Software Engineer
Google Chrome

East Coast (III): Washington DC, Day 2

This is the third in a series of posts about my East Coast US trip in March 2013 (see the first part here and second part here).

Our second and final day in DC dawned cloudy and cold, and it remained that way for the entirety of the day. Somewhat disappointed after the beautiful sunshine of the first day, we were still thankful that the rain stayed away. Our day began with breakfast at a little cafe called Teaism just in the Penn Quarter. They had a wide variety of interesting teas on offer as well as a decent breakfast selection.

Following breakfast, our first stop was the National Air and Space Museum, another branch of the Smithsonian Institute. Located on the National Mall, close by the Natural History Museum, Air and Space is a must-see if you're an aviation buff of any kind (and let's face it, who isn't?). It is a huge two storey building filled to the brim with some of the greatest pieces of human engineering - the magnificent machines that take us around the world and to the stars.

One brilliant feature of the museum is the emphasis on real artefacts over replicas. The lunar lander on display is one of twelve built for the Apollo moon landing program. This one was the second of two test landers built to test the separation and docking procedures in low Earth orbit; it was never used for this purpose because the first test was a complete success. Eventually, NASA transferred stewardship of the lander to the Smithsonian for display to the public alongside many other artefacts of the Apollo era. There's one of the test lunar rovers (used in the later Apollo missions) and a huge Saturn V engine along with spacesuits, and other gizmos.

The museum even has the actual Apollo 11 command module, Columbia. This is the real spaceship that was used by Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins to ride to and from the moon in July 1969. Burned brown from the heat of re-entry, it is encased in protective plastic and stands in the entrance atrium of the museum. I was fascinated by the Apollo space program as a child, and so I was fully geeking out over this real piece of history. I can only imagine the excitement that would have rippled across the US at the fulfilment of President Kennedy's bold proclamation to land a man on the moon before [the 1960's] were out.

Another Apollo-themed exhibit (just a replica this time) marks the first international manned space rendezvous - the 1975 docking of an American and a Russian manned spacecraft. This event marked the end of the space race that started with the launch of the Russian Sputnik in 1957. It was also the last flight for the Apollo hardware, and the last US spaceflight until the launch of the Space Shuttle in 1981. On the topic of the Space Shuttle, there is a section of the museum devoted purely to Shuttle flights. While the shuttle Discovery is at a satellite facility of the museum out near Dulles airport (along with a SR-71 Blackbird and a Concorde), the National Mall location features smaller exhibits, including a touching tribute to Sally Ride, who died in mid-2012. Not only was Ride the first American woman in space, but she was also the first known LGBT astronaut - a mark which was not publicly revealed until after her passing.

Orbiting the Earth from 1973 to 1979 was Skylab, the first space station launched by the United States. The station endured severe damage during its launch, necessitating substantial repair work before it became habitable (part of the repairs included a sun shade to replace a broken heat shield and freeing a stuck solar panel). There were three teams that occupied Skylab between 1973 and 1974, conducting scientific experiments in zero-gravity - particularly investigating the effects of prolonged weightlessness on the human body. Sadly, heightened sunspot activity in the late 1970s heated the Earth's upper atmosphere and increased the drag on Skylab, causing it to burn up in the Earth's atmosphere before the space shuttle was ready to potentially prolong its lifetime. Parts of Skylab landed near Perth, Western Australia after surviving the fiery re-entry process. On display in the museum is Skylab B, a flight-standard backup that was not launched into space due to the exorbitant costs involved. You can walk through the station to see just how cramped life in a space station actually is (pretty cramped!).

The aviation side of the Air and Space museum is also fascinating. It covers everything from the Wright Brother's first flight to today's passenger and military jets. Having recently visited Pearl Harbour and in the midst of a modern history reading, I particularly liked the World War II display with P-51 Mustangs, Spitfires, and the Messerschmidt bf 109. Aerial combat has never been since been so devastating, and I'm awed by the bravery required to climb into one of these things and engage the enemy - day in and day out, over land and sea.

Having finished at the Air and Space Museum, we attempted to visit the Holocaust Museum just a short way up the road. The museum came highly recommended, and having been to the Memorial to the Murdered Jews in Berlin, I was curious to see what the equivalent would be in the US. Unfortunately, while entry is free, tickets are given out on a first-come first-served basis, and typically run out early in the morning. We thought we had managed to purchase tickets online for the day, but unfortunately the date turned out to be two months in the future, and we were prompted rejected at the entrance. So if you want to visit the museum on Sunday June 23rd at 2pm, get in touch.

Thus discharged from the Holocaust Museum, we set out to see more landmarks on foot. Proceeding down the National Mall, we again passed the Washington Monument, which stands in a the middle of a straight line drawn from the US Capitol, down the National Mall to the Lincoln Memorial. The great obelisk commemorates George Washington, and is the tallest stone structure and tallest obelisk in the world at 170 metres. It is usually open for people to ascend to the top, but it is currently closed due to damage from the 2011 Virginia earthquake and Hurricane Irene. Cracks and leaks have been found inside the monument, and while it is apparently not in danger of falling down, it remains unsafe to be reopened to the public.

Further down the mall is the National World War II Memorial. Located at the eastern edge of the Reflecting Pool, it is one of the newest memorials in DC, having been completed in 2004. It is a pillar-encircled plaza and fountains, with the names of the fifty states inscribed on the pillars. Two arches stand at opposite ends of the monument, bearing the labels "Pacific" and "Atlantic" in reference to the two primary theatres of the war.

