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United States Space and Rocket Center

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United States Space and Rocket Center

U.S. Space & Rocket Center
Established 1965
Location Huntsville, Alabama
Type Science museum
Director Dr. Deborah Barnhart[1]
Curator [2]
Owner State of Alabama
Association of Science-Technology Centers

The U.S. Space & Rocket Center in Huntsville, Alabama is a museum operated by the government of Alabama, showcasing rockets, achievements, and artifacts of the U.S. space program. Sometimes billed as "Earth's largest space museum", astronaut Owen Garriott described the place as, "a great way to learn about space in a town that has embraced the space program from the very beginning."[3][4]

Opened in 1970, just after the second manned mission to the lunar surface, the center not only showcases Apollo Program hardware but also houses interactive science exhibits, Space Shuttle and Army rocketry and aircraft. With more than 1,500 permanent rocketry and space exploration artifacts, as well as many rotating rocketry and space-related exhibits, the center occupies land carved out of Redstone Arsenal adjacent to Huntsville Botanical Garden at exit 15 on Interstate 565.[5] The center offers bus tours of nearby Marshall Space Flight Center.[6]

Two camp programs offer visitors the opportunity to stay on the grounds and learn more about their respective subject matter. U.S. Space Camp gives an in-depth exposure to the space program through participant use of simulators, lectures, and training exercises. Similarly, Aviation Challenge offers a taste of military fighter pilot training including simulations, lectures, and survival exercises. Both camps provide residential and day camp educational programs for children and adults.[7]


The U.S. Space & Rocket Center has one of the most extensive collections of space artifacts and displays more than 1500 pieces. Displays include rockets, engines, spacecraft, simulators, and hands-on exhibits.[8][9]

Some of the rockets in the U.S. Space & Rocket Center. From left to right: Saturn I, V-1, Jupiter IRBM, Juno II, Mercury-Redstone, Redstone, and Jupiter-C

The Space & Rocket Center introduces visitors to U.S. rocketry efforts from its predecessor at Peenemünde with the German V-1 flying bomb, through a progression of U.S. military rockets up to the Saturn rocket family civilian rockets, and on to the Space Shuttle. The Saturn V Dynamic Test Vehicle, the only Saturn V of the three on display to have been brought together outside a museum, is displayed overhead in a new building designed specifically for the rocket. The Space Shuttle Pathfinder was the first Space Shuttle — a mockup made of steel and wood to test facilities for handling the vehicle — and it now sits atop an external tank with solid rocket boosters attached.

The F-1 rocket engine stands 18.5 feet (5.6 m) high, and produces 1,500,000 pounds-force (6,700,000 N) of thrust.

The center showcases significant military rockets, including representatives of the Project Nike series, which formed the first ballistic missile defense, MIM-23 Hawk surface-to-air missile, Hermes, an early surface-to-surface missile, MGR-1 Honest John and Corporal nuclear missiles, Pershing medium-range ballistic missile, and Patriot, first used in the Gulf War of 1991.

The rocketry collection includes numerous engines, as well. In addition to the authentic engines mounted on rockets on display, the museum has unmounted engines on display, including two F-1s, the type of gigantic engine that produced 1,500,000 pounds-force (6,700,000 N) to push Saturn Vs off the launch pad, J-2 engine that powered second and third stages of the Saturn V, and both Descent and Ascent Propulsion System (DPS/APS) engines for the Lunar Module. Engines from the V-2 engine to NERVA to the Space Shuttle Main Engine are on display as well.[9]

Apollo 16 capsule is on display, with the recovery parachute hanging above it.

The Apollo program gets full coverage in the Davidson Center for Space Exploration with artifacts outlining Apollo missions. Astronauts crossed the service structure's red walkway to the White Room, both on display, and climbed in the Command Module atop a Saturn V which was their cabin for the trip to the moon and back. Apollo 16's command module is on display. The Saturn V Instrument Unit controlled five F-1 engines in the first stage of the rocket as it lifted off the pad. Several exhibits relate the complexity and magnitude of that phase of the journey. They took a Lunar Module (mockup on display) to the lunar surface where they collected moon rocks such as the Apollo 12 specimen at the museum. Later moon trips took a Lunar Rover (displayed beside the LM). The first few moon trips ended at a Mobile Quarantine Facility (Apollo 12's is on display) where astronauts stayed to ensure containment of any moon bugs after that mission.[10][11]

A restored engineering mock-up of Skylab is also on display, showing the Apollo project's post-lunar efforts.[12][13]

Gemini astronauts trained in this capsule.

