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.
Through the 1950s, the space race intensified. The USSR successfully launched Sputnik, beating the Americans into space. After a series of disappointing failures, von Braun’s team managed to successfully launch an American satellite, Explorer I, into space. Politicians did realize that the USSR was beating us in space technology, and that just wasn’t acceptable. To get Americans back on track, they created NASA on July 29, 1958 and moved all space-related projects under this new agency. In 1960, von Braun became the head of NASA. With President Kennedy’s 1961 speech promising to put a man on the moon by the end of the decade, von Braun’s dream of exploring space could finally come true. The team focused on how to use rocket technology, specifically the Saturn rockets they were developing to carry payloads out of earth’s orbit, to propel men to the moon. The museum provided a huge variety of mementos of all of these phases of the new rocket program.
Miss Baker was one of two monkeys launched in to space and brought back to earth to test how a living being would react to the perils of space travel. Miss Baker lived until 1984 and is buried at the museum.
The following item was one of my favorite artifacts from the heyday of the space race, von Braun’s desk calendar from the month of the first moon landing.
The Huntsville paper from the day of the moon landing conveys the excitement of that period in history. The first men to leave our planet. The first men to land on the moon. The first men to gaze back at a beautiful blue orb from a far distant moon. I’m sorry I missed those days.
When I finished looking through the huge amount of artifacts on display, I was awed by the technological brilliance of von Braun and all of the people who worked on our early space program. They started from nothing and built machines that could leave our world. I had a great time reliving those exciting times. However, I did feel a bit sad that all of the exploration of space, at least the part that involves people leaving our planet and standing on other worlds, really seemed to end in the 1970s. I wish we’d kept going.
When I left he von Braun exhibit, I only left the temporary exhibit that will soon be replaced by others. An exhibit about dinosaurs is next, I read. I wound my way through an odd exhibit that seemed to encourage “warfighting” until I made my way outside to the rocket park. Here, you can see a variety of rockets, launch vehicles, and even a Space Shuttle test simulator (the Pathfinder).
The final portion of the museum is one of my favorites, the building that now houses the giant Saturn V rocket. When I was a kid, the rocket was on exhibit outside, basically sitting on the ground. I remember that you could walk right up to the giant engines and look up inside them. They seemed so enormous when I was a little kid. They still seem enormous now. The following photo shows von Braun in front of the Saturn V.
The rocket is a real rocket developed in Huntsville, but it never flew in space. It was actually a prototype NASA used to test the performance of the rocket, especially the bone-shaking vibrations that occurred when the rock was launched. It was the first full-scale Saturn V ever built. Years outside in the elements began to take a toll on this important piece of history, so the rocket was recently moved indoors to the new Davidson Center building. Now fully restored, the rocket is mounted off the floor so you can walk underneath it. Once you get over the idea that the rocket might fall and squash you like a bug, it’s great to get such a good view of all of the parts and components of the complex machinery.
Many actual hardware from early Apollo missions are on display in this building. Some are capsules that you can actually get inside and flip switches, just like the original astronauts. The actual capsule from the Apollo 16 mission is on display, too. You can see scorch marks from when the capsule re-entered Earth’s atmosphere.
If you’re near north Alabama and have any interest in space exploration, check out this museum. You’ll be glad you did.
Details on how to visit:
One Tranquility Base
Huntsville, AL 35805
Open every day from 9:00 to 5:00, except for Thanksgiving, Christmas Eve, Christmas Day & New Years Day.
General Museum Admission Prices:
Adult Admission: $20.00
Child Admission: $15.00
Child 3 and under: free
Digital 3D Theater Adult: $8.00
Digital 3D Theater Child: $7.00
IMAX Theater Adult: $8.00
IMAX Theater Child: $7.00
Feature Length Movies (when showing)
Children $9.00 (ages 4-12 years old)
Stars Combo Adult (Admission + 1 movie): $25.00
Stars Combo Child (Admission + 1 movie): $20.00
Cosmic Combo Adult (Admission + 2 movies) $30.00
Cosmic Combo Child (Admission + 2 movies) $25.00
- Seniors- 55 and over
- Active Duty Military and their dependents
- Retired Military and their dependents