08/11/2011 05:51 pm ET | Updated Oct 11, 2011

Walking on the National Mall

Okay, so this blog post is a little bit different. It's not about the events of any one day in particular, and it's only partly space-related. I've written before about how much I enjoyed visiting the Smithsonian Museums after work, but nothing said "I'm in Washington DC" like the experience of walking up 4th Street from NASA HQ and coming out in front of the National Air and Space Museum with the Capitol building visible on my right and the Washington Monument on my left.

Early on during my time in DC, I found a book about the gardens of the various Smithsonian museums on sale somewhere. At the time, I thought it was a little silly to be so interested in a museum's gardens and not its exhibits, but over time, I came to realize just how many wonderful details there are to notice along the Mall. So consider this post something like the tour guides to Disney World that tell you how to find secrets and hidden things put there by the designers- but for a walk up Independence Avenue instead!

Since the National Air and Space Museum is such a popular site for receptions and events, sometimes it closes earlier than the usual summer 7:30 PM. However, walking along the Mall-facing side of the building, you can see into the Space Race, America By Air, and Milestones of Flight galleries because of their glass window-walls. There's even one spot near the north entrance where you can stand with the glass walls around you on three sides and a great view of the Bell X-1- as close to "in the museum" as you can get after closing time!

On the west side of Air and Space, facing the Hirshhorn Gallery, there's the really cool sculpture Delta Solar, a gift from the people of Venezuela to the United States. If you're there when there's a breeze, you can see the metal sails of the sculpture rotating in the wind! Near the sculpture, there's a seemingly nondescript grove of japonica trees that were planted in 1976 by the crew of the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project, the first US-Soviet international space mission. A similar grove was planted in Russia. It's very heartwarming to see those "collaboration trees" still growing after 35 years, so big and strong.

On the other side of the Hirshhorn is the Arts and Industries Building, which was closed for repairs, but a little garden area between it and the Smithsonian Information Center with a cool wrought-iron fountain was open. The Smithsonian building itself is called "the Castle", and it really does look like a fantasy castle, complete with a flag flying from the highest tower. The first day I went there, it had already closed, but I wandered around checking out the architecture under a stormy sky. I'm a bit too old to ride, and I didn't want to mess up my suit, but listening to the music from the antique carousel by the Castle was certainly enjoyable.

The gardens behind the Castle are very extensive, but my favorite spot is the Moongate Garden near the Sackler Gallery. It's based on traditional Chinese gardening symbolism and features lots of circles and squares together. The circles represent the heavens, the squares represent the Earth, and the use of both together represents a harmonious place where the two realms meet.