Rockets and the cosmos have been like dynamite in my veins since learning about them when I was six years old. The raw power of solid rocket fuel became a fascination of mine when Toys “R” Us started selling home launching kits in the 1980s. These came complete with a micro fuse that looked like a wishbone, remote detonator, wire-guided launch station and a parachute for the descent stage. The little “motors” of the two-foot-tall rockets were about the size of an M80 and came in six-packs. We’d take the whole contraption out into the baseball field behind my house and boost these toys 1,000 feet into the air, sometimes recovering the pieces for a new launch but quite often would just watch them disappear into the blue sky, parachute undeployed or second stage unignited as it drifted into the cypress trees of the neighboring golf course.
Maybe it’s because I was born on the same day as my grandmother (July 4) that I like things that burn, combust, explode or otherwise throw fire out of one end. Maybe it’s because I grew up in an era that had futuristic shuttles, a couple of space stations and mind-boggling data streaming back from nuclear-powered satellites orbiting the largest planets in the solar system.
It’s also possible that NASA was successful in its mission to inspire a generation of children to reach for the stars and that I’ve been imprinted for life.
Space Camp—the Holy Grail for a young buck like me that had his sights set on being a test pilot first, then an astronaut orbiting the planet, then a space cowboy hunting diamonds and cobalt in the rings of Saturn—was out of reach for me in California. The logistics of taking a summer in Huntsville, Alabama was just too great of a challenge, so I contented myself with reading The Right Stuff, tinkering with remote controlled airplanes, launching DIY rockets into my neighbor’s backyard, staring at the images pouring in from the Voyager program, digesting stories written in National Geographic, reading sci-fi and watching the 13-part series Cosmos by Carl Sagan on PBS.
Kristin now tells me that they offer Adult Space Academy a couple weekends a year in Huntsville, so perhaps I’ll convince her to surrender a weekend soon and join me on that adventure! She’d look good in a spacesuit, don’t you agree?
The Apollo 11 landing inspired generations
The pieces were available for my generation to dream of a world in which the outer bounds of space were accessible, and much of that legacy is owned by the scientists, engineers, pilots and administrators of the U.S. Space & Rocket Center in Huntsville, now just a short drive away from where we live in Tennessee.
It’s an interesting story that, like many of our most important inventions, was based in the pursuit of military technology. Microwave ovens were discovered by an engineer working on advanced radar systems just after WWII, for example. Digital cameras were first utilized in spy satellites, GPS was first exploited by the Air Force during the Cold War, and the big rockets—those tantalizing tubes with fiery thrusters that allow us to break free of our atmosphere—were first designed as a ballistic missile under a research program guided by Wernher von Braun, a German scientist spirited to the United States after the fall of Berlin in 1945.
image credit: NASA
Visiting the U.S. Space and Rocket Center for the First Time
Kristin grew up near the Tennessee-Alabama border and went on many field trips to the U.S. Space and Rocket Center during her school years, but this was my first time there, and with the Apollo anniversary imminent, luxuriously synchronized to this formative event. It was with intense interest that we started our exploration of the museum in Huntsville, the home to the mother of all rocket engines, the Saturn V. This delightful beast of engineering is still the single most powerful lift vehicle ever used, and it’s a far cry from my little toy set that was launched with a 9 volt battery spark.
The history of just this one device, housed inside a massive hanger space, define an entire era, and we’re still living with this irresistible surge of mankind into the blackness of space with rocket launches apparently happening daily. Apollo. Armstrong. Aldrin. “One small step for man.” The moon!
This year marks the 50th anniversary of the flight that took men to the surface of the moon, and Huntsville is all about showing off its legacy as the epicenter of that effort throughout this year. The actual date of launch was July 16, 1969, with landing gear and booted feet down on the surface of the moon on the historic day of July 20, 1969.
“One giant leap for mankind.”
image credit: NASA
I’ve never been the same, and I wasn’t even born yet!
The U.S. Space & Rocket Center is a killer place to visit any time in your life, whether it’s a year of an iconic anniversary like this one or not. It’s extremely kid friendly, with offerings for all ages, toddler on up, and has the feel of an interactive adventure park for super nerds (meaning, I fit right in!).
Games, movies, exhibits, rocket relics, timelines, all the different versions of engineering that had to be overcome are right there to look at and the live tour guides, themselves retired scientists or military pilots, take it to the next level.
Don’t Miss on a Show at the Planetarium
A show at the INTUITIVE Planetarium is an upcharge but well worth the extra $10. Using, of course, state of the art technology for a dizzying and immersive experience, the programming is stellar (see what I did there?) with a roster of daily shows, as well as a special Thursday night program each week and a “Cocktails and Cosmos” presentation on the second Friday of every month.
Celebrate the Apollo All Year Long
If you’re lucky enough to be in Huntsville next week—or live close enough to still plan a trip—then I highly encourage you make it out for the #Apollo50 celebration taking place from July 16 through July 20, culminating in one big Saturday concert (you can see the full rundown of events here).
Can’t make it to Huntsville in time for the celebration? No problem. Many of the special events and exhibits, like the U.S. Space & Rocket Center’s Apollo: When We Went to the Moon exhibition, will be on offer through the end of the year, so you still have plenty of time to plan a pilgrimage to Alabama. 2019 is your year—let’s party like it’s 1969!
This project was sponsored by the Huntsville/Madison County Convention & Visitor’s Bureau, though all opinions and hopes of launching myself into space are entirely my own.