Find Some Space in the Rocket City

With the final mission of the Space Shuttle program this week, we’re looking at the influence of the South on the space program … and vice-versa. We brought you a profile of the godfather of American space flight, Wernher von Braun and paid homage to the Southern states that have contributed to the shuttle’s 30-year history. Now we take a look at space tourism in the South.

USSRC's Rocket Garden at sunset

To some, north Alabama might seem like the last place you’d find a rocket garden. After all, the sexy aspects of NASA’s work happen in places like Cape Canaveral and Houston’s Johnson Space Center and occasionally Edwards Air Force Base in California. But before the boys at launch control can light the candle, someone has to design it. That’s where Huntsville comes in.

Since the 1950s, when Wernher von Braun led his Army rocket team from Texas to what would become the Marshall Space Flight Center, Huntsville has been at the forefront of rocket science. From that handful of pioneers has grown one of the premiere tech centers in the world. They say that there are more PhDs per capita in Huntsville than in any other city in the world. So, if you really want to feel like a slacker idiot, you know where to go.

Fortunately for dullards such as myself, some enterprising folks decided back in 1965 to open a museum dedicated to Marshall’s and Huntsville’s role in the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo space programs. The museum, the brainchild of von Braun himself, opened to the public in 1970. Then named the Alabama Space and Rocket Center, the museum now known as the US Space and Rocket Center has since grown to include a full-size mockup of the massive Saturn V rocket that sent men to the moon (topped by an actual Apollo-era command module) and the Davidson Center, which houses an actual Saturn V made up of components left over from the Apollo, Skylab and Apollo-Soyuz programs.

The Saturn V mockup at night

Recently, the museum has begun hosting traveling science exhibits with the result being that the museum has vaulted to the lofty position of Alabama’s number one tourist attraction – topping the battleship U.S.S. Alabama, the Birmingham Zoo and others. That may not sound all that impressive in the grand scheme of things, but if you simply must be impressed, go to the museum. Trace the history of American spaceflight from a German V-2 rocket that evolved into the Redstone rocket – the same model that launched Alan Shepard as the first American in space 50 years ago. See the Jupiter and Atlas rockets of later manned missions, the Saturn 1 from the early days of Apollo, and of course, the mighty Saturn V.

Need a little more current space history? There’s a full-size mockup of the shuttle, comprised of the orbiter Pathfinder (a wooden and steel test article built at Marshall in 1977 for testing of various aspects of the shuttle program) an external fuel tank used in engine testing, two prototype solid rocket boosters designed and built after the Challenger explosion and two shuttle main engines used in the first shuttle flight, STS-1, to power Columbia into history.

It may be too late for those of us who chose less ambitious college majors (cough … communications), but it’s not too late for our kids to reach for the stars. Conveniently, USSRC is home to the original Space Camp and Aviation Challenge. And, if your kid is young enough, you can tag along. (Look for me there this fall.)

Until you can go experience this Southern gem for yourself, here’s a slide show of some of my regular trips to USSRC:

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2 Responses to “Find Some Space in the Rocket City”

  1. I couldn’t believe how wonderful the new addition of the Davidson Center made the entire USSRC. My son fell in love with the space program in our two-day visit in June. What a wonderful thing for us to have in Alabama.

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