U.S. Space and Rocket Center
Towering rockets. Priceless moon memorabilia. If you want to see that caliber of space booty you probably wouldn't set your GPS for northern Alabama -- but that'd be a mistake, for that's the home of the U.S. Space and Rocket Center. It hosts an impressive collection of space hardware, and it's far less of a hassle to visit than the often Disney-crowded Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
You can thank Wernher von Braun, who might've been the Elvis of Huntsville if he hadn't had a bad-PR employment history with Hitler. Von Braun was a World War II German rocket genius, brought to the U.S. to direct Huntsville's Marshall Space Flight Center, where many of America's rockets were built.
Von Braun used his clout to create the U.S. Space and Rocket Center for the public, and in return the Center devotes considerable space to von Braun, with exhibits such as the little red wagon he outfitted with rockets when he was twelve, and his entire office circa 1958, the year that NASA was created. Von Braun, like Elvis, apparently never threw anything away, so his trove of relics is extensive indeed, even including his wacky office retirement cartoons.
But most visitors don't come to the Center to learn about an ex-Nazi. They're lured by the 363-foot-tall Saturn V moon rocket that stands outside -- an exact replica built at considerable expense in 1999 (The 30th anniversary of the first moon landing). Behind the main museum building (admission only) is the even more impressive Pathfinder, an obscure test-model full-size Space Shuttle built in Huntsville in 1977. It's displayed "Full Stack," meaning that it's mounted to its booster rockets and massive external fuel tank, which were the Shuttle parts overseen by the Marshall Space Flight Center.
Also on the grounds are the Space Shot and G Force Accelerator, amusement park rides admirably repackaged by the Center as science education tools. Experience the forces of liftoff and weightlessness, wheeee!
Flight-related artifacts displayed at the Center range from the first airplane built in Alabama (Its inventor "worked years," reads an accompanying sign, "only to lose the race to the Wright Brothers") to a ratty-looking hunk of Skylab the size of a minivan. Most of the exhibits, however, commemorate the years of the Apollo moon shots.
Among the museum's original 1970 outdoor displays are an acre-size crumbly-crater replica of the lunar surface, and a 1960s MOLAB moon truck, built when von Braun wanted to send two rockets to the moon at once, one reserved just to haul all the astro-gear his engineers had designed.
Inside a specially-constructed building is a second Saturn V -- this one is real -- displayed horizontally ten feet above the floor. Beneath it are exhibits tracing the history of America's moon-mania, from a plaintive handprint of Miss Baker, America's first space monkey (she's buried outside), to a circa 1965 miniature model of a moon base. You can crawl into the Apollo Command Module simulator, where all the moonbound astronauts got accustomed to claustrophobia, or stand inside a rumbling, glowing, simulated flame pit beneath a roaring Saturn V engine, something that obviously no one has done for real and lived.
A genuine Apollo capsule (Apollo 16) and moon rock (Apollo 12) are displayed, and there's a full size test model Lunar Lander and Lunar Rover (the scaled-down successor to the MOLAB). You can walk inside the Apollo 12 Mobile Quarantine Facility (a fancy Airstream trailer), where the poor spacemen had to stay for three days, apparently playing a lot of Scrabble, to ensure they weren't infected with deadly moon bugs.
The U.S. Space and Rocket Center is also home to Space Camp, where kids and adults live inside a building that looks like a lunar habitat and subject themselves to scaled-back versions of astronaut training. Although the Camp has had 600,000 graduates over 30+ years, only one, Dottie Metcalf-Lindenburger, has actually traveled to outer space. Her framed photo hangs on a wall near the Skylab hunk, an inspiration to even the most casual tourist who just stopped by to see the rocket and got woozy on the G Force Accelerator.