US Space & Rocket Center – Huntsville, Alabama

August 2014

Huntsville, Alabama was my primary destination after leaving Knoxville, Tennessee, but I got distracted for a few days in Chattanooga, a very worthwhile distraction, I might add.

Monte Sano State Park

Following my preference of staying at state, county or local parks, instead of commercial RV parks, I went on the search for a suitable location in the Huntsville area. I was pleasantly surprised when I found Monte Sano State Park located just outside of Huntsville. As in a prime location for accessing the city.

Monte Sano State Park is, oddly enough, located on the top of Monte Sano Mountain, which rises about 1,000 feet above the city below. For some reason I really didn’t notice that much of a climb when I arrived, but I sure did when I departed with my house in tow, and the several trips up and down the mountain with just my Jeep. I must have been concerned with navigating to the park instead of how much I was climbing. Located at the end of a residential road, Monte Sano State Park is in an odd location for a state park – at least compared to the parks I have experienced up to this point. The top of the mountain used to be where the rich would hang out in the summer and once housed health resorts. “Monte Sano” means “mountain of health” in Spanish (if you believe the Alabama State Park website) or Italian (if you believe Wikipedia). Imagine that – two Internet sources that aren’t in agreement.

I made reservations ahead of time for two nights and was able to pick out the site I wanted once I arrived. I chose one of only two pull-through sites (out of 74 sites), which was located at the very top end of the campground loop. Further on past my site were 18 primitive, tent-only sites, but only one was occupied, so I had very good isolation. Just the way I like it! Elsewhere in the park are cabins that one can rent.

Monte Sano is popular with mountain bikers, as it has a network of multi-purpose trails leading around the top of the mountain. So I unfolded my bike a couple of times and managed to not kill myself as I pretended I was an actual mountain biker. Good fun!

US Space & Rocket Center

The reason for my stop in Huntsville was to visit the US Space & Rocket Center which features rockets and such from the US Space Program. Huntsville, Alabama become the developmental center of the US Space Program in 1950 when the German engineer Dr. Wernher von Braun came to the Redstone Arsenal, once an Army munitions plant, then turned into the epicenter of space vehicle development.

Dr. Wernher von Braun was the key figure in the Nazis’ rocket development during World War II and surrendered to US forces in 1945, along with his team of engineers. Later in 1945 the whole lot of them were transferred to the US and became the key players in the US Space Program. Basically von Braun’s group of engineers were so far ahead of any US engineers when it came to building rockets, that they were welcomed with open arms to work for the ‘good guys’. The good doctor had an amazing career in the US Space Program (eventually turned into NASA), including acting as the director of the Marshall Space Flight Center (yes, lovely name) in Huntsville. The dude was essentially responsible for the Saturn V rocket that launched the Apollo program to the moon.

Anyhow, through a series of decisions that you can read about via the above Wikipedia links, Huntsville became known as Rocket City due to the development of the US rockets taking place at the Redstone Arsenal, which contained the aforementioned Marshall Space Flight Center. As a side note, the Marshall Space Flight Center was named after the dude that came up with the Marshall Plan and whose name, weirdly enough, was Marshall. His last name that is. Not is first name like some handsome guy I am very familiar with. For those of you who slept through US History class, the Marshall Plan wasn’t formulated to give birth to me, but rather was the European recovery plan after World War II.

Enough history! Let’s get onto the good stuff, shall we?

The US Space & Rocket Center comprises of a couple of massive buildings which house actual rockets and stuff. Including an actual Saturn V rocket. Which, in case you were curious, is a damn massive piece of hardware. Long. Imposing. And takes up a lot of room when laid on its side.

There were also plenty of outside exhibits of rockets and military hardware used by the US. And there is the Space Shuttle Pathfinder, which is a Shuttle mockup made out of steel and wood, sitting on top of actual external fuel tank and booster rockets.

The US Space Camp is also based at the center, but I didn’t see any of that from the inside as I wasn’t attending camp there.

Bus Tour

One of the extras you can do while visiting is take a bus tour of the Marshall Space Flight Center, which is housed on the Redstone Arsenal, an actual military base. So once again I got the pleasure of giving out my personal information to prove I was worthy of entering such an esteemed facility and got to do the whole ride through the military checkpoint and have the dude with a gun give us a once over. I guess, if memory serves me correctly, that this makes stop number 3 or 4 (guess my memory isn’t serving me very well) at a military installation in the past few months and they keep letting me in. Guess they haven’t caught on to the fact that I am wanted in 22 countries.

The bus tour lasted almost 2 hours and included stops at the Redstone test site, which is a National Historic Landmark and includes a couple of test stands used to test fire the rockets, and the bunker from which the firings were observed.

We also passed by a few of the other testing facilities, including one that has 12 or so diesel locomotive engines used to pump water to cool the test stand. Yeah, that is a whole lot of water flow. Also included in the drive-by tour was the massively tall Dynamic Structural Test Facility used in the Saturn V and Space Shuttle programs to, well, dynamically test them. Basically try to shake them apart.

A stop at the Payload Operations and Integration Center was also on the agenda. Here really smart people monitor payloads and research projects for the International Space Station. It was a room straight out of a movie set, with rows of desks, massive monitors, computer screens, and some bored looking people.

I was glad I made the trip to Huntsville, Alabama to see the US Rocket & Space Center as I can now check it off the list of must-see museums. The kind you see one time and probably never return to. Overall a great experience and a fun look into the history of the US Space Program.

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