Huntsville, Ala. is Space City, USA. Houston monitors the astronauts. Huntsville controls all the science in space. It’s an amazing place; definitely worth a visit! For me, I can relive my youth when space flight was new and exciting.
The numerous space engineers and even common folk living around Huntsville can rattle off the names of the various rockets used throughout the program. At the U.S. Space & Rocket Center everyone can see for themselves the progression of sizes and impressive increasing power of successive rockets, even if they don’t know the specific rocket names.
Space City has a museum spread over several buildings and including an IMAX theater, all devoted to space exploration. The main building is the Davidson Center. Inside, the Saturn V rocket that took man to the moon is on display, lying horizontally. You cannot see from one end to the other. There are no words that can describe its huge size. Surrounding the rocket are many artifacts of space flight, including the Apollo 16 Capsule, the moon lander, moon rocks from the Apollo 12 mission, and isolation quarters used in early days of space travel for returning astronauts.
Outside the museum are various space-related rides and a replica of the space shuttle, so you can see its scale. Among the rides is a centrifuge where you experience zero gravity and another where you experience weightlessness. Signs say they are not for those with heart or back problems.
Another building is primarily devoted to Space Camp, an idea of Wernher von Braun, the principal rocket scientist working on the U.S. program after World War II. You see children building robots or training in space suits with hands-on activities for a mock mission to the ISS, the moon and Mars. For a student without appreciation for mathematics, Space Camp lights a bulb. You can ride a flight simulator and climb the Mars rock wall. Interactive exhibits about various aspects of space are everywhere. See rocketcenter.com and EarthKAM.org for further information.
A discount coupon for the entrance fee is available from most tourist information offices around the city and at the airport. On Thursday evenings through Oct. 19, a free biergarten at the Space Center also gives you free entrance to the museum.
A highlight of Huntsville, not to be missed, is the tour of the Marshall Space Flight Center. Everyday around 12:30 p.m., a tour bus leaves the museum for the center, a city in itself with 36,000 personnel on 57 square miles, including 6,000 employees of the Redstone arsenal. The tour costs $20, and you must be a U.S. citizen and pass a minimal security clearance to join. Each tour is slightly different depending on what is going on at the control center. My tour visited the Redstone launch test sites where early rocket engines were fired. We visited the propulsion research and development facility that is in charge of building the SLS rocket that will take man to Mars. It has two solid rocket fuel engines on either side of a main rocket. Outside this facility are old rockets on display, including a rare display of the Nerva XE2 nuclear powered rocket engine.
The highlight of my Marshall Space Center tour was the visit to the mission control center. Just like on TV, there were monitors everywhere. You could see the people speaking with the astronauts and checking on the experiments on board the ISS (International Space Station). Also at this facility is a training mockup of the ISS. You see the 3D printer used in space to make parts and you get to see the actual dimensions of astronaut quarters.
If you love things relating to space, you’ll gush over Space City. Even if you don’t know much about space, this place will leave you giddy.