In the far reaches of the Antelope Valley, north of Palmdale, past Lancaster and almost to Mojave is Edwards Air Force Base, the U.S. Air Force's aircraft testing facility. A tenant on Edwards is the National Aeronautics and Space Administration--better known as NASA--and its Dryden Flight Research Facility.
At Dryden, named after NASA scientist Hugh L. Dryden, the men and women of NASA test and confirm aircraft design concepts that look sound in computer simulation but still must be proven with a real test pilot and airplane.
The facility also supports the space shuttle program as a primary and backup landing site. And, except when involved in a shuttle mission, it is open for free guided tours in which visitors may get close to--almost close enough to touch--true aeronautical exotica.
10:15 to 10:30 a.m. (and 1:15 to 1:30 p.m.): The tour begins with a short film at the visitors center. If the group is mostly youngsters, you will see a six-minute film geared to them. A group of mostly adults will see a 15-minute film on the history of NASA and flight. The film explains the role of NASA and some of the equipment that will be seen.
10:30 to 11:45 a.m. (and 1:30 to 2:45 p.m.): A short walk from the theater to the NASA test hangar brings you face to face with some of the most exotic aircraft in the world today. Guides insist that visitors stay in the tour areas, but photography is permitted, if not downright encouraged.
Currently housed and being tested are highly modified McDonnell Douglas F-15s and General Dynamic F-16s, the last flying example of the Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird, the oldest active Boeing B-52 (which acts as an airborne launching pad for a variety of manned and unmanned projects), and the one-of-a-kind X-29 with its forward-swept wings that look as if they were accidentally attached backward.
Other NASA aircraft come and go at Dryden. They have included the modified Boeing 747 that transports the space shuttle back to Cape Canaveral in Florida after it lands here, plus a variety of oddball pieces of equipment that fit a particular function or test the agency was working on.
Whether visitors actually see aircraft flying depends on the day's schedule.
11:45 a.m. to 2 p.m. (and 2:45 to 3:15 p.m.): Back at the visitors center, guests are invited to tour the indoor displays or visit the gift shop, which sells almost everything that has to do with flight.
In addition, there are a number of aircraft on display at strategic spots on the way to or from NASA. In front of the headquarters building is a Bell P-59 Airacomet, an example of the United States' first operational jet fighter, which incidentally, was first tested and flown at Edwards.
Since NASA is renting space at Edwards, entry is at the discretion of the military. Upon arrival, visitors may be asked to prove that they have current automobile insurance.
NASA tours are available Monday through Friday, except for federal holidays and during shuttle landings, on a reservation-only basis. If you are bringing children, be aware that one adult must accompany every five minors.
The gift shop, open from 7:45 a.m. to 3:45 p.m. Monday through Friday, and the NASA cafeteria, open 6:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., are open to the public. Groups of 20 or more wishing to dine must notify the agency beforehand.
Getting there: To reach the Dryden Flight Research Facility from Los Angeles, head north on the Golden State Freeway to the Antelope Valley Freeway. Drive past Lancaster to Rosamond. Exit at Rosamond Boulevard and head east.
Continue on through the desert (and pass some of the brushless dry lake beds that have been used in movies, including the 1951 version of "The Thing" with James Arness) and be prepared to stop for the automobile insurance check.
Stay on Rosamond Boulevard as it eventually curves gently to the left. At Lilly Avenue, turn right. There are signs directing visitors to the NASA visitor center.
To schedule a tour: Contact NASA at (805) 258-3446 or (805) 258-3460.