We were recently in Chattanooga when we realized the U.S. Space & Rocket Center was less than a two-hour drive away. Immediately, we changed our plans for the last few days of our trip and headed over to Huntsville, Alabama.
Though the U.S. Space & Rocket Center is popular with kids, we were pleasantly surprised by how interesting it was for adults. The information is fascinating, the displays are interactive, and there’s so much there, making it an incredible value for money.
A Little History on the U.S. Space & Rocket Center
The location of the U.S. Space & Rocket Center in Alabama is not random. Nicknamed “Rocket City,” Huntsville played a vital role in the original space exploration initiatives.
Did you know Huntsville developed the rockets which launched the first U.S. satellite into orbit? More excitingly, these are also the rockets that sent men to the moon.
Huntsville then continued to develop propulsion technologies for every major system in NASA’s history. Even today, Huntsville is building NASA’s next generation space vehicle, the Space Launch System (SLS).
The U.S. Space & Rocket Center was the vision of the world-renowned aerospace engineer and former director of the Marshall Space Flight Center, Dr. Wernher von Braun. Dr. von Braun felt the public would enjoy a space themed park. He was fascinated with space and wanted everyone to be able to experience what only NASA personnel were able to see.
Opening its doors to the public for the first time in 1970, the U.S. Space & Rocket Center is now the largest spaceflight museum in the world.
After purchasing tickets, the first area of the museum is the featured exhibitions. These change regularly so be sure to check the U.S. Space & Rocket Center’s website for current details.
When we visited, there were two exhibits:
With a focus on space in popular culture, the display of toys, games, posters, and other memorabilia brought on some nostalgia. I even recognized one of the toys I use to have as a child.
This exhibit chronicles the space race between the Soviet Union and the U.S. Virtually kick a moon rock, admire the Apollo A7L Spacesuit, or grab a photo on a lunar rover. The highlight of the exhibit is a three-screen display of the Apollo 11 liftoff.
Main Building Permanent Displays
Beyond the featured exhibitions is a small but interesting area on the Redstone military technologies with drones hanging from the ceiling and rockets lining the wall.
This section of the museum is filled with interactive displays. Both included in General Admission, have a go at indoor rock climbing on the Mars climbing wall or zoom through space in the Hypership motion-based simulator. You can also try your hand at landing the space shuttle.
The deep tank, originally used at the Marshall Space Flight Center, trained astronauts to experience weightlessness right up until 1997.
Finally, have a play in the International Space Station (ISS). This life-size exhibit illustrates aspects of life and work on the ISS.
Saturn V Hall
Saturn V Rocket
The heart and soul of the U.S. Space & Rocket center lies, or rather hangs, in the Saturn V Hall.
As you enter the hall, the sheer size of the genuine Saturn V rocket is jaw dropping. The five engines overhead give a sense of scale. Even the massive V2 Rocket along the wall looks like a toy in comparison.
This is the first full scale Saturn V made. Built as test version, it was never destined for space. On the top, sits a mock Command and Service Module. They didn’t need the real thing for testing.
This is one of only three Saturn V rockets left. The others are at Kennedy Space Center in Florida, and Johnson Space Center in Houston.
Displays around the hall provide insights on the space race era and of the people who worked on the space initiatives. Even Dr. von Braun’s desk is as it was in the 60’s, with an intriguing video interviewing those who worked with him.
Another eye-catching display compares the technology used on the Apollo missions to those of today. It’s interesting how they were building computing modules in a pre-microchip era.
In the back of the room, the Apollo 16 Command Module draws crowds. Piloted by Ken Mattingly, this module was part of the fifth moon landing. Nearby, check out the 3.16 billion-year-old moon rock.
Interactive displays around the hall pull the curiosity of adults as much as children. Want to know what firing five F-1 Saturn V engines feels like? Or, want to try docking two spacecrafts together? Even better, climb into the Command Module Training Simulator and pretend away.
Also be sure to check out the Skylab Training Module. Get a sense of living in space right where the astronauts used to train.
