A trip to the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum’s annex near Dulles Airport is well worth the journey.

With childlike wonder, tour guide Jim Murphy began the climb up the ladder through the clouds of imagination at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum’s Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Va.

Gazing through the portals of ancient Greek culture, Murphy engaged his circle of listeners with a familiar ancient tale. “Icarus was a mythological figure,” he said. “His father, Daedalus, was captured by the evil King Minos. Daedalus warned Icarus, `Don’t fly too close to the sun.’ But Icarus was curious.”

From there, Murphy proceeded to ask the crowd how the Wright Brothers went from being owners of a bicycle repair shop to aviation pioneers. “Why bicycles?” he asked. “Because it was how people got around. They learned how to bend metal. They learned how to work metal.”

Curiosity, particularly the kind that tests the boundaries of physics and imagination, is the centerpiece of the Udvar-Hazy Center, which opened in 2003. The spacious facility, nestled in the flight path of Washington Dulles International Airport, is the companion annex to the larger National Air and Space Museum in downtown Washington, D.C. Together, the facilities comprise the largest aviation-themed museum on the planet, serving up a treasure trove in excess of 60,000 flight-related artifacts.

Parking at the Udvar-Hazy Center — which is a little shy of two hours from Baltimore — is always a breeze, with acres of space available. The air is sweet and crisp in this semi-rural location, where you can spy the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. The whole experience is peppered with a relaxed, meditative flavor.

Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum

Aviation Hangar of the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center (Photo courtesy of the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum)

The Udvar-Hazy Center illuminates the old saw that “necessity is the mother of invention.” When the main building on the National Mall opened in 1976, its immediate and overwhelming popularity underscored the reality that a second location was required to store and display the museum’s colossal inventory of aircraft and  space artifacts.

In 1993, President Bill Clinton signed a law that created an extension for the museum near the airport. The future companion site, initially called the Dulles Annex, would be the largest construction project in Smithsonian history, and the only Smithsonian museum built entirely with private funds.

The 760,000-square-foot satellite museum was renamed the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center to honor Udvar-Hazy, who contributed $65 million toward the completion of the facility. A Budapest native and a pilot, Udvar-Hazy made his fortune in the global aircraft leasing business.

Dr. Peter L. Jakab has served as a curator at the National Air and Space Museum since 1983, and as chief curator for nine of those years. Among his responsibilities is to curate the Wright Brothers’ 1903 Flyer at the downtown location.

“We also determine what artifacts will be collected, and work with the collection’s care staff on making decisions on how to restore or preserve the artifacts,” he said.

At the bustling Welcome Center at the Udvar-Hazy Center, tour guide Anne DiPalma was nearly breathless when talking about the museum’s offerings.

“All these planes did what they were supposed to do,” she said. “I get goose bumps when I walk in here every Thursday. The SR-71 Blackbird – I love the mystery that surrounds it.”

While all of the planes at the museum beam with their own unique brand of fascination, it is undoubtedly the Blackbird that shouts from above as the marquee attraction. Sleek, mean and menacing, like a world-class boxer with nary an ounce of fat, the Blackbird has a mind-bending legacy as the world’s fastest aircraft.

The Blackbird — there were only 32 of them built — was a Cold War spy plane designed to cruise at 2,200 miles per hour. No other aircraft has ever been able to duplicate it.

Visitor Bruce Campbell recently decided to stop by the museum en route to his 50th high school reunion near Philadelphia. A U.S. Air Force veteran and aircraft mechanic in private aviation, Campbell extolled the virtues of the Udvar-Hazy facility.

“It’s a beautiful place,” he said. “We donate money to keep this place open.”

Among the favorite attractions there is the James S. McDonnell Space Hangar. Meditate on its nucleus, the Space Shuttle Discovery. Standing before it is an exercise in humility, leaving you with a feeling of how enormous the universe is and how infinitesimal we are.

The Discovery stands as the third Space Shuttle orbiter vehicle to fly in space. It was unveiled for flight in 1984 and retired as the oldest orbiter (and with the most accomplishments). During its service period, it racked up 39 Earth-orbital missions, recorded 356 days in space and traveled nearly 150 million miles.

Try carving out time to catch the elevator leading to the Donald D. Engen Observation Tower, named in honor of the late director of the National Air and Space Museum. Here, you will be treated to a dramatic, 360-degree panorama of Dulles and its environs.

Visitor Danny Cole acknowledged that although the D.C. location is fascinating, Udvar-Hazy is unique in its own right. The main location in the District, reported the Silver Spring resident and high school English teacher, “seems more geared to children. This one seems to have more exhibits focusing on the space race and espionage. It’s cool walking into a room and seeing a space capsule and spaceship.”

For information, visit airandspace.si.edu/udvar-hazy-center. 

Tony Glaros is a Laurel, Md.-based freelance writer.