I first visited the US Space & Rocket Center when I was a little kid. I remember climbing all around in lunar landing modules, twisting and pulling knobs and levels on mission control mockups, and gazing up at a sea of stars in a planetary exhibit. It made me want to become an astronaut. That dream didn’t pan out, but the museum is a really great destination for both kids and adults.
I hadn’t been to the museum for many years, but recently returned to see an exhibit celebrating the 100th birthday of Werhner von Braun, one of the fathers of our space program. It was very well done and allowed me to experience the thrill and awe of the early days of our first trips into space.
The museum itself starts with a sizable gift shop and a few cool moon rocks on exhibit. I wound my way through this area (come back later for gifts) and got to the beginning of the von Braun exhibit. The only thing in the whole exhibit I didn’t like was the very first thing. To enter, I walked through a large tunnel illuminated with pretty blue light, very “2001: a Space Odyssey.” The thing I didn’t like was the blue light illuminated a wall-sized printout of the Wikipedia page dedicated to Von Braun. I just dislike Wikipedia as a source for history. Children shouldn’t see a signal that Wikipedia is a great history resource. Blech. But the rest of the exhibit made up for it.
The first room featured Von Braun’s early career. A video described his work in Germany during WWII, but neglected to mention some of the more controversial aspects of Von Braun’s wartime activities, such as his membership in the Nazi party and the slave labor involved in the V2 rocket program.The section on Von Braun’s activities during the war shed light on the first glimmers of interest in rockets: as a way to explore space, not as tools of destruction. After the war, Von Braun and his team were whisked to the US as part of Operation Paperclip (wasn’t that an X-Files episode?) to help with the fledgling US Army intermediate range ballistic missile program. The German scientists were sent to Fort Bliss, TX where they worked to adapt the technology they used in the German V2 rocket program for new US missiles.Von Braun worked on this project for five years. Keep in mind that this was the era of the Cold War and the Space Race with the USSR. The US and Soviets were running as fast as they could with missile technology to build better, bigger, faster rockets, mostly to ensure each country could more effectively bomb the other one. Luckily, Von Braun still dreamed of using his technology for exploration.
The second part of the exhibit explored aspects of what I found most interesting, the birth of the US space program, its ties to the US Army rocket program, and how we made it in to space. In September 1954, von Braun proposed using the Redstone Rocket, a direct descendant of the V2, as the main booster of a rocket to launch satellites into space. This was the first breath of the US space program. In the early 1950s, von Braun started to publicly talk about the possibility of actually exploring space. Von Braun was well on his way to seriously planning how to get to the moon, as shown in this drawing dated December 22, 1954.