Various simulators help visitors understand the spaceflight experience. Space Shot lets the rider experience launch-like 4 gs and 2–3 seconds of weightlessness. G-Force Accelerator offers 3 gs of acceleration for an extended period by means of a centrifuge. Several other simulators entertain and educate visitors.[14]

Other exhibits offer a hands-on understanding of concepts related to rocketry or space travel. A bell jar demonstrates the reason for using a rocket instead of a propeller in the vacuum of space. A wind tunnel offers visitors the opportunity to manipulate a model to see how forces change with its orientation, and The Mind of Saturn exhibit demonstrates gyroscopic force (necessary for rocket navigation). An Apollo trainer offers visitors the opportunity to climb in.[15]

Some simulators on exhibit were used for astronaut training. A Project Mercury simulator shows the cramped conditions endured by the first Americans in space. A Gemini simulator shows visitors the accommodations when two people flew together to space for the first U.S. missions involving extra-vehicular activities and space rendezvous.[9]

Exhibits also cover the future of space flight. Two Orion CEV exhibits show the next NASA spacecraft, and a Bigelow Aerospace commercial habitat model details a space tourism effort.[16]

Two play areas offer places indoors and out for children to release some energy. The outdoor play area offers a miniature (and slower) Space Shot ride along with slides and tunnels, all under a canopy. The indoor area fosters imaginative play about a trip to Mars with a space ship and some cartoon "aliens".

The U.S. Space & Rocket Center is also the resting place of Miss Baker, a squirrel monkey who flew on a suborbital test flight of the PGM-19 Jupiter rocket on May 28, 1959. Baker lived in a facility at the Center from 1971 until she died of kidney failure in November 1984.[17]

A tour bus waits as tourists inspect the Redstone Test Stand on a 2012 tour of Marshall Space Flight Center.

Bus tours

The Space & Rocket Center offers bus tours of Marshall Space Flight Center. The tour offers views of all four National Historic Landmarks at the center including a stop at the landmark Redstone Test Stand, a where Alan Shepard's Redstone Rocket was tested prior to launch.[18] Another scheduled stop is the Payload Operations and Integration Center, which serves as mission control for a number of experiments. Bus tours originally started July 4, 1972,[19] but were suspended following the September 11 attacks in 2001. Tours resumed July 20, 2012, the 43rd anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing, limited to United States citizens because of security protocol at the Army installation, Redstone Arsenal, which contains Marshall Space Flight Center.[6][20]

Traveling exhibits

In the summer of 2010, the US Space and Rocket Center began hosting traveling exhibits. The first was Star Wars: Where Science Meets Imagination with other exhibits planned. The United States Space Camp hosted at the facility has provided themed camps in conjunction with the exhibits, including a Jedi Experience camp.[21]

Other traveling exhibits:

  • The Chronicles of Narnia: The Exhibition Traveling Exhibit[22]
  • CSI: The Experience Traveling Exhibit[23]
  • A T-Rex Named Sue and Be the Dinosaur[24]
  • 100 Years of Von Braun: His American Journey[25]
  • Mammoths and Mastodons: Titans of the Ice Age[25]


Visitors to the new museum saw Mercury and Apollo 6 capsules, lunar rovers and lander concepts, and more.

The idea for the museum was first proposed by Dr. Wernher von Braun, who led the efforts of the United States to land the first man on the moon. Plans for the museum were underway in 1960 with an economic feasibility study for the Huntsville-Madison County Chamber of Commerce.[26]

Von Braun, understanding the dominance of football in the Alabama culture, persuaded rival Alabama and Auburn coaches Bear Bryant and Shug Jordan to appear in a television commercial supporting a $1.9 million statewide bond referendum to finance museum construction.[27] The referendum passed on November 30, 1965, and a donation of land from the Army's Redstone Arsenal provided a location on which to build.[28][29]

On display immediately were the lunar landscape with lunar lander mockup, and a wide variety of hardware from United States Army Aviation and Missile Command, NASA, and aerospace companies, including a helicopter, Pershing missile system displayed as if ready for launch, and the rocket garden.[30]

To help draw tourists from far afield, the center needed a crown jewel. The Huntsville Times reported, "Edward O. Buckbee is the type of guy with the tenacity to 'arrange' for this planet's largest, most complex mechanical beast to become a part of the Alabama Space and Rocket Center at Huntsville. / Pulling off the coup – getting a Saturn 5 moon rocket here which cost 90 times the center itself – was 'a little difficult,' admits Buckbee in a galloping understatement."[31] Buckbee worked with von Braun to see that the Saturn V Dynamic Test Vehicle would be delivered to the site as it was on June 28, 1969. The Saturn I which stands erect at the museum was delivered the same day.[32] Initial plans called for visitors to walk through the Saturn V.[30]

The Space & Rocket Center was a "major sponsor" of the United States pavilion at the 1982 World's Fair, providing exhibits on space and energy as well as equipment and operations for the IMAX theater at the fair. At the time, the Space & Rocket Center also served as the Alabama Energy Information Center.[33]

