North America / Travel

Huntsville’s U.S. Space and Rocket Center:

Dining in the Shadow of a Saturn V Rocket and More

If you’re old enough to remember July 20, 1969, you surely remember where you were and what you were doing the day Neil Armstrong uttered those famous words, “A small step for man. A giant step for Mankind.” For me, it was the day I had waited for since I was a young child, fascinated with anything to do with space exploration. Mercury, Gemini, Apollo: I grew up following each blast-off from Cape Canaveral, Kennedy and Canaveral again. As an adult I tracked the Space Shuttle, alternately cheering and mourning. So when Simon, Otto and I had the opportunity to attend an event at the U.S. Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville, Alabama, we were thrilled – okay, maybe not Otto – at the opportunity to explore this interactive museum that honors the past and embraces the future.

We were in Huntsville for a TBEX (Travel Bloggers Exposition), and were scheduled to the gills with activities, events and sessions. We knew this would be a short visit to an all-day venue, but were determined to make the most of the experience. And that we did.

Did I Say ‘Big’?

Who ever said, “size doesn’t matter,” never saw the U.S. Space and Rocket Center. There, nearly everything comes in one size: enormous.

A Saturn Rocket Outside the U.S Space and Rocket Center, Huntsville, AL (©simon@myeclecticimages.com)
A Saturn Rocket Outside the U.S Space and Rocket Center, Huntsville, AL (©simon@myeclecticimages.com)

It was still daylight when we arrived at the U.S. Space and Rocket Center. We immediately took in the surreal sight of Rocket Park. But this walk in the park was unlike any other experience anywhere. The 27 missiles and rockets – including a Saturn I rocket, and a full-size replica of the mammoth Saturn V – towering above us were a stunning representation of the hardware that launched America into space.

Part of Rocket Park at the U.S Space and Rocket Center, Huntsville, AL (©simon@myeclecticimages.com)
Part of Rocket Park at the U.S Space and Rocket Center, Huntsville, AL (©simon@myeclecticimages.com)

A Smithsonian Affiliate, the U.S. Space and Rocket Center is the Official Visitor Center for NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center. It houses one of the largest displays of rockets and space memorabilia in the world. Permanent and traveling exhibits, films, demonstrations and interactive stations bring to life America’s early adventures in space, and the realization of NASA’s plan to put man on the moon.

the high-tech journey continues through the development of the space shuttle program and the International Space Station. Then, offers a peek into the progress of future wonders: commercial space travel, as well as the cutting edge of advancements in space technology. All this is complimented by the much larger-than-life films on the Center’s 67-foot IMAX® screen, located in Huntsville’s only full-dome Theater, and on the 52-foot, high-definition screen in the National Geographic Theater.

Already feeling dwarfed by what we had just seen, we entered the Davidson Center for Space Exploration. What greeted us was nothing short of breath-taking. An authentic Saturn V rocket – one of only three in the world – hung horizontally above the area where our dinner was being set out.

The Davidson Center for Space Exploration was named in honor of Dr. Julian Davidson, founder of Davidson Technologies. This 68,000 square foot structure, with its Saturn V behemoth and some of the most unique and innovative exhibits anywhere, opened to the public on January 31, 2008.

Pre-Dinner Fun Huntsville Style

Beer in hand, we began to wander, stopping at the G-Force Accelerator, where a small crowd was beginning to form. We learned that this was one of the rides at the Center designed to simulate some of what astronauts experience. So, of course, we got in line.

When my turn came, Simon took Otto, and prepared to capture his wife making a complete fool of herself on video. After signing a waiver confirming, among other things I wasn’t pregnant, a Center staff member secured me in the chair, and the experience of three times the force of gravity took hold.

The chair started to spin, then pitch, roll, turn upside down and do a number of other things the human body was never designed to endure. It was an absolute blast!

 

 

No, it wasn’t at all scary. Perhaps this was due to the fact I couldn’t see my surroundings whizzing by at bizarre angles and in the wrong places. To me, it was tame in comparison to some amusement park rides in my past, and I wondered if we truly were being treated to the same experience as the astronauts. As much fun as it was, I was glad we decided to do this before dinner.

