Road Trip: Huntsville, Alabama

“I’d really like to see a large concentration of antebellum homes, the oldest continuously operating hardware store in the state and some spaceships, but without ever leaving town,” said no one ever. BUT, if someone DID actually utter that phrase, then said person would be quite pleased to discover Huntsville, Alabama.

Huntsville, a.k.a. Rocket City USA, was a pre-Civil War center for railroad and river-based trade and commerce, but evolved into a critical support line for the U.S. Army, and then a hub for the space race with the establishment of NASA and the Marshall Space Flight Center.

The second-largest city in the state after Birmingham, Huntsville is home to the world’s largest space museum and Alabama’s top paid tourist attraction, the US Space & