Saturday, July 10, 2010

The end is near

Sitting in the last row of the last car of the train, the woman next to me asks which direction to the cafe car.
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NASA Goddard Space Flight Center

The NASA Goddard Space Flight Center Visitor Center is a small, sophisticated, and educational museum.

At entry, we were greeted by a notice that model rocket demonstrations were suspended until NASA receives a permit from the FAA to launch rockets in restricted airspace.

The center's exhibits explain the scientific significance of, and the science behind the programs conducted at the Goddard Space Flight Center: satellite and space-based telescope monitoring, and development of space exploration robots. Several of the exhibits are interactive, and some feature games geared at children. Several exhibits relate to satellites gathering data concerning the earth. Others focus on the solar system, the galaxy, and the universe beyond.

The visitor center features a theater with a globe-shaped screen at it's center. Four projectors shine onto the globe. The movie explains the work of NASA in general and the Goddard Space Flight Center in particular. During the course of the film, bright colorful images of the earth were projected onto the globe, as well other planets, giving this viewer the feeling of the planets from outer space.

Behind the visitor center, is the rocket garden where several small and medium-sized rockets are on display.

The NASA Goddard Space Flight Center is located off Greenbelt Road in Greenbelt, Maryland. The visitor center is accessible from the oddly named ICESat Road, which is the second entrance to the space flight center one passes when coming from the west.
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Thursday, July 08, 2010

Please Touch Museum

Philadelphia's Please Touch Museum is a children's museum with the most clever of names.

Please Touch is located in the beautiful, palatial, and historic Memorial Hall in Philadelphia.

It scores lots of points with this dad amongst children's museums for having lots of benches for tired parents to sit on.

Please Touch makes use of corporate sponsorships in a way I haven't seen at other Children's museums, and that I'm not so sure I am comfortable with. I'm accustomed to the signs that recognize the benefactor of an exhibit. Please Touch works sponsor's brands into the exhibits. The grocery store is a Shop Rite, the gas station a Hess, and there is a mock-up McDonald's. I found no other signage at any of these exhibits aknowledging the company that's logo appeared on the exhibit.

In addition to the exhibts just mentioned, some of the other highlights were a SEPTA bus, a mock-up of a monorail, a water play area, and an Alice in Wonderland themed maze and play area.

Less interesting for the little kids than for the adults, is the exhibit on the 1876 Centennial Exhibition explains the history of the building housing the museum and the surrounding buildings and park land. There is large scale model of the sprawling Centennial Exhibition grounds.

The final notable feature of the Please Touch Museum is century old Dentzel Carrousel in an adjoining pavillion. The boy declined the opportunity to ride the carrousel. I've never known the boy to miss the chance to decline a ride on a carrousel.
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Wednesday, July 07, 2010

Philadelphia 30th Street Station

Philadelphia 30th Street Station is the boxy sibling of Washington Union Station. While Union Station has a vaulted ceiling 30th Street has right angles.

The high-ceilinged main hall of 30th Street Station is also a concourse. The gates are stairwells down to the platforms beneath the station that serve Amtrak Northeast corridor trains as well as destinations across Pennsylvania. There are several large wooden benches similar to those at Boston South Station throughout the main concourse.

A second concourse off one end of the main concourse serves SEPTA and NJ Transit trains from gates that lead to platforms either below the station, or to an elevated line at the second floor level. Another hall off the main concourse contains many shops and eateries.

The main concourse is dominated by a dramatic statue at one end of a winged angel holding a dead body. A plaque at the base of the statue reads:

"In memory of the men and women of the Pennsylvania Railroad who laid down their lives for our country 1941-1945."

On an earlier trip through 30th Street Station I remember discovering a waiting room off the main concourse that was dominated by a large dramatic painting. The details of that painting escape me now.
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Tuesday, July 06, 2010

College Park Aviation Museum

In College Park, Maryland is the oldest continuously operating airport in the world. Don't try to book a ticket there the next there the next time you're flying to the Washington, D.C. area. Unless you fly your own plane, or know someone who does, your not likely to ever use this airport, but it is worth going to for the College Park Aviation Museum.

This excellent, small, modern museum tucked away out of site on the edge of the airport, explains the basics of flying, and the development of airplanes that took place at College Park.

We were welcomed to the museum by Mort who collected our admission ($4 for adults and $26or children). Mort's name tag identified him as a recent volunteer of the year award winner. As he handed me my receipt he said to me and the boy: "If it's behind a rope, or glass, don't touch it. If it isn't, play with it."

