Fly to the Space Station
Would you rather test your skills at air-to-air combat in an F-4 Phantom II jet fighter, or launch into space on a shuttle? Lucky you—you don’t have to choose. You can do both at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. The simulation rides are designed to fool your senses, and they do without subjecting you to g-forces. These rides grew out of simulations for military applications.
If you want to fly a jet with a pal, choose the two-person F-18 Super Hornet Experience. After a fast training session, the “pilot” takes off from an aircraft carrier using a throttle to control the speed and a joy stick to control whether the plane goes up, down, or does 360° barrel roles. (Empty change from your pockets before taking this ride!) The second person on the flight is the gunner, who releases virtual radar-guided and heat-seeking missiles at approaching targets.
If you’d rather be a passenger, choose the Space Walk or Wings. On the Space Walk you’ll be sitting in an astronaut’s chair inside a shuttle during the launch. You’ll get the sensation of floating gravity-free as you fly through space until you reach the Space Station. Once there, you’ll get a personal tour of the inside of the station, then suit up for an outside stroll. Watching Wings, you’ll sit in the pilot’s seat for a fast-paced tour of the history of aviation by flying various planes ranging from the Sopwith Camel of World War I, to early bi-planes all the way through to the F-5 Tiger jet.
If after the flight and space-flight simulators you’re still in need of more excitement, there are roller coaster rides, like the Cosmic Coaster, which takes you on a white-knuckle journey through the cosmos. Be prepared to rock and roll, and even scream as you “fly” through a futuristic image of space.
Entry to the museum is free, but there is a charge (under $10) for the simulator rides, which are located in the West Wing Gallery 103. After paying, you enter a queue for the ride you’ve chosen. Most of the rides take about 5 to 6 minutes.
You can also take these simulator rides at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum satellite at the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center. This companion facility near Washington Dulles International Airport houses the space shuttle Enterprise, the Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird, and other large planes. At this facility, you can also see the Space Walk in 3D (using 3D glasses), which increases the sense of being out in space.
Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, National Mall Building, Independence Ave. at Sixth St. SW ( 202/633-1000; www.nasm.si.edu/museum). Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center, 14390 Air and Space Museum Pkwy., Chantilly, VA (www.nasm.si.edu/UdvarHazy).
When to Go: Year-round. Closed Christmas Day.
Ronald Reagan Washington National (5 miles/8km). Dulles International (26 miles/42km). Baltimore-Washington International (30 miles/48km).
$$ Embassy Suites Hotel Downtown, 1250 22nd St. NW ( 800/EMBASSY [362-2779] or 202/857-3388; www.embassysuitesdcmetro.com). $$$ Hilton Washington, 1919 Connecticut Ave. NW ( 800/HILTONS [445-8667] or 202/483-3000; www.washinton.hilton.com).