Stumbling Through Rocket City U.S.A.

The Hardys have very diverse interests when it comes to history. Elizabeth really enjoys the late 18th century; Michael’s been hung out in the mid-19th century for over thirty years. Nathaniel really enjoys the last half of the 20th century. Everyone really likes anything to do with the space race. Last June, we took our first family trip to the U.S. Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville, Alabama.StumblingSpace1

Many times, when we think of the space race, we think of Kennedy Space Center. That’s where the action happens. In a blaze, those big rockets blast off for the stars and beyond. But much of the real work takes place at other locations, like the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville.  It is still the nerve center for the International Space Station.


After World War II, many of the German scientists who worked on the V-1 and V-2 projects came to the United States (for more information, read Operation Paperclip by Annie Jacobsen). The leader of this group was Dr. Wernher Von Braun. The German scientist eventually settled in Huntsville and led the team there that developed the rocket that launched our first satellite, Explorer 1, along with the Saturn V, which took Americans to the moon. The Marshall Space Flight Center was founded in July 1960. A decade later, the U.S. Space and Rocket Center opened to the public. (We didn’t know that Von Braun persuaded Alabama Coach Bear Bryant and Auburn coach Shug Jordan to appear in a television commercial together, supporting the $1.9 million statewide bond to finance the museum’s construction).  Redstone Arsenal donated the property.

StumblingSpace3There are scores of exhibits. The main exhibition building is full of pieces of Von Braun’s life, models, plans and sketches, along with tons of STEM-related activities for the younger visitors (Isabella loves these pieces). There is an IMAX theater (we skipped this part. That day’s showing was a movie we had seen before at Kennedy). Next door is the Saturn V Hall at the Davidson Center for Space Exploration. They’ve got a Saturn V rocket on display (made up of various test components). And, there is the outdoor Rocket Park, with a full-size Saturn V, and twenty-six other rockets and missiles, along with a full-size space shuttle model, the only one in its launch configuration.

Also on display is the Apollo 16 command Module, which orbited the moon in 1972. We also signed up for the bus tour of the Marshall Space Flight Center, which includes four National Landmarks. We got to see the Propulsion and Structural Test Facility and the Redstone Test Stand. And, we got to visit the operations  center for the International Space Center (this was really cool).


Outside of it being blazing hot (hey, it was Alabama in June), we spent a great day at the U.S. Space and Rocket Center. Michael’s favorite part was the Apollo 16 command module. He’s seen the command modules for Apollo 11, Apollo 14, Apollo 15, and Apollo 16 to date. Elizabeth enjoyed visiting the memorial to Miss Baker, a squirrel monkey who became one of the first animals launched into space by the United States and recovered alive.  Elizabeth and her family visited the Center over 30 years ago, and on that trip, she was able to meet Miss Baker, who lived to the ripe old age of 27 before her death in 1984. Seeing Miss Baker the first time was one of the things she most remembered about her own childhood history stumbles. Nathaniel enjoyed all of the items related to Dr. Von Braun. (He did not care much for the space shot ride, which he only rode because his mother didn’t want to go by herself), and he loved seeing the International Space Station Operations Center. Isabella really enjoyed all of the hands on STEM-related activities, as well as the Mars rock-climbing area.


If you get a chance, check out the educational and exciting U.S. Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville. It has something for everyone. In fact, it is out of this world!

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