An animatronic Wilbur Wright welcomed us to the exhibit area, and gave us a history of the early years of flight. The main exhibit halls has replica and relic planes that were developed and flown at college Park on display on the floor and suspended from the second story ceiling. A catwalk let's you see the suspended planes as up close as the ones you can see on the floor. Amongst the features of the museum more interesting for children, are a propeller that you can spin to start the engine (the boy spun it, but nothing happened), an airplane dashboard, bomber jackets to try on, and two flight simulator video games.

There were only two other families at the museum when we visited on a hot federal holiday. It made for cool break from the heat.

The College Park Aviation Museum is located at 1985 Corporal Frank Scott Drive in College Park, Maryland.

To get there when heading away from the University of Maryland campus from the Paint Branch Parkway turn left onto 51st Avenue at the large sign for the museum. Head straight down 51st until you reach the entrance to the airport. Follow the signs there to the right. The museum has plenty of parking. The museum should be a manageable walk from the College Park Metro Station on the Green Line. The museum's website is
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Friday, July 02, 2010

Smithsonian Folklife Festival

For two weekends at the beginning of every summer the Smithsonian Institution puts on the Folklife Festival on the National Mall.

The big attraction for me at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival is always the food, which represents the cultures being featured in the exhibits and the performances of the festival. This years festival features Mexico, Asian Pacific Americans, and exhibits under the umbrella "The Smithsonian Inside Out." This year there were four vendors offering foods from the following cultures: Indian, southeast asian, and Mexican. There was also a barbecue tent, surrounded by the Smithsonian Inside Out exhibits.

The food options were mostly platters of an entree and side dishes. Since we'd already eaten lunch, and it was still too early for dinner, I opted for something light, and ordered Elote from the Mexican vendor, Casa Oaxaca. Elote turns out to be roasted corn on the cob, slathered with mayonnaise, and sprinkled with cayenne. It tastes better than it sounds.

The boy opted for french fries from one of the permanent kiosks on the Mall (the boy often opts for french fries).

The Folklife festival features dance, music, story telling, cooking, and folk art. We listened to a trio from Mexico sing folk music. We sat in on stories by two doctors, one American-raised ethnically Chinese, and the other an immigrant from India, who compared eastern and western medicine. We watched Indian dancing, and skipped the demonstration on spam sushi. We also watched four men Mexico spin upside down from a pole. We never got down to the Smithsonian Inside Out exhibit.

This year, the Smithsonian Folklife Festival runs through July 5.
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Smithsonian National Zoological Park

The boy and I have been going to the National Zoo for all of his nine and a half years. The zoo has changed a bit over those years, as has the boy, whose had different favorite things about the zoo from time to time.

When he was younger, the boy, like so many others, was fascinated with the baby animals. First it was Kandula, the elephant. Later it was Tai Shan, the giant panda.

There was also a time that the boy really seemed to enjoy Amazonia, an indoor exhibit tucked away in an easily overlooked part of the zoo. Lately, I can't drag him there.

For the last few years, the boy has mostly seemed to enjoy the giant pizza. Yes, they have a giant pizza at the National Zoo. No, I don't know why. The boy will play on the pizza for hours. Our days at the zoo lately end with me insisting that we must go, greeted by much wailing and gnashing of teeth.

Near the bird exhibits is an eagle statue carved from pink granite that was once on the exterior of the original Pennsylvania Station in New York City. The boy has a book I gave him about the construction, and later demolition of Penn station. The boy and I often pass through the new Penn station on the train. The statue at the National Zoo is one of the few remaining statues from the old Penn. We both appreciate it for its striking visual appeal, and connection to railroad history. In addition, the boy likes to climb on it.

For a while there, the zoo seemed to have a problem keeping it's animals alive. Just from memory, in my ten years in Washington, I recall accidental deaths of a zebra, a lion, and two red pandas. The red panda deaths were tied to a very severe rat infestation. I recall, when the boy was a toddler, pushing him in his stroller on a late fall weekend through the zoo. When we came to the prairie dog habitat we discovered not prairie dogs popping their heads out of the holes, but rats, and one very nervous looking prairie dog.

It was shortly after that day I read about the two red pandas that had died from eating rat poison, buried in their habitat. The zebra, as I recall, died from a problem with the animal's diet, and the lion died in surgery from problems with the anesthesia.

The first bit of advice that any local should give a visitor when making a trip to the zoo: alight Metro at the Cleveland Park Station. Don't use the deceptively named Woodley Park-Zoo/Adams Morgan Station. Alighting at that station will require you to walk several blocks uphill to the zoo. The walk from Cleveland Park isn't any further. The zoo is laid out on a slope, so be prepared for the uphill walk after you've seen everything. Also, plan to bring your lunch or eat at one options near zoo. The prices on food at the zoo are pretty steep.
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