The U.S. Space & Rocket Center in Huntsville serves as the state's museum and archive dedicated to the U.S. space program and is the home of the original U.S. Space Camp and Aviation Challenge. The center was first envisioned by German scientist Wernher von Braun, the technical mastermind behind Germany's rocket development during World War II and America's most prominent promoter of human space flight. The U.S. Space & Rocket Center is an affiliate of the Smithsonian Institution and is the official visitors center for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's George C. Marshall Space Flight Center. Specialists in space museums recognize the U.S. Space and Rocket Center as having one of the world's premiere and most comprehensive collections of U.S. human space-flight hardware.
When the Space & Rocket Center opened in 1970 as a public-relations extension of NASA's Marshall Spaceflight Center, the Apollo program was entering a period of decline. The center, built on a piece of land donated by the U.S. Army from property at Redstone Arsenal, became home to some of the Apollo hardware and memorabilia as well as moon rocks collected during the missions, all of which formed the initial exhibits for the museum. The permanent collection also includes the Apollo 16 Command Module, Casper, and one of the three remaining Saturn V rockets from this era.
The U.S. Space & Rocket Center's collection is not limited to artifacts from the Apollo era, however. The collections of objects and other displays span the modern history of space flight, from early-twentieth-century experiments of American rocketry pioneer Robert Goddard to present-day projects such as the International Space Station. Space-flight specimens include a V-2 rocket from Germany and some of the original capsule trainers from the Mercury and Gemini programs. Before manned space flight, NASA tested the effects of space travel on animals. A squirrel monkey known as Miss Baker, who was one of the first two creatures to return alive to Earth after traveling in space, is buried on the grounds of the facility. The center's premiere artifact from the era of the Space Shuttle Program is its full-size static display of the Space Shuttle Pathfinder, the 75-ton steel orbiter simulator used to create procedures for moving and landing the vehicle, mounted atop a 154-foot external tank and two 149-foot solid rocket boosters. An interactive museum, the Space & Rocket Center includes an IMAX theater, hands-on exhibits and mock-ups, and launch and space-flight simulators.
Stored within the center's archives is the most complete collection of von Braun's papers, covering his career in the United States and some documentation from his early years in Germany. The archive maintains thousands of books and technical documents, materials from the World War II Ordnance officers who eventually worked with the German engineers brought over to the United States after the war, a collection of government documents from the early space age, and science fiction data from the 1920s.
Although the center is well known for its historical collections, it is perhaps better known as the home of the original Space Camp program. Begun in 1982 as an effort to encourage children to explore careers in mathematics, science, and technology, the original Space Camp provided attendees with an opportunity to learn what it would be like to be an astronaut. Campers can get the feel of working in space or on the surface of the Moon when strapped into the 5-Degrees-of-Freedom Chair, which floats on a cushion of air, and the 1/6 Gravity Chair. Other Space Camp experiences include a series of classroom lectures about rocketry and space flight and a simulated space mission. Space Camp attendees also have exclusive access to shuttle and space station mock-ups, mission control, living habitats, and the Underwater Astronaut Trainer (also known as a neutral buoyancy simulator). This simulator allows campers to use scuba equipment to dive in the large tank and simulate repair missions to the space shuttle and space station. The UAT provides the public with an astronaut-training experience that is very similar to the kind provided to real astronauts at NASA's Johnson and Marshall Spaceflight Centers.
Originally oriented toward children in the fourth through sixth grades, the Space Camp program expanded over time to include programs for junior-high and high-school children, camps for children with visual and hearing impairments, programs for teachers, a parent-child experience, camps for adults, and one- or two-day corporate-incentive programs. In 1990, the center introduced a program called Aviation Challenge, which exposes campers of all ages to training as military fighter pilots, including short courses in survival tactics, and is partnered with the U.S. Air Force, the Air National Guard, and Navy and U.S. Marines aviation programs. In response to the success of Space Camp at the U.S. Space and Rocket Center, two other facilities opened in Florida and California, but both closed in 2002 as a result of financial difficulties. There are eight international Space Camps already in operation or under construction in Canada, Belgium, Turkey, Egypt, Oman, India, Korea, and Japan.
As the U.S. Space & Rocket Center approaches its 40th anniversary, it remains a historical monument to the U.S. space program.
Not only does the center work to preserve history as a museum and archive, but through its programs for children and adults,
it continues to promote future space exploration. The center's relationship with NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center helps
to keep Huntsville on the leading edge of American rocket and space development.
Dunar, Andrew J., and Stephen P. Waring. Power to Explore: A History of Marshall Space Flight Center 1960-1990. Washington, D.C.: National Aeronautics and Space Administraion, 1999.
Neufeld, Michael J. Von Braun: Dreamer of Space, Engineer of War. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2007.
Amy E. Foster
University of Central Florida
Published June 12, 2008
Last updated October 8, 2014