The Real Rocket City: Why You Should Thank Alabama for NASA

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Brace yourself: Everything you’ve ever known about space travel is wrong.

Nearly every time there’s a rare astronomical phenomenon (like that September 2015 Super Moon Eclipse), the rocket scientists narrating the events on NASA’s live stream aren’t in Houston or even Cape Canaveral. They’re in Alabama. Huntsville to be exact.

Known as the Rocket City by locals, Huntsville has been a key part of America’s leading space missions since the 1950s. In fact, its space programs are even older than NASA itself. You could even argue that NASA wouldn’t be around now if it weren’t for the scientists who gathered in Huntsville.

The Man, the Myth, the Legend

It’s all because of one man who realized getting to space was only going to be possible with a group of incredibly smart scientists — and some really powerful rockets. Dr. Wernher von Braun (it sounds like the color “brown”) gained global recognition when he created the V-2 rocket for his native Germany in World War II. Shortly after, he set up shop in Huntsville just as the Space Race was beginning. Along with some of the brightest minds of the time, he and the “von Braun Group” designed, refined, and assembled elaborate rockets that would begin as “simple” satellites before launching the first astronauts to the moon.

Redefining the Space Program

Amazed by his success, von Braun said, “My friends there was dancing here in the streets of Huntsville when our first satellite orbited the earth. There was dancing again when the first Americans landed on the moon. I’d like to ask you, don’t hang up your dancing slippers.” They didn’t. Nearly 60 years later, the Marshal Space Flight Center and its team of engineers and scientists have set its sights even farther than the moon. Their ingenuity led to the creation of the Space Launch System, the most powerful rocket in the world in the 70s. Now, that same technology is being applied to take humans to Mars.

Experience it Yourself

Since 1960, the US Marshal Space Flight Center and Redstone Arsenal have employed hundreds of thousands of engineers and scientists. If you find the air up there fascinating, there’s plenty to do and experience in Rocket City to get a taste of their work.

Become an Astronaut for a Day

A Smithsonian affiliate, the US Space and Rocket Center features dozens of rockets, simulators, and a plethora of historical artifacts related to the missions, astronauts, and, of course, the people. To get the full experience, walk underneath the Saturn V Rocket at the Davidson Center before touring Rocket Park. Then, try the museum simulators (the G-Force Accelerator is a big hit!) before heading home with your feet firmly planted on Earth.

Just Like the Movies

When Star Wars: The Force Awakens premiered, the USSRC was one of only 15 theaters to offer it in 70mm IMAX®. To watch a movie on the Spacedome IMAX® is an — excuse the pun — out-of-this-world experience. There are only 20 theaters in the world like it.

Apply for Space Camp

The brainchild of von Braun in the early 80s, Space Camp is designed to help young people learn the basics of robotics and rocket science. The highly competitive camp is open year-round and has taught more than half a million aspiring scientists in the past 60 years.

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