Our family has roots in Alabama and we travel there about once a year. This year we decided it was time to take the girls to the US Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville, AL and it was an incredible trip!
Home to the NASA Marshall Flight Center, the town of Huntsville AL is a Science and Technology hub that has its’ roots in the early days of the US Space Program. The Saturn V rocket that sent men to the moon during the Apollo missions were designed here by Dr Wernher von Braun, who helped create the US Space and Rocket Center to commemorate the amazing technology of the Space Race. Rockets and Space Vehicles are currently being designed here to this day.
Opened in 1970, the US Space and Rocket Center houses over 1500 permanent rocketry and space exploration artifacts. You can spot the campus from a good distance away thanks to the impressive selection of towering rockets on display on the campus.
Once the kids saw the tips of those rockets they were sold!
Earth’s Largest Space Museum
We arrived early to avoid the crowds and found easy parking. It did appear that many people were part of bused-in tour groups, so that probably helped.
Rockets, including the space shuttle Pathfinder sitting atop booster rockets and a fuel tank, surrounded the parking lot so it was a bit overwhelming and didn’t know where to go at first until we saw the sign for the entrance.
Our tickets seemed a bit steep ($84 for our family of 4 – Active Duty military are free!) but admission covered everything in the museum but lunch, souvenirs and any IMAX movies. The 45 minute long IMAX movies looked interesting and we considered viewing one at about lunch time to break up the day, but there was so much to see and do in the museum we never did view any.
The first step of the self-guided tour was the photography area. We posed for the staff and took our photos expecting to just ignore them at the end. Where some places simply take your photo in front of a logo, US Space and Rocket Center did a good job of giving us value and something we couldn’t capture with our own gear.
Some places restrict your use of cameras simply so they can take their own photos and hold them hostage for a premium fee (I’m talking to you Gulf World). That was never the case at the US Rocket and Space Center.
The layout of the US Rocket and Space Center is cleverly designed to guide you through the different exhibits of the facility. First came the Featured Exhibits – MathAlive and SparkLab – to lead kids and kids at heart though fun and science based activities and demonstrations. One of our daughters was particularly enamored with a skyscraper design simulator. The activities and demonstrations did a good job of imparting how math and logic is incorporated into the activity without boring the kids. Math is important and useful – point made 🙂
The Featured Exhibits are not permanent and can change over time, much like a normal museum. Click on this link to see what exhibitions are currently on display: https://www.rocketcenter.com/featuredexhibitions
Simulators, Rides and Kids Activities
The Mars Rock Wall right outside the Featured Exhibit area was perfect for releasing some of the kids built-up energy. Be aware that closed toed tennis shoes are required – that caught us by surprise as the kids had been in flip-flops. Luckily we found out the night before and were able to get some cheap shoes at Target. There was nothing overly special about the wall and is similar to what you would see at a State Fair, but still fun for the kids with its’ Mars theme.
Near the Mars Rock Wall was the highlight for the kids – the flight simulator. Again, very similar to what you would find in a State Fair or Amusement Park. Groups of about 6-8 were loaded into the enclosed simulator which moved in all directions to the video, giving the passengers a VR flight experience. The operator was very nice and gave each group a choice between a variety of options including “Red Baron”, “Space Chase” and “Black Hole Orbit”, which are pretty much as the titles imply.
One fun part about this simulator was that you can stand behind the operator and view not only the simulation but the camera trained on the passengers. Have your kids sit in the 2nd row for you to get the best view of them!
Outside are two more simulators: the Space Shot and G-Force.
The Space Shot gives 4 G’s of acceleration, propelling you 140ft into the air before you experience 1-2 seconds of weightlessness, then 1G free fall back to the earth.
The G-Force simulator simulates what it is like to be in a 3 G’ environment.
Don’t be expecting some advanced NASA simulators here. These are merely the exact same amusement rides you would find at an amusement park, albeit maybe by different names. I’m used to the ‘G-Force’ being called the ‘Graviton’ at our local state fair.
They may not be the advanced NANA simulators you see in the old movies but they do get the point across and fit well in the museum.
No extra fees or tickets are required to ride any of the simulators which was a pleasant surprise!
The SkyLab simulator is an interesting walk-through and gives the kids a picture of what life is like on a space station.
Again showing the intelligence behind the design of the museum, the Mars Grill was located right at the spot on the journey where the kids were starting to get hungry. The food was better than it needed to be and included a nice Salad Bar, family-sized Pizzas, Burrito’s, Burgers, etc.
Right after the Mars Grill was the Rocket Park and outside simulators, so we avoided the simulators until lunch settled a bit.
Saturn V Exhibit
It’s hard to define a capstone exhibit of this museum, but the Saturn V exhibit definitely qualifies. This Saturn V Dynamic Test Vehicle lays on its’ side so you can walk the length of it and get a different feel for how large it truly was. It was restored, elevated 10 feet off of the floor, and the building was built around it. You can walk underneath and see how the various stages fit together. The entrance starts you off at the first stage, and the other end of the building has the Command Module along with a floor display of the Lunar Module. The exhibit area is filled with various other displays relating to the rockets and engines, command module simulators and a kids play area.
Walking the length of the building really imparts onto you the scale and magnitude of the Apollo program, and what an accomplishment it truly was.
We happened upon a live demonstration/science experiment in one of the auditoriums. This one was about air – measuring and moving it. The kids got a kick out of being on stage and knocking Dixie cups off of our heads in the audience with an air cannon.
In the end we spent about 6 hours at the Space Center and about $110 in tickets and lunch. We did not view any IMAX movies. We later found that there is a two hour bus tour of the NASA Marshall Space Center that we did not know about. We had such a fun filled day that we felt that the US Space and Rocket Center was enough and didn’t feel like we missed out on anything by not going to the NASA Marshall Space Center.
We can’t say anything negative about the museum. The staff was courteous, patient and helpful. The day was long but the kids stayed interested and motivated the entire time. There was a nice mix of activities to peak their curiosity while burning off energy. The kids are very interested in coming back and joining Space Camp someday.
The high points for the kids were the Flight Simulator, Climbing Wall, Space Station Mock-up and G-Force simulator. Tip: Don’t forget your closed toe shoes for the rock wall! Our girls got a real taste of how math and science impact our world and can carry us to the stars.