Serenity and space exploration in Huntsville

LYSA ALLMAN-BALDWIN | 6/7/2012, 4:22 p.m.
One of the things that make Huntsville, Ala., such a great travel destination is that...
Serenity and space exploration in Huntsville

I know that's a kind of quirky quote from the movie "Toy Story," but it's a great way to explain the excitement and adventure you will find at the U.S. Space & Rocket Center.

Prior to our visit, I had more of a passing general interest in seeing the center given the history of Huntsville rising to prominence in the United States when a team of more than 100 German scientists came here in 1950 to participate in a special Army missile program, the now legendary Redstone Rocket. This project eventually led to other high-profile satellite and space projects, including the founding of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), in the process earning Huntsville the moniker "Rocket City."

Well, to borrow the vernacular of today's youth, the U.S. Space & Rocket Center--the largest tourist attraction in Alabama--is "totally awesome" and has so much to offer that it is almost like a science-themed amusement park.

Your first inkling of the grandeur of the place is right inside the front door of the Davidson Center for Space Exploration, where you come face to face with the Saturn rocket. Measuring 476 feet long, 90 feet wide and 63 feet high and suspended 10 feet above the floor, it is jaw-dropping and awe-inspiring in one fell swoop.

The center's mission is "to provide a unique learning environment for students and teachers designed to enhance their knowledge of space and aeronautics, and to motivate them to study and increase skills in the disciplines of science, technology, engineering and mathematics," and "to remain one of the world's premier space museums through careful acquisition of space and missile artifacts that are displayed within exhibits designed to educate the public about the space program."

Their dedication to upholding this mission is evident in every aspect of the facility and aptly shows why it is recognized as one of the most comprehensive U.S.-manned space flight hardware museums in the world.

Among its accolades are being home to the first U.S. satellite to go into orbit, the original Saturn V lunar rocket vehicle, a full-sized space shuttle mock-up, the final resting place for the Apollo 16 command module and the design and construction center for the International Space Station modules.

The science-based exhibit areas, galleries, simulators, interactive stations, activities and literally thousands of artifacts--including a rock brought back from the moon--are phenomenal. The facility also encompasses an education training center, Spacedome Theater, Rocket Park and NASA's Educator Resource Center, and it is a major repository for the Smithsonian Institution's National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C.

The more you meander here (assisted by a cadre of very friendly staff and volunteers dressed in the jumpsuits that astronauts would typically wear "to the office"), the more blown away you become with all that it has to offer for every level of space interest.

The center is also world renowned for its Space Camp, an astronaut training activity program designed to encourage young people to pursue careers in the science, math, engineering, robotics and aerospace industries--it is so popular that many adults participate in the program as well, with or without their kid. Moreover, the center's Aviation Challenge is regarded as the leading military aviation-based educational camp program in the country, geared toward those interested in military and commercial aviation with programs based on "Top Gun" flight training.

All in all, the U.S. Space & Rocket Center is another Huntsville must.