A Shot in the Dark

After a pleasant German dinner chatting with fellow TBEX participants, some of us wandered out into the twilight to ride the Space Shot. This one promised the sensation of a rocket launch from the perspective of the astronauts.

We were a group of about 12 but not everyone took advantage of experiencing the ride. In fact a number of the onlookers thought the rest of us were all crazy.

First we were hoisted about 10 feet into the air and then shot the remaining hundred something feet up the tower in just a few milliseconds. When we hit the top and started our rapid free fall descent my butt separated from the chair, for what seemed like two to three seconds of weightlessness, before it dropped back into place. This free-fall sensation was repeated before we were gently lowered back down to the starting point. Yes, I shrieked, and no, I didn’t lose my schnitzel and saurkraut. My face breaks into a stupid grin just thinking about it. I’ll definitely do that one again.

How Do They Do It Up there?

We could have explored the U.S. Space and Rocket Center for several more hours, but the evening was rapidly drawing to a close. Before making our exit, however, we were able to take in a brief tour of the International Space Station (ISS) exhibit. During the tour, we caught a tiny glimpse of how some of the daily tasks we take for granted are accomplished in low orbit around the earth.

A female astronaut sucked a meal of tuna, mushrooms and turmeric rice from a pouch. It didn’t look very appetizing, but must be a huge step up from the cookies, dried cereal and oatmeal bars the astronauts had to choke down in the 60s and70s.

We saw a treadmill used by the astronauts for the two and-a-half hours of daily exercise in order to keep their muscles from turning to jelly. Apparently, living in low gravity is similar to being on bedrest.

The Robonaut was a true wonder. The plan is for it to eventually take over tasks outside spacecraft, thus removing one of the riskiest aspects of an astronaut’s job.

The ISS exhibit consists of 15 modules. The Star Ship Enterprise it’s not, but scientists from all over the world have spent long periods on the ISS. They are willing to put themselves at risk, endure separation from loved ones and take their discomfort in stride for the unique opportunity to engage in experiments that we all hope will benefit humanity and lead us even farther out into space.

To say we were wowed by our visit to the U.S. Space and Rocket Center would be a gross understatement. Huntsville is an eleven hour drive from New Bern, and it is already calling us back. When we return, I’ve promised myself an entire day exploring the technological nirvana known as the U.S. Space and Rocket Center.

If You Go

The U.S. Space and Rocket Center is open seven days a week, from 9 AM to 5 PM.

The museum is closed Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Eve, Christmas Day and New Year’s Day.

A general admission ticket includes access to Shuttle Park, Rocket Park, all indoor exhibits, daily guided tours of the Saturn V Hall, featured traveling exhibitions, hands-on demonstrations and presentations, simulators and a behind-the-scenes tour of Space Camp.

  • Adults: $24
  • Children 5 to 12: $16
  • Children 4 and under: FREE

See the U.S. Space and Rocket Center website for information on special discounts, as well as prices for the two-hour NASA Marshall Space Flight Center Bus Tour, and other activities not included in the general admission price.

Tickets may be purchased online.

The U.S. Space and Rocket Center is wheelchair accessible.

For more information on the many wondrous things there are to see and do, visit the U.S. Space and Rocket Center’s website.

U.S. Space & Rocket Center
One Tranquility Base
Huntsville, AL 35805

(256) 837-3400

1-800-637-7223

Disclaimer: Our visit to the U.S. Space and Rocket Center was generously hosted by the Huntsville/Madison County Convention and Visitors Center. However, all opinions, as always are entirely my own.

4 Comments

  • avatar image

    nadine

    Aug 14, 2017

    Reply

    Beautifully written Penny with such wonderful touches of humor. Cheers, Nadine

    • avatar image

      Penny

      Aug 14, 2017

      Reply

      Thank you, Nadine. I hope we'll all have the opportunity to share that kind of experience some time in the future. What are your travel plans for the next few months?

  • avatar image

    mal harwood

    Jul 07, 2017

    Reply

    Nice touch with the video, glad it was your stomach, not mine!

    • avatar image

      Penny

      Jul 08, 2017

      Reply

      I think even my stomach had a great time!

Leave a comment