Mike Wing plunged the Center into debt as its executive director from 1998 to 1999.[34] Wing oversaw construction of a full-scale vertical Saturn V replica to be finished at by the 30th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing, July 1999. It serves as a towering landmark in Huntsville, and cost the center $8.6 million of borrowed money. The Huntsville Times estimated interest costs at $10 million. Wing also sought to create a program for fifth grade students in Alabama and elsewhere to attend Space Camp at no cost to them. Anonymous corporate pledges that Wing promised would fund the $800 per student never arrived. Wing prolonged the Alabama Space Science Exhibit Commission's investigation into the pledges by writing bogus personal checks and having the center record them as received. The program ultimately cost the center $7.5 million. Wing was pressured to resign, and several members of the governing Alabama Space Science Exhibit Commission were ousted from that board as a result of the debacle.[35][36] At the end of Wing's term as director, the center was $26 million in debt.[37][38][39]

The expenditures would shape more than the next decade for the center. Larry Capps was selected as executive director after Wing, and he reduced the debt to $16 million while also building the Davidson Center for Space Exploration and moving the Saturn V Dynamic Test Vehicle into its custom-built facility.[37] Capps was director through his retirement in 2010.[40]


The initial museum building was designed by Huntsville architect David Crowe in a style called "early blockhouse modern."[31]
The SA-500D Saturn V is the centerpiece in the main hall of the Davidson Center for Space Exploration.

Huntsville architect David Crowe designed the initial building with 22,000 square feet (2,000 m2) of exhibit space.[30] An Omnimax (now called IMAX Dome) theater was installed prior to February 28, 1984.[41] The movie SpaceCamp preceded droves more campers (5,000 in 1986 to 11,000 in 1987), for whom facilities were expanded again.[42][43]

Since 1969, Huntsville residents could point to the Saturn I rocket at the U.S. Space & Rocket Center as a distant landmark (located a few miles from the city center).[32] In 1999, a full-scale model of the Saturn V rocket was erected, standing nearly twice as tall as the Saturn I.[35]

Since 1979, A Saturn IB rocket owned by the museum stands at the Alabama Welcome Center in Ardmore "as a reminder to visitors of Alabama's role in the space program."[44]

A $3 million NASA Educator Resource Center was built during Larry Capps's tenure.[45]

The newest addition to the U.S. Space & Rocket Center is the Davidson Center for Space Exploration, named after Dr. Julian Davidson, founder of Davidson Technologies.[46] The 68,000 square feet (6,300 m2)[45] building opened January 31, 2008. The Davidson Center was designed to house the Saturn V Dynamic Test Vehicle (listed on the National Register of Historic Places) and many other space exploration exhibits. The vehicle is elevated above the floor surface with separated stages and engines exposed, so visitors have the opportunity to walk underneath the rocket. The Davidson Center also features a 3D movie theater in addition to the IMAX theater in the original museum.

When the Davidson Center opened in 2008, the museum's ticket center and entrance was relocated to the Davidson Center, so it is now the first exhibit museum visitors experience. This, however, necessitated that visitors enter the original museum through the rear doors, causing it to be viewed out of its original sequence.


The U.S. Space & Rocket Center is owned by the State of Alabama and operated by the Alabama Space Science Exhibit Commission (ASSEC) whose 18 members are appointed by the Governor for terms of four or eight years.[47] The composition and authority of the board are set forth in Title 41, Article 15 of the Code of Alabama.[48] ASSEC meetings are open to the public.[49]

The U.S. Space & Rocket Center Foundation serves as the fundraising arm of the ASSEC.[49]


The Space & Rocket Center saw 553,137 visitors in 2011 and 540,153 in 2010,[50] and over 584,000 in 2013, the latter earning the museum recognition as the top paid tourist attraction in Alabama.[51]

The NASA Human Exploration Rover Challenge, previously known as the Great Moonbuggy Race, has run every year since 1994, and all but the first two have been held at the Space & Rocket Center. The race challenges high school and college students to design and build a small moonbuggy that they can assemble on-site and ride across a simulated lunar terrain.[52]

In popular culture

The U.S. Space & Rocket Center was the setting for feature films SpaceCamp,[53] and Beyond the Stars,[54] along with the made-for-TV movie A Smile as Big as the Moon.[55]

The U.S. Space & Rocket Center was the site of a roadblock and pitstop at the end of Leg 3 of The Amazing Race: Family Edition aired in October 2005.

The Space & Rocket Center was featured on Little People Big World episode "Space Jake" in which Jacob Roloff attended Space Camp in the summer of 2008.[56]

Good Morning America has featured the Space & Rocket Center multiple times. In their 2006 proclamation the "Seven wonders of America", selected the Saturn V and particularly featured the Saturn V Dynamic Test Vehicle at the U.S. Space & Rocket Center.[57][58]


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