Each time we return home from visiting my Baby Sis in Florida, we drive by the Huntsville, Alabama, exit on I-65 and talk about visiting the Rocket City’s US Space and Rocket Center (USSRC), the home of Space Camp. We figured it had to be an exciting place. Maybe we’ll visit it someday. When we’re not in a rush to get home, which we always were.
This year, February 15th became someday.
Huntsville welcomed us with heavy rain, heavy early evening traffic, and road construction that confused us and nearly gave our car’s navigation system a nervous breakdown. It almost gave MG a stroke. We got all turned around and thought we’d never find our hotel. We hoped it wasn’t an omen of things to come.
First thing on the morning of the 15th, we went down for our hotel’s complementary breakfast. The normally yummy make-them-yourself waffles tasted sour and underdone. [It wasn’t my fault. I swear.] The breakfast lady tried her hand at making one and encountered the same unpleasant result. We ate oatmeal instead. We figured we’d make up for the disappointing breakfast by having a nice lunch at the USSRC.
When we pulled into the parking lot at the visitor center we noticed that the USSRC was way, way, way smaller than the Kennedy Space Center and appeared somewhat rundown. The buildings and cracked concrete pavement needed power washing desperately. They were blackened with mildew. [One of my allergies. O joy.] This did not bode well for the visit.
The Space Shuttle Park, which can be seen from the parking lot on arrival, features the Pathfinder Shuttle Stack, the only full shuttle stack in the world—orbiter, external fuel tank, and two solid rocket boosters, all assembled. Pathfinder, a non-flight test vehicle, was the first shuttle ever built, its design modified on future shuttles. It is a historic space program artifact and yet it sets out of doors subject to the ravages of the elements. What’s with that, NASA? That’s almost criminal. Almost, nothing; it is criminal. Dang seriously criminal. As Ricky Ricardo would say, “Lucy—that is, NASA—you got some ‘splainin’ to do.”
We entered the main visitor complex building through the gift shop. [It’s also the exit so they get you coming and going]. Our admission fee covered the museum artifacts and displays, interactive exhibits, and attractions. IMAX and 3-D movies and the Marshall Space Flight Center (MSFC) bus tour were not included. IMAX and 3-D give MG motion sickness so we passed on those but opted for the bus tour. When we purchased our tickets, we were told that the Mars Grill [the only restaurant] was unable to offer hot food because of a “water problem.” Cold grab and go sandwiches only. No nice hot lunch to make up for the crummy breakfast. Bummer.
The main USSRC complex is part museum and part interactive exhibits. We saw a recreation of Werner Von Braun’s office, military personnel armor and equipment, armored vehicles, and other advanced weaponry, land and air craft.
In the ISS (International Space Station) Science on Orbit exhibit, we walked through a model of the United States’ ISS module and watched the elementary school field trip children climb the Mars Wall.
When we took our lunch break— the choices were sub sandwiches (ham and cheese or turkey and cheese) or wraps, chips and drinks. It wasn’t until we searched for condiments that we noticed there was a salad bar. Hold on there. They’d need water to prepare fresh produce. If there was a water problem, how did they manage that? Something didn’t add up. Maybe it was the bottom line. Perhaps there weren’t enough visitors to make it profitable to prepare hot food.
After lunch we walked outside to the Historic Rocket Park, featuring the rockets from America’s 1950s space race with the then USSR. Mercury astronaut John Glenn called the USSRC’s Rocket Park “the finest rocket collection in the world.” All the rockets are outdoors, suffering the whims of Mother Nature like Pathfinder. The park’s asphalt looks like it took a beating from Bigfoot. The erosion on the rockets is visible and heartbreaking to see for a NASA buff. Doggone it, NASA, you need to take better care of those national treasures!
We boarded the MSFC bus tour next. I couldn’t help comparing the old bus to one of the sleek modern buses at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC). The tour bus was in rather shabby condition. The seats were frayed in spots and handles were missing. Worse yet, the air conditioning didn’t work. Our driver and our tour guide both waived the rules and let us open all the windows.
The MSFC is located on the grounds of the Redstone Arsenal. It is the space program’s rocket engine static testing site, which means they fire the rocket engines to see if they work but they don’t get to go into space. They don’t get to go anywhere. The early space shuttles Pathfinder and Enterprise were static tested there. The Redstone Test Stand where NASA tested the Redstone rocket that put Mercury Astronaut Alan Sheppard into space was designated a National Historic Landmark. It is outdoors, unprotected, and turning to rust. Such a shame. [Before and after photos below.]
As part of the tour we also got to visit the ISS Payload Operations Integration Center, also located in the MSFC. One of the operatives came out of the operations room to explain the center’s functions and individual job descriptions for the payload team. She also answered the tour group’s many questions. Through the payload center’s glass barrier, we were able to see a large screen with a live feed of the Earth’s surface from an ISS camera. So cool.
In another area, we saw the equipment used on board the ISS that turns the astronauts’ sweat and urine into potable drinking water for the entire ISS crew. Eww. Just eww.
Following the bus tour, we visited the Davidson Center for Space Exploration. The USSRC’s Saturn V Moon Rocket (one of three Saturn V’s in existence) used to be displayed outdoors and unprotected as are the rockets in the Rocket Park. Fortunately, enough funds were obtained to restore the rocket and to build the Davidson Center that houses the Saturn V Hall and contains additional space program artifacts and exhibits. One interactive exhibit, The Force, lets visitors experience the sound and power of the first test firing of all five F-1 Saturn V engines that took place at the MSFC. You can feel the vibration in your bones.
The USSRC was a letdown in a way. I suppose I expected more after the KSC, but comparing them isn’t really fair. They’re two different animals. The USSRC is more of a museum/educational facility, whereas the KSC—while also educational—is more like a theme park.
We left the outdoor rides—Space Shot and G Force—to the squealing and screaming kids who were obviously having a blast on them, and decided to call it a day. After we left, it occurred to me that there would never be enough grant funding from the State of Alabama to restore the USSRC and its space artifacts to their original state and to put the Pathfinder Stack under cover like Atlantis at the KSC. It would be a sad state of affairs if all those historic artifacts from the space program remained uncared for and left outside to rust and decay.
Are you paying attention, NASA? I hope so. Otherwise, space program history buffs may need to create a U.S. Space & Rocket Center Go Fund Me campaign.