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Space destinations reach for the sky

Photo courtesy Kennedy Space Center

Although Star Wars and Star Trek have created fantastic, action-packed fictional worlds of space travel for current generations, older adults and baby boomers remember the thrill when man first ventured into space for real.

“For folks my age and older, this is what we lived through; it was a significant part of our history,” said Chris Orwell, president and CEO of the Kansas Cosmosphere and Space Center. “All of our formative years were spent watching this program come into existence and go through its heyday in the 1960s and 1970s.”

Space museums such as Orwell’s provide a nostalgic window into the early, exciting years of space travel while also giving an ongoing look at what’s going on today in the space world”
“It is a shared knowledge of history. We watched it unfold on TV, and it is neat for people to come and see the actual artifacts,” said Orwell.

U.S. Space and Rocket Center
Huntsville, Ala.
The 36-story-tall Saturn V rocket, a key component in enabling man to set foot on the moon, shattered windows more than a half-mile away in downtown Huntsville when it was test fired in the 1960s.

Courtesy Huntsville CVB

“This is the one they fired,” said Al Whitaker, public relations manager for the U.S. Space and Rocket Center, where the restored Saturn V hangs 10 feet above the floor in the new Davidson Center for Space Exploration.

Whitaker said although the rocket on display was the only one built in Huntsville — it was a test rocket, never intended to fly — all of the rockets were designed at Huntsville’s Marshall Space Flight Center.

The U.S. Space and Rocket Center serves as the official visitors center for the flight center, where much of the design and planning for space exploration has taken place over the past half-century.

A new interactive exhibit opening this summer will provide a realistic feel for what it was like when the giant rocket’s engines were fired.

The Space and Rocket Center has numerous pieces of space exploration memorabilia, including original Mercury and Gemini capsule trainers and the Apollo 16 capsule. “The original building is chock full of stuff, everything from the gloves the Apollo 11 astronauts wore to the plaster casts used to make those gloves,” said Whitaker.

Those items, which average around 1,500 pieces at any one time, will be replaced this summer by a two-and-a-half-month special Star Wars exhibit that is expected to draw large crowds. The exhibit, which will run from June 25 to Sept. 6, will feature more than 80 costumes, models and props from all six Star Wars movies.

Kennedy Space Center
Cape Canaveral, Fla.
The past and present of space flight come together at the sprawling Kennedy Space Center on Florida’s east coast.

Visitors can relive the early days of space exploration at a museum with artifacts from the first manned space flights, and the Astronaut Hall of Fame, which includes Wally Schirra’s Sigma 7 Mercury spacecraft, has the world’s largest collection of personal astronaut memorabilia.
The Apollo Saturn V Center traces the history of the moon-landing program and includes a Saturn V rocket.

On the NASA Up Close Tour, visitors get a look at today’s space program. “It shows the shuttle and the launch pad observation area,” said Tara Reaves, group representative for the center. “You get to see the Vehicle Assembly Building and the launch pads panorama.”

An elevated observation room at the International Space Station Center allows groups to watch components being readied for a trip to the orbiting station. The center also includes a full-scale mockup of the space station’s Habitation Module, where visitors can see how the crew members live, sleep and work.

For those who want a more interactive feel for space travel, the center has several opportunities. Simulators at the Astronaut Hall of Fame let you feel the pressure of four times the force of gravity, land a space shuttle and ride a rover across the rocky Martian terrain.

A new Shuttle Launch Experience provides a realistic feel for taking off and landing in a space shuttle. Those not able to take the ride, which includes extreme vibration, loud noise and bright visual effects, can watch from an observation room.

Reaves said groups can arrange to have lunch with an astronaut.

“It is a chance to meet a veteran astronaut,” she said. “They have lunch, watch a short film, the astronaut answers questions, and they get their picture taken with the astronaut.”

New Mexico Museum of Space History
Alamogordo, N.M.
The New Mexico Museum of Space History focuses on both the people and the science of space flight.

Courtesy New Mexico Museum of Space History

“More than 2,000 things we use everyday were developed through the space program,” said Charles Farrant, a docent at the museum who had a firsthand look at America’s space program as a Navy frogman who greeted returning Apollo astronauts when their capsules splashed down in the Pacific Ocean.

Farrant pointed to an Apollo guidance computer and noted, “It is not as powerful as the computer in our watches.”

Many of the museum’s artifacts are displayed in the Museum of Space History. One area focuses on Living and Working in Space, with Soviet and American space suits and clothing, a space toilet and America and Soviet space food.

The complex, located near the White Sands Missile Range, also has an International Space Hall of Fame, an archives library for research on space history and an IMAX theater and planetarium.

Groups can arrange for workshops on geology, space, physics or flight in the IMAX theater, and planetarium programs are also available.

The grounds feature an air and space park with larger artifacts, such as the Apollo program’s Little Joe II rocket and the rocket sled that John P. Stapp rode up to 632 miles per hour.
Also on display is the restored Daisy Decelerator, which for 30 years was used to test the effects of acceleration, deceleration and impact on the human body and equipment systems.