Walking along the Reflecting Pool leads you to one of the most iconic structures in Washington DC: the Abraham Lincoln Memorial. As President, Lincoln led the US through the Civil War, preserving the union and eliminating slavery. He presided at a time of great divisions across the country, even within the Union forces, and and delivered some of the most memorable quotes of history. Sadly, just six days after the surrender of Confederate forces and the end of the civil war, Lincoln was assassinated by Confederate sympathiser John Wilkes Booth in a theatre. Today, a great sculpted likeness of the man sits in the Memorial, gazing over the thousands who come to visit him each year. The walls of the Memorial bear his second inaugural address and the Gettysburg Address, the latter of which is the most quoted speech in American history. It's always noisy here during the daytime; hordes of schoolchildren and tourist constantly surround the building, and I wondered whether Mr Lincoln would have approved or disapproved of the cacophony that echoes around him. Given the rabble that he had to deal with, I imagine that he'd appreciate some long-won peace and quiet now.

The Memorial itself has borne witness to many titular events in the history of the capitol. The most notable of these is Martin Luther King Jr.'s famous "I Have A Dream" speech, delivered from the top of the Memorial's steps. Engraved into one of the tiles before the Memorial is a subtle tribute to King's momentous speech. I thought that it was especially appropriate that the civil rights leader delivered his most strident appeal for equality before the President whose Emancipation Proclamation put into motion the dissolution of African-American slavery in the US. The symbolism of two of the greatest orators in history coming together is also special.

Looping to the south of the Lincoln Memorial, we headed back towards the city centre, but closer to the Potomac river this time. Just away from the Lincoln is the Korean War Veterans Memorial, styled as a patrol of 19 soldiers out in the field. The soldiers represent each branch of the US military, cloaked in full combat gear and bearing expressions grim, watchful, and alert. On a wall nearby is the sombre inscription, "Freedom is not Free".

Across a nearby sports field is the Franklin D. Roosevelt Memorial. Commonly known as "FDR", Roosevelt won the Presidency a record four times, held the office for 12 years, and lead the US through the Great Depression and nearly to the end of World War II. His New Deal policies helped to lift the country from the depths of recession, and his ideology dominated US politics for decades to come. Along with his contemporary, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, he was a powerful orator, crafting memorable speeches to galvanise his people through the tumultuous years of his Presidency. Remarkably, FDR did all of this while totally paralysed from the waist down due to polio. His health failed him through the 1940s, and he died of a cerebral haemorrhage in 1945, just a month before the end of World War II. Today, the 22nd Amendment to the US Constitution forbids anyone from holding the Presidency for more than two consecutive terms, ensuring that FDR will be the only man to have been elected to the office more than twice.

The FDR Memorial is a large outdoor area divided into four main sections - one for each of FDR's terms of office. The walls are adorned with quotes, and sculptures of the President, his wife Eleanor, and scenes from the Great Depression litter the compound. The memorial is not grand like the Lincoln or Jefferson, but it is quietly dignified. FDR purportedly preferred for a smaller memorial marker, and one according to his wishes is located in front of the National Archives building on Pennsylvania Ave in the city.

Crossing the bridge at the south end of the Tidal Basin, we finally made it to the Jefferson Memorial. This is dedicated to Thomas Jefferson, the third US President and principal author of the Declaration of Independence. Inside the pantheon-like structure stands an enormous bronze sculpture of Jefferson staring due north towards the White House (though the executive mansion isn't actually visible from the memorial). The walls inside are marked with extracts from the Declaration of Independence, including the iconic "We hold these truths to be self-evident...". Around the building and the Tidal Pool on which it stands are thousands of Japanese cherry trees, given as a gift of peace from the Japanese people in 1912. The mass blooming of the trees in spring each year is celebrated in the capital, and we were sadly two weeks too early to catch the flowers (though some cherry trees around the city had bloomed early, adding colour to the grey stones).

Walking back towards the National Mall from the Jefferson Memorial, we hailed a cab to head out of DC to Arlington. The capitol sits on the south edge of the state of Maryland and the north edge of Virginia, and Arlington lies just to the south over the Potomac river. The taxi took us to the US Air Force Memorial, and a view over the Pentagon. The headquarters of the US Defense Force, the Pentagon consists of five concentric rings, each with five sides. It is the largest office building by internal space in the world, and contains nearly 30 kilometres of corridors! We couldn't get any closer to the Pentagon as it was a weekend (there are tours available during the week), and the building itself is not much to look at unless you're higher in the sky.

Across from the Pentagon and the Air Force Memorial is the Arlington National Cemetery. Veterans of the armed forces and those killed in action may choose to be interned here. President John F. Kennedy was buried here after his assassination in 1963, and today his wife, two of his children, and his two brothers are also buried at Arlington. There is something sobering about seeing the neat rows of little white crosses dotting the green hills of the cemetery. This is a place of mourning, a symbol of the enormous price paid in the conflicts of man. Every grave bears a story, a knot of grief, family and loved ones who have lost someone precious to them.

The Air Force Memorial itself is centred around three tall spires that represent the contrails of the Air Force Thunderbird's signature "bomb blast" manoeuvre. It is one of the lesser visited sites in the region; we certainly would not have gotten there without taking a taxi or driving since it is some distance away from local public transport. We took a walk from the Memorial to the nearby Pentagon City shopping mall; we grabbed a bite to eat before heading back into DC on the metro.

Our day in Washington DC ended with a pizza dinner and gelato dessert before an early night at the hotel. Tara had a 7am flight to catch, and I had a 6am bus ride for the Big Apple: New York City. I greatly enjoyed Washington DC; it is full of iconic sights and a multitude of free and amazing museums. It's also generally easy to navigate and get around via the metro system. I'll have to come back sometime to see more of the Smithsonian, catch more tours, and explore further.

comments powered by Disqus