Space Center, Huntsville, AL

Lovin Rockets –

Americans love their rockets and proudly display them, as is evident when approaching the US Space center. Rocket Park, sporting a 200′ Saturn 1 and other rockets is visible on the horizon well before reaching the center.  

Having recently visited the Kennedy Space center and watched a live rocket launch  there, I  am unusually ambivalent about todays visit to the U.S. Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville, AL.  I’m almost ashamed at my smugness  as having been to the “real” space center.   I purchase my tickets and ask the clerk if the iMax movies are the same as the ones showing at Kennedy Space Center that I have already seen.  When I didn’t get a suitable answer, I just walk off to google it myself.

My smugness, I soon ascertain, is born out of sheer ignorance of the NASA space program complex.  Kennedy’s focus is assembly and launching,  Houston’s role is mission control and crew safety. Huntsville is design, engineering and training.

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Main Exhibit Area

The design focus is evident in the first exhibit area where there are over 100 inventions that have grown out of the space program. Inventions like Rugged computers removable hard drive to Adtran’s modular heat sink; I find many of the inventions a who’s who of early computer innovations interesting.

I had never heard of the Redstone Arsenal until today. In fact, I never gave much thought to the importance of rocketry in modern warfare.  The Redstone exhibit offers a great view of the two.   On exhibit are Stinger Missiles, scuds, and bunker busters. All I have heard of but really no understanding of what they were. It is a pretty amazing collection in an awesome diorama.

Saturn V Hall

While pursuing the exhibits in Saturn Hall, a piece of debris from the former Skylab Satellite intrigues me. I recall the media attention in the late 70’s pontificating where and when the satellite will crash back to earth. I can only imagine the wall-to-wall coverage such an event would garner today in our 24×7 news cycles. 

A docent named Bart approaches me. I know he is a docent because it says so on his white smock. Inquisitively, I have to ask to learn that docent means he is a museum volunteer.  Bart informs me that this piece of debris incurred a littering fine of $400 from Australia.  Further, the land down under refuses to return the oxygen tank it until a fine is paid. The USA, in turn, refuses to pay. Not until a private group raises the money is the debris returned and enshrined here.  The hall is literally empty, when Bill, another docent and also a previous NASA engineer joins our conversation. 

I am honored to be given a private, behind the scenes tour, complete with antidotes and inside scoops in a manner that only two rocket scientists can deliver. I would like to recall more of what that said. It’s not that the information is confidential or classified, it’s just that I didn’t understand most of it.  Not to be too self-deprecating, they do a fantastic job of explaining the technology and its challenges and successes. I now feel I am part of a proud NASA family chatting with my overachieving uncles.

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ISS Science on Orbit – International Space Station

The Science on Orbit exhibit features a full size mock up of the International Space Station. I had walked past the exhibit earlier as I thought it was part of the Space Camp and off-limits to the general public. I happened to be chatting with another docent that pointed me to the entrance of the operations centers. Again, I find I am lucky in having the undivided attention of another docent, Sharon.  While engaging in an informal conversation of the mission control and the many satellite tracking and status screens on display, I inquire on seeing the space station with the naked eye.  Sharon, directs me to any number of apps and websites that provide tracking and viewing information. I’m excited to look for it on the next clear evening.

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Click for real time tracking of the International Space Station

During my private tour, I get a real sense of what it might be like to live and work on the space station. The belted sleeping quarters and the wall mounted treadmill is a freaky reminder of what life in zero gravity must be like.

The space station seems downright roomy compared to some of the previous lunar modules I’ve seen. I particularly enjoy the view from the cupola.

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Shuttle Park

Outside of the main exhibit area and Saturn Hall is Shuttle Park. The area is host to a full-size replica of the Space Shuttle. The PathfInder, is constructed of metal and wood and was used to test clearances, crane lifting and other mockups. The grounds are also home to various other simulator and guidance aircraft.

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Space Shuttle Orbiter – Pathfinder

The Space Center is a marvelous showplace of American ingenuity and know how. The knowledgeable,  friendly staff and smaller intimate venue offer a great opportunity to learn more about this aspect of space warfare, travel, and research.

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