The Museum, the Udvar-Hazy Center, and Tysons Corner, Virginia

Posted on Mon, July 27, 2009

"You wrote a book about Tysons Corner? Isn't that a shopping mall?"

Tysons Corner, Virginia circa 1957. Photo courtesy of Fairfax County Library, Photographic Archive.


I've lost count of the times I've gotten this response from colleagues when I tell them that, yes, I wrote a book about Tysons Corner, Virginia, a suburban crossroads about ten miles west of the National Air and Space Museum. What's more, I wrote it on "company time," as part of my duties as a curator in the Division of Space History. Tysons Corner is home to Tysons Corner Center, one of the largest malls on the East Coast, and Tysons Galleria, an upscale mall that is a little beyond my budget. It is also home to "Fairfax Square," where one can buy Hermes scarves, Gucci loafers, and Tiffany... whatever they make (way beyond my budget).

Tysons Corner, VA in 2005.  Image courtesy USGS Tysons Corner, VA in 2005. Image courtesy USGS


But that's not why I wrote the book. What private company is the largest single employer in Northern Virginia? The answer: Northrop Grumman, which in 2004 had 19,000 local employees, scattered throughout the Dulles Corridor. General Dynamics has its headquarters in nearby Falls Church, and Boeing and Lockheed Martin are also major employers in the region. True, they do not make airplanes or spacecraft here. What they do is the vaguely-defined "systems integration," or that catch-all phrase, "IT" (Information Technology). The CEO of Northrop Grumman recently said that Northrop Grumman is fundamentally an IT company that also happens to build air and space craft. The company was formed in 1994 by the merger of Northrop, whose "Polar Star" is on display in National Air and Space Museum's "Golden Age" exhibit, and Grumman, which built the Lunar Modules that took twelve astronauts to the Moon 40 years ago. Let's hope that U.S. aerospace companies continue to build flying machines of such beauty. I wrote Internet Alley because, as I drove to and from the Udvar-Hazy Center during its construction, I wanted to find out what was going on in all the buildings that I passed on the way.

One final note on the title: "Internet Alley" refers to the Dulles Corridor, where historically the management and overall design of the Internet took place, even if its engineering was done elsewhere. For many years the primary switch for all East Coast Internet traffic was located in the parking garage of a modest building in Tysons Corner, and to this day the "root server" that keeps track of all the dot-com addresses is located near Dulles Airport. So there you have it, and perhaps you may think of all this the next time you go to the mall. 

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