Free guided tours of the hall are available throughout the day. Alternatively, speak with any of the NASA or military retires in the white coats to hear a captivating perspective.
Before even entering the facility, an A-12 Oxcart Article 127, the CIA’s 1967 Blackshield aircraft, greets visitors by the front door. In the back of the museum, the outdoor Rocket Park showcases 27 missiles and rockets.
Taller than a 16-story building, the Saturn I rocket commands attention as you walk outside. With a 100% success rate, Saturn I is the first rocket made solely for the purpose of space exploration.
Other impressive rockets found in Rocket Park include the U.S. Army Redstone, U.S. Army Jupiter, Juno II, and the NASA Mercury Sandstone.
Though definitely dominating, rockets are not the only historical artifacts on display outside. A Chinook helicopter, a mock lunar lander, tons of military artifacts, and even a yellow submarine wow visitors.
Want to experience 3 Gs of force? Give the G-Force Accelerator a try. While you stand against the wall, the ride spins so fast for about 4 minutes that you float up to the ceiling.
Moon Shot is another ride at the park which you can experience 4 Gs of vertical force. Be prepared to shoot 140 feet into the air in 2.5 seconds. As the ride rapidly descends, there is a short moment of weightlessness before free falling to the bottom.
To our surprise, General Admission includes both the Moon Shot and the G-Force Accelerator.
On the other side of the outdoor area is Shuttle Park, named obviously for its centerpiece.
Though Pathfinder is a mock shuttle made of steel and wood, it played a huge part in space history.
Here’s the short version of how Pathfinder came to be.
At the time of its development in 1977, Enterprise was the only shuttle in existence. In preparation for building Columbia, NASA wanted to test the mechanisms used in conjunction with the shuttle. They decided it wasn’t smart to use the very expensive and only orbiter to do this testing. Instead they built a replica in the same size, shape and weight as the shuttle.
Japan later bought the replica and modified it to look like a real shuttle. They named it Pathfinder and displayed it at the Great Space Shuttle Exposition in Tokyo. Pathfinder returned to Huntsville following the close of the expo.
Today, Pathfinder sits atop the External Tank for a Main Propulsion Test Article. This makes Pathfinder the world’s only fully-stacked Space Transportation System (STS) on public display.
Accompanying the shuttle, is a T-38 Talon supersonic jet and the shuttle training aircraft NASA 945. This modified Gulfstream II helped shuttle pilots train on how to land the orbiter.
Not Included in General Admission
For an additional cost, visitors can take part in additional attractions on offer. The theater and planetarium can be purchased individually or as a combo ticket with General Admission.
- National Geographic Movie Theater – If you want to know more about space, the theater runs various educational documentaries on a 52-foot screen.
- Intuitive Planetarium – Used for various shows, including movies and a exploratory view of the universe.
Think Space Camp is Just for Kids? Not always. Throughout the year, the center puts on a three-day, two-night weekend experience for adults only. Learn more about it on their Space Camp website.
If you are an American citizen (proof of ID required), you also have the option of joining a bus tour of the Marshall Space Flight Center. These tours cost $20 and only leave once a day, best to book early to avoid disappointment. For more information, see the U.S. Space & Rocket Center Bus Tour page.
Where to stay
The U.S. Space & Rocket Center is an easy day trip from Chattanooga, Nashville, or Birmingham. We recommend staying at least one night and experiencing a bit more of Huntsville.
Hampton Inn & Suites Research Park – We stayed about 7 minutes down the road at the Hampton Inn. It is close to the Bridge Street Town Center with lots of restaurants and shopping. We found the hotel to be quiet with a nice breakfast and free parking. Most of the other guests were business people.
Marriott at the Space & Rocket Center – The only hotel on the Space and Rocket Center site. It is about a 6-minute walk to the facility or the hotel offers a free shuttle. They offer free parking, but breakfast is often extra.
Alternatively booking.com has listings for accommodation in the surrounding area.
RV Park – If you are traveling by RV, there is a small RV park right on the site. See the Space Camp RV Park website for details.
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