Saturday, November 18, 2017

North Alabama II: Space, the Final Frontier

I visited the Huntsville Space and Rocket Center in my childhood, but my memories of it are hazy.  I found it much changed; although the rockets are still there, of course, what little I remember is gone and a lot of new stuff has taken its place.  The museum is divided into three areas:  the Saturn complex (seen above) houses a Saturn V  hanging from the ceiling, alongside which run the majority of the space program exhibits; outside is a rocket park, which shows off the entire family of Redstones, Junos, and Saturns, along with pieces of military equipment that rely on missiles or avionics; and on the other side of the park is the 'main' museum, which includes exhibits on invention, avionics, and military hardware, along with a rock climbing wall.  Most of the exhibits are of the electronic interactive kind, in which visitors watch videos, play games, and create a general din of noise.  There are reminders that this is a space museum, however, in the impossible-to-miss mock-up of the international space station. This is used for the "space camp", which encourages children to become astronauts and has them swim in underwater tanks, that sort of thing.  

Now, what shuttle is that? It's not a shuttle, really: it's called Pathfinder, and is a wood and steel mock-up of a shuttle. Huntsville was unable to get one of the retired shuttles after the program was terminated,  possibly because it already has the remains of Skylab, an Apollo command module,  and the rockers.  Pathfinder passes casual inspection, however -- I only looked into it because I knew full well Huntsville hadn't gotten one of the shuttles.

This is part of the International Space Station replica, parts of which are open for touring. The other parts are reserved for space camp folk, and indeed a few kiddies were about.The walk-through demonstrated how every bit of space is used: there are storage lockers built into the "ceiling", for instance, and there are cardinal labels ("Overhead", "Deck", "Port", and "Starboard") painted to keep people oriented.  Our tour guide also demonstrated the toilet, although he only ran the vacuum. Zippers were thankfully not involved.  

When I visited back in the 1990s, I'm fairly sure the booster stood upright, sans shuttle. This new arrangement allows visitors to stand underneath and ponder how efficiently they would be squished if it were to fall. 

From left to right: the Saturn-I, the Jupiter, the Juno, the Mercury-Redstone, and the Jupiter-C. One of those was only used for the nuclear program, I believe, and the Redstones are most famous for blowing up repeatedly when the United States tried to launch their own probe after Sputnik.

Much larger is the Saturn IB,  built while the Saturn V was still being hammered out. The IB was part of Apollo 7, which saw the command/service module tested in earth orbit. 

This, however, is the titan that got men to mars. Huntsville has two Saturn Vs: the upright one outside, which is a local landmark, and the one above. It's flanked on either side by exhibits that detail the evolution of the space program, with particular interested on the five F1 engines that the Saturn relied on. 

Saturn V's "brain", the instrument panel. 

This trailer was used to quarantine astronauts upon their return to Earth, and strangely enough turned up in 2007.  The rocket center used to have another quarantine exhibit, one with a couch. The interior of the trailer has four bunkbeds on the left, and a table with chairs on the right. I asked several employees about the original exhibit, but they were all younger than me and kept pointing me towards the trailer.  (I commented to my friend as we were in line that the people selling tickets probably hadn't been born the last time I was here.)

An Apollo command module from Apollo 16. It's hard to believe three people were in that little capsule, and together they would have fallen into the ocean and bobbled together like a cork awaiting recapture. 

One of the few things that hasn't changed since my visit in the 1990s is this Blackbird, a CIA project that helped create Groom Lake/Area 51's reputation. The museum has two "Avengers", which are Humvees with missile launchers. 

We stayed here until they closed the place down, then drove back to Decatur.   What a sight to drive home to! 


  1. Cool pix. I've had a thing about the SR-71 Blackbird for some years. Beautiful plane.

    1. That it the way, there's a museum of flight in Birmingham (AL) I just found out about. I might try to visit that before the year's end, so here's hoping they have some more beauties.

  2. Great pictures.

    I was there myself about four years ago. I absolutely loved visiting. I am a bit of a space enthusiast so a place like this fascinates me.

    1. Have you ever visited Houston or Orlando? The space museums are the only reasons I'd go near them! I've been to another rocket center on the gulf coast...I saw ISS components being built or tested. That was a long time ago, though!

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