Saturday, August 23, 2008

Space and Rocket Center

The latest outing with my lily-white children was one for them to discover a few new things, and for me to see what I could see about a place I'd not been in at least a quarter-century.
The U.S. Space and Rocket Center is still quite well worth the trip for kids of all ages.

A good bit of new facilities have been added over the years, but the new focus seems to be more geared toward educational exposition rather than the straight tourism approach I remember.

Don't get me wrong, the squat cement and stucco main building still stands ready, with only visible exterior difference being grime and too-mature landscape plants. (the 70s architectural aesthetics have not aged well, but that's subjective.) Inside, the need for a thorough remodel is apparent in places, but everything is there that I remember.

Minor gripe: I distinctly remember the first thing greeting visitors as they entered the lobby was a bust of modern rocketry pioneer Werner Von Braun, and a piece of moon rock encased in Lucite. Both are exhibited elsewhere, and the once-modest gift shop seemed to have grown in size.

Big-time gripe: the old space capsules that were once open for visitors to crawl around inside and flip switches, pretend to run the controls, and lie in the cramped quarters, are now off limits! In place is a "rock-climbing wall" for kids, and mine were too little to get to play on it. I'm sure there's a story why little ones can't play spaceman like my brothers and I did, but dammit, I was hoping it would be a highlight for them the same as it was me!

The once-proud main building is now known as "the museum", with the collection of nearby newer additions being proclaimed as the Center now. It's fitting, because the museum is now flanked by the educational center operated in cooperation with schools on one side, and the new center featuring an IMAX theater and cavernous exhibition spaces with glass walls on the other. The museum is also half-gutted by "Space Camp," a guided-only attraction for groups. The camp and school center were closed when we visited (it being Saturday) but looked to have been set up for large numbers of people the way the museum never was.

I remembered exactly one living exhibit from my last visit. Miss Baker, a monkey used in our space program in 1959 and retired to Huntsville, was long gone, having died in 1984. She's buried on the grounds. However, near where her enclosure once stood,

was a real German WWII V-2 rocket, along with a full display and the story of the whole story about how we spirited away Nazis at the end of the war, and hid them out in places like Huntsville to get our space program going. I guess enough time has passed since WWII to just finally tell the whole story...I was just proud to see that the museum managed to get a real V2, as I'd never seen one in person.

Outdoors, the collection of antique examples of rocketry and missiles were still all there, and are beginning to show their age. Even the couple of self-propelled Persian Gulf war era missile arrays on site were starting to look like, well, look like they are 20-plus years old. The old Nazi "buzz-bomb" was still there, off to the side but still standing for those who sought it out.

The kids were tired and ready to split by then, so we didn't ask about a side trip that used to be part of the space center show: a ride around the historic parts of Redstone Arsenal. I remember bring shown and told about the massive water tanks used to simulate weightlessness for astronauts-in-training, tests and working prototype solar arrays, and the like. Being ages six and three, Griffin and Carlie probably would not have gotten much out of that, anyway.
p.s. the two rides outside, space shot and the centrifugal G-force thingy, were both running but the kids were too short for either. The G-force exit gate did have at least one pool of vomitus nearby....just another thing I remembered that hadn't seemed to change.