Ham, the first chimp in space, is buried on the grounds in front of the flagpole, and the museum has a display inside about the use of chimps on space flights prior to humans.

Virginia Air and Space Center
Hampton, Va.
As the visitors center for the NASA Langley Research Center and Langley Air Force Base, the Virginia Air and Space Center is suitably located to tell the history of space exploration.
“The U.S. space program started in Hampton,” said Megan Steele, director of public relations and marketing for the center. “With the Mercury and Apollo astronauts training here, it is a huge part of Hampton’s history.”

Courtesy Virginia Air and Space Center

The center’s newly redone space gallery, Space Quest: Exploring the Moon, Mars and Beyond, focuses on hands-on, interactive experiences. The Viking Orbiter project, which mapped Mars, was managed by the Langley Research Center, and one of the major interactive features takes visitors on a realistic trip to the Red Planet.

After the simulated six-month journey, which includes dramatic lighting, sound effects and floor vibrations and an encounter with an asteroid, visitors exit onto a re-created Martian landscape where they see models of past and current Mars research robots and are able to maneuver minirovers.

“They feel like they are on Mars,” said Steele.

Another interactive station lets visitors simulate a moon landing. The Lunar Excursion Module Simulator, built in 1965 at Langley and used to train astronauts, including Neil Armstrong and Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin, the first two men on the moon, for their lunar-landing vehicle, is on display nearby.

The center has a number of other historic artifacts, including “our big space jewel,” the Apollo 12 capsule from man’s second landing on the moon and the Mercury 14 spacecraft.

An intriguing scale-model solar system hangs overhead; it ranges from a 750-pound, 22-foot diameter Jupiter to a soccer-ball-size model of Earth and a baseball-size Mercury.

Stafford Air and Space Center
Weatherford, Okla.
The small Oklahoma town of Weatherford has played an unusually large role in space flight. More than a dozen graduates of the town’s Southwest Oklahoma University have become NASA engineers, and native son Thomas Stafford was commander of Apollo 10 and U.S. commander of the historic 1975 joint American-Russian Apollo-Soyuz mission.

Courtesy Stafford Air and Space Center

The Stafford Air and Space Center in Weatherford, aided by Stafford’s connections, has an enviable and fascinating collection of space artifacts and memorabilia.

“It’s something you don’t expect to see in Oklahoma,” said Todd Stallbaumer, travel development manager for the Oklahoma Tourism Department.

The museum has a large collection of hardware, including parts of a shuttle engine, cargo bay and solid fuel rocket stage and a 94-foot Titan missile. One of its newest artifacts is a V-2 rocket engine.

“It was made by prisoners of war in Germany,” said museum director Lynne Thurman. “We are one of only 11 places in the United States that have any part of one of the rockets. We have a complete engine.”

However, it is the personal mementos that are particularly poignant. “We have a lot of space suit stuff,” said Thurman. “Everything in the cases has actually flown [in space].”

That includes Stafford’s Gemini and Apollo 10 space suits and the suits he and Russian Alexey [Britannica spells it “Aleksey,” AP “Alexei.”] Leonov wore in photos of their famous handshake in space. The display also includes the docking ring from the Apollo-Soyuz mission that signaled an end to the space race between the United States and the Soviet Union.

Another recent addition to the museum is a $100,000 display of scale-model rockets.
“We have every rocket, including foreign,” said Thurman, “all the Cold War rockets and the new ones coming up. There is no place else like it in the world.”

The museum also has a large section on the history of flight, with planes ranging from World War I biplanes to jets.

Kansas Cosmosphere and Space Center
Hutchinson, Kan.
Although it never came to laser-gun shootouts at 25,000 miles per hour high above the earth, the Cold War-era space race between the United States and the Soviet Union in the 1960s and 1970s was a tense competition froth with international implications as the two superpowers jockeyed for preeminence.

The Kansas Cosmosphere and Space Center’s comprehensive collection of artifacts tells that story. The disarmed nuclear warhead from a Redstone rocket illustrates what was at stake.

“We cover some areas not seen anywhere else,” said Orwell. “We have the largest collection of [U.S.] space artifacts outside the Smithsonian and the largest collection of Russian artifacts outside Moscow.”

The Cosmosphere is one of only three museums, along with the Smithsonian and Space Center Houston, that have flown capsules from America’s Mercury, Gemini and Apollo programs. It also has a Russian Vostok spacecraft and German V-1 and V-2 rockets.

“We have space suits from every program — those that have flown,” said Orwell. They include space suits worn on the moon.

In addition to the Hall of Space Museum and a collection of rockets on its grounds, the Cosmosphere has an IMAX dome theater, a planetarium and Dr. Goddard’s Lab, where it presents live demonstrations of early rocket technology.

The Cosmosphere has become the leader in spacecraft restoration and replication.

It is the only location designated by the Smithsonian Institution to restore flown U.S. spacecraft. It restored the Liberty Bell 7 Mercury spacecraft of Gus Grissom, the second American in space, after it was recovered from the ocean bottom, and the Apollo 13 command module.

It also makes exhibits and replicas for other museums and the film industry.