"The rocket will free man from his remaining chains, the chains of gravity which still tie him to this planet. It will open to him the gates of heaven." - Dr. Wernher von Braun
In the late 1960s, my great uncle worked as an engineer at Cape Canaveral in Florida. He had a front row seat to so much history, including the Saturn V rocket takeoffs.
Today, my 7-year-old daughter is fascinated by our family's role in the space race. She loves learning about space, science, and technology, so visiting the U.S. Space & Rocket Center in Huntsville, Alabama, was a perfect fit for expanding her knowledge and further piquing her interest.
The fully-restored Saturn V rocket, which played a crucial part in the Apollo missions and made it possible for man to land on the moon, is a National Historic Landmark and it's definitely the focal point of the Davidson Center for Space Exploration at the U.S. Space & Rocket Center. The Saturn V rocket is massive. I'm talking enormous, colossal, gigantic - it's truly a sight everyone should experience.
The center is full of space program artifacts that give a glimpse into NASA's past, interactive displays, and a look towards the future.
My daughter's favorite part of the day? Getting hands-on with an Apollo Command Module Trainer. She loved being in the cockpit and laying down just like the astronauts did to control the module. She was also impressed with the real-life rock from the moon and couldn't stop staring at the Lunar Module. Since we've been home, she's been reading books about the moon to learn more.
Outside the center is an impressive array of rockets. Rocket Park showcases the evolution of rockets and missiles. Some of note include a Jupiter-C, which launched Explorer 1, the United States' first satellite to successfully orbit the Earth in 1958, and a Mercury-Redstone, which made Alan Shepard the first astronaut launched into space in 1961.
Want to know what a rocket launch feels like? You can ride the Space Shot or the G-Force Accelerator for a small taste. It was too cold outside when we were there to try them, which just gives us another reason to go back soon!
Our favorite display was the "Full Stack" shuttle in Shuttle Park, Pathfinder. This shuttle is actually a simulator that was used to test equipment. "Full Stack" means the shuttle is shown just as it would have been prepared for launch (except it's not vertical) with a shuttle external tank and two solid rocket boosters. I couldn't get over how small the shuttle looked atop the tank.
The Space & Rocket Center also features temporary exhibits that demonstrate various aspects of science, space, and/or technology. The two we had the opportunity to experience were "Above and Beyond," which featured interactive displays on how airplanes and spacecraft are built and how they fly, and "Spark!Lab," where my daughters became engineers to solve a variety of challenges. My husband loved the simulation area in "Above and Beyond" where he got to design his own plane and test drive it. My 3-year-old had a blast building a car out of pipes and wheels.
Huntsville isn't all artifacts - there's plenty of work happening at the NASA Marshall Space Flight Center, including 24/7 monitoring of the astronauts and experiments they do aboard the International Space Station.
How to sum up our visit? Well ... now my 7-year-old really, really wants to go to Space Camp®!