Got a future astronaut? Explore America’s space program and maybe even sign up for Family Space Camp!
Grab your smart phone. The device that you’re holding in your hand has more computing power inside than what was used to send the first men to the moon! That’s just one of the many fascinating facts that we learned at the U.S. Space & Rocket Center in Huntsville, Alabama. Filled with more than 1,500 objects related to rocket and space equipment, models, simulators, and interactive exhibits, the center gives you an in-depth look at American’s journey into space.
What to do?
As you walk up the sidewalk towards the U.S. Space & Rocket Center, look to your right. A marble memorial marks the grave of Miss Baker, one of a pair of monkeynauts who became the first U.S. animals to successfully return to earth after traveling into space. She eventually retired to the center, where she died at age 27. Miss Baker is buried on the grounds, and you’ll often see people placing bananas on her memorial in remembrance.
KidTripster Tip: Be aware of the entry area minefield! To get to the ticket desk, you step directly into an extensive gift shop. There’s no way to avoid it, even if you print your tickets online, so prepare yourself (and your kids) for possible mayhem.
The Center comprises two building and several outdoor areas. The main building houses displays both informative and fun: traveling science exhibits, a hall of inventions with Alabama ties, a huge martian rock climbing wall, the Mission to Mars simulator, and a shuttle landing simulator. Two of our favorite exhibits in this area were the Monkeynaut Space Capsule and the Neutral Buoyancy Tank. The first includes both the nose cone from the Jupiter rocket as well as the capsule that housed Miss Able and Miss Baker during their orbit around the Earth. (My youngest son loved the “space monkeys” so much that he continued to ask questions when we returned home; we ended up checking out some books from library to research the topic further.) The latter was used to train astronauts to work in the weightless environment of space. There’s a demonstration in the tank at 11:30 a.m. daily.
Rocket pioneer Wernher von Braun was not only integral in getting Americans into space but left his mark on much of what you see. He helped create the Center and is featured in several exhibits. Many detail how von Braun and his team developed the rockets that put the first U.S. satellite into orbit and eventually sent men to the moon. But it’s his personal items - from the little red wagon that he outfitted with rockets to his 1969 desk calendar where he writes on July 20th: touchdown, lunar surface - that give you an insight into his lifelong obsession with space.
KidTripster Tip: While in the main building, be sure to find von Braun’s childhood notebook. He sketched out a plan for a space voyage, detailing what he would need on a vehicle to survive in space when he was just 15 years old!
The exhibits where you’ll want to spend the most time reside in the Davidson Center for Space Exploration. Its big star is the 363-foot-long Saturn V Rocket; it’s not a replica but an actual test vehicle used by NASA and one of only three remaining in the world. It lies on its side, suspended 10-feet above the floor, allowing you to walk beneath its various stages. Walking down the equivalent of a 36-story building, you get an amazing perspective on just how minuscule the three astronauts were tucked away inside their command module (the only part of the rocket that survives the return to Earth). Also you’ll appreciate how brave they were to be sitting atop so much highly-combustible fuel (enough to drive your average car around the world 800 times!).
The Saturn V is just one of many impressive Apollo-era exhibits in the Davidson Center. There’s an actual moon rock from the Apollo 12 mission, a full-sized test model Lunar Lander as well as a Lunar Rover. You can sit inside a training module to experience the cramped quarters of space travel firsthand. Or step into a Mobile Quarantine Facility (basically an Airstream trailer), where the astronauts spent time after returning to Earth to ensure they weren't contaminated. It was a small space but roomy when compared to the space capsule, I’m sure!
An actual Apollo 16 command module is on display along with its recovery parachute. It was used on NASA’s fifth mission to the lunar surface. It’s wonderful to walk around the capsule and see the ways space travel left its mark from dents on the metal surface to scorch marks on the heat shield. My 10-year-old son thought the capsule was very cool because it was “actually out in space.” He was amazed by the tight quarters that the three astronauts lived in for more than a week! Nearby is an exhibit detailing life in space for those men, including what they wore, the foods they ate, and even how they took care of bodily functions, which absolutely fascinated my four-year-old son. People got to hear about “taping a plastic bag to your bum” for days after our visit!
KidTripster Tip: Be sure to look for the volunteers in white lab coats. These men and women all have ties to the space program in Huntsville. Many of them actually worked on developing the Saturn V rocket and love to share their vast knowledge and wonderful stories.
As you exit the Davidson Center, check out the Apollo Courtyard, where you can literally stand in the footsteps of those who walked on the moon and made space flight possible. My oldest son concluded that they “must have been short,” because many of their feet where smaller than his size 8s. Beside the footprints of the astronauts, plaques commemorating each of the Apollo missions encircle a life-sized Saturn V rocket replica.
While you’re outside, visit Shuttle Park and Rocket Park. Walk around the 27 missiles and rockets and learn how the Army helped launch America’s space program. There’s also a life-sized lunar crater along with a replica lunar module.
If you enjoy amusement park rides, try out the simulators, Space Shot and G-Force Accelerator, which give riders a taste of the physical effects that astronauts experience during space travel. Unlike many museums, there’s no additional fee to ride these simulators, but there are height restrictions. Space Shot riders must be at least 54-inches tall; G-Force Accelerator riders must be at least 48-inches tall. These rides were a highlight for my older son who rode again and again until his stomach said enough!
For younger kids (6 and under), head over to the Kids Cosmos Energy Depletion Zone. It’s a covered, open-air pavilion featuring a safe, rubberized play surface and the Lunar Lander, a simulator that slowly launches children about 20 feet into the air before descending. There also are crawl tubes designed like a space station and tiny, child-powered space shuttles. It’s a great area where younger kids can burn off some energy while still sparking their imaginations. My husband and I traded off watching our youngest son here, while our older son explored more exhibits.
Want to go to Space Camp?
If you want to delve deeper into the space program, the center offers Space Camp. Kids (4th grade and up) can attend a five-night program, where they train to be an astronaut, a fighter pilot or a robotics engineer. Family Camps run three or four days and lets those ages 7 and up participate with their parents. All camps help build teamwork and leadership skills while taking advantage of the Center’s simulator equipment in areas off-limits to regular day visitors. Kids attending Space Camp come from all 50 states and 69 countries. While we were at the Center, we met kids from Alaska to Australia and all points in between. Several of them were returning for their second or even third time at camp.
Where to eat?
Hungry? It’s a lot of walking and tummies will start to rumble.
Food offerings at the Center include seemingly unlimited Dippin’ Dot kiosks and the Mars Grill. The menu is definitely kid-friendly with corn dogs, burgers and fries, and barbecue. There’s also a salad bar, but the prices are a little expensive for what you get.
The Center doesn't allow you to bring in outside food or drink, but you can plan ahead and pack a picnic lunch. Just get your hand stamped for re-entry and head outside to enjoy your meal on the lawn or at one of several picnic tables.
When to go & how much?
The U.S. Space & Rocket Center is open 7 days a week from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., excluding major holidays. You’ll need to plan for a minimum of a half-day visit to hit the highlights and a full day to experience all the Center offers, especially if you have kids who like to linger over exhibits and absorb the information. If you’re making a day of it, consider touring the Marshall Space Flight Center (MSFC). For an additional fee, the bus tour will take you from the Center to MSFC and includes stops at the Historic Test Stands and the Payload Operations Center, which is the science command post for the International Space Station. The tour departs daily at 12:30 p.m. and lasts for about 2 hours.
General admission gets you access to guided tours of the Saturn V Hall, featured traveling exhibitions, hands-on demonstrations and presentations, museum simulators, and a behind-the-scenes tour of Space Camp. Cost: Youth (under 4) Free; Youth (5-12) $15; Adult $23. For an extra $5, you can add on an IMAX or National Geographic movie. There are a host of discounts available including AAA and military, as well as free admission for members of Smithsonian-affiliate museums. Complimentary strollers are available at the ticket desk with a valid ID.
KidTripster Tip: Visit the Center on a Monday or Tuesday. Unless it's a school holiday, these days are usually less crowded and often have no lines for the simulators.
The U.S. Space & Rocket Center is located 10 miles from Huntsville International Airport in Huntsville, Alabama. It’s a 1-1/2 drive from Birmingham, 2-hour drive from Chattanooga, and 3-1/2 hour drive from Atlanta.
Parking is free; there’s also parking for oversized vehicles.
Leslie Martin is a journalist, who lives in Portland, Oregon, with her husband and two sons. The only thing she loves more than writing is reading, especially the latest from Gillian Flynn. She believes caramel is a legitimate food group. She also knows how to change the oil in her car and jump a dead battery.