it was on the lower level for the duration.  Auto Train consists are reportedly nearly three-fourths of a mile long and can transport over three hundred cars per trip.

A quick aside for the linguistically minded among you:  Prior to reading about autoracks, I had never heard the term consist as it applies to trains.  Considering how much time I’ve spent on trains, that’s kind of amazing.   A consist is a set of railroad vehicles forming a complete train-  in other words, the engine plus the passenger cars plus the diner car and lounge plus all the autoracks together are a consist.      New words are fun!

Here’s a short video of the crew driving someone’s vehicle onto the autoracks.  I watched a bunch of these because I’m a huge nerd and it was fascinating to me.

Let’s move on to the passenger experience.  Both the Sanford and Lorton stations have a fairly large waiting area for pre-boarding.   In the case of the Sanford location, there’s a shuttle that runs every twenty minutes to downtown Sanford a few miles away, for anyone who wants to kill time before departure.  I elected to stay put.  (Although with Hollerbach’s just two miles away, it was very tempting.)

There’s a check-in counter where I checked in and was given a compartment assignment.  I’ll talk more about that a little further on.

I mentioned earlier that the Auto Train consist is nearly three-fourths of a mile long- this is not an exaggeration.  This is only the passenger compartments and dining car, and only part of that.  Getting the entire train into one photo would not be possible from this close.

This is the hallway near my little sleeping compartment.  Some of the larger sleeping compartments had a different hallway along one side of the train with the compartments being all to one side, but this area was all “Roomettes.”

A Roomette, in Amtrak terms, is a small enclosed compartment with two seats facing each other and a small fold-down table in the middle.  There’s a knob for temperature control, a power outlet, a light switch, and curtains for privacy during sleep time.   Also, the door latches from the inside, which is reassuring.

At night, the two seats can be pushed flat to make one bed, and a separate bunk pulls down from the ceiling.  When it was time to sleep, I actually chose to use the upper bunk instead of the lower, even though I was alone and could have done either one.

Our departure was at 4pm, so they rolled the passenger compartment forward, coupled the autoracks, and then we were off.  While they were coupling us and getting us ready, an engineer somewhere on the train gave us some raw statistics:  Our Auto Train had 182 passengers, 14 crew members, and four engineers/conductors.   111 people were in sleeping compartments, and our train was carrying 101 four-wheeled vehicles and three two-wheelers.

The first few hours of the train ride were all Florida, but I still saw a few pretty things out of my window.   There were lots and lots of cows, for a start.

And waterways, weather, little boats…

…and some neat smokestacks.

My sleeping-compartment ticket included a dinner and a small continental breakfast.  When I checked in back in Sanford, I was given a small flyer with my dinner choices.  Normally, you would be assigned a dinner slot and you would go to the dining car for this.  These aren’t normal times, however, so all meals were taken in the sleeping compartments.

Technically I can say that I had dinner in Jacksonville, but I was just passing through.

Here were the selections for dinner:

The flyer was actually not correct about everything, but they were pretty close.  For example, here’s the “first glass of wine” mentioned above.  You can tell it’s a red because the cup has an ‘R‘ Sharpied onto the lid.

Presentation aside, the food was great.  I chose the flatiron steak.  I wasn’t really expecting much from an Amtrak steak, but it was deliciousThe veggies, mashed potato, and bread were also excellent and I cleaned my plate.

Dessert was a chocolate cake.  It was delicious and moist.  It was most definitely not a lie.

After dinner, I resumed staring out the window at all the passing landscape.  There were parts of the journey that seemed like it was 97% trees and rusted out El Caminos.   I’m only half-joking.  I’ve never seen so many El Caminos in one day before, and ALL of them were abandoned in wooded areas.

Soon after we crossed into Georgia, we passed the distinct water tower of Folkston.  I didn’t get a good shot of the tower, so I yoinked this one off the web to illustrate.

Pretty soon after that, it became too dark to really see much outside of the train, aside from the occasional gas station or Wal-Mart in the distance.    The attendant asked me during boarding what time I wanted him to configure the bed.  I had him come by at around ten.  I played some zoom trivia for a bit, but my connection wasn’t very stable so it was not very successful.  Amtrak technically has wi-fi but they don’t support video chats or streaming of any kind, so I was tethered to my phone and it was a little wonky.

The Auto Train makes only one stop in between endpoints, and it’s not for passengers.   The train makes a brief halt in Florence, South Carolina to change engineers, refuel, and refill the water tanks.    I was still awake when we made this stop, but I was exhausted.  After a time, I climbed into the upper bunk and slept fitfully.

When I woke up, we were already in Virginia, cruising through Richmond.  I was awake enough to see Squash-A-Penny Junction Antiques when we rolled past, and I rather wish I’d had the camera out.  Set near the junction of two major rail lines, it was originally built in the 1860s as a general store.  Now it’s an eclectic antique shop, and it just looks neat.   I definitely want to double back to see it at some later point.

Right after we passed the Squash-A-Penny in Doswell, the attendant brought my “continental breakfast,” which was a banana, a crumb cake, some milk, a juice cup-  not really a very heavy breakfast, but that’s ok because we were less than two hours from arrival.

Naturally, I started looking out the window again after breakfast, and just outside of Fredericksburg, we passed a big stone pyramid in an otherwise open grass field.  I can’t pass up the opportunity to find out why a monument might be out in a field, so I looked it up later.  Here’s what I learned:

This field is actually part of the Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park.  The pyramid, composed of granite stones and standing 23 feet tall, was erected in 1903 after a request during the late 1800s by the Confederate Memorial Literary Society.   This American Civial War monument marks the point where General George G. Meade’s Union division penetrated a gap in ‘Stonewall’ Jackson’s lines on December 13, 1862, during the Battle of Fredericksburg. Over the years it has become known as the Meade Pyramid.   The more you know… 

Toward the very end of the journey, the Auto Train spent a lot of time hugging the Virginia shore of the Potomac River, with Maryland across the way.

Finally, after a little more than sixteen hours on the rails, we made a slightly-early arrival at Lorton Station in Virginia.    They uncoupled the autoracks first and started to offload the cars while the passengers deboarded.   I have read that the entire Auto Train can offload all of the cars in a little more than an hour, but my car was pulled up almost as soon as I reached the front door of the station.

Ten minutes after I stepped down from the passenger compartment, I was back on the road, driving the last eighteen miles or so to my new apartment in Arlington.

Have you ever traveled by Auto Train?

21/52

The London Film Museum

My previous post about London led to a conversation with a friend about London, and I wanted to look at the pictures I posted in my blog post about the London Film Museum. When I went to look for the post, I discovered to my vast surprise that I never wrote a post about the London Film Museum, I only wrote a paragraph in one of my previous London posts. In August of 2012, I said the following in a longer post about London:

I quite enjoyed the London Film Museum, which had a lot of neat stuff, including Daleks, a TARDIS, the superman suit from Superman Returns, the Batman Begins batsuit, and a large variety of props from other movies.  There was an entire room of Harry Potter stuff, and a large exhibit dedicated to Ray Harryhausen, including a full sized original Bubo.  This was a highlight for me.

That’s it- just that one paragraph. All the pictures I took at the museum, which I thought I had posted years ago, were still unshared. I will now correct that oversight.

When I visited the London Film Museum, it was in a section of County Hall, right near Westminster Bridge, close to the London Eye along the Thames River. I have since learned that it moved to a location in Covent Garden in April of 2012- my visit was in July of 2012, so I suspect the museum was still moving, and I saw only a fraction of the entire exhibit. What I did see was pretty dang cool though.

Harry Potter props and costumes- A variety of items were present here, including some costumes, the Tri-Wizard cup, and Harry’s Nimbus 2000.

Star Wars stuff – London is the home of Pinewood Studios, which has been a production facility for most of the Star Wars films. There were a few Star Wars artifacts on hand during my visit. I saw much more at the Star Wars exhibit in Tokyo a few years later.

Alien – They had a sculpture of a Xenomorph and some facehuggers from the Alien franchise.

Doctor Who – A film museum in England would naturally have some Doctor Who items. Not as much as the Doctor Who Experience in Cardiff, but still- a Tardis and a handful of Daleks were still neat to see.

Superman and Batman – Pinewood has a long history with DC Comics, and there weer a number of Superman and Batman artifacts on hand. First up, some costumes!

Next, we have part of the ship that brought Kal to earth in Superman (1978) and a newspaper from Superman II.

Braveheart, Hellraiser, and various animation – The Dangermouse cardboard stand was my favorite in this part.

The Ray Harryhausen Exhibit – This was my favorite part, to be honest- they had a special exhibit in plae called “Ray Harryhausen: Myths and Legends.” It contained various items from Harryhausen’s stop-motion work, but I was most interested in the Clash of the Titans items, particularly the full-sized Bubo the Owl!

Have you ever been to a film museum? What’s your favorite prop that you’ve seen in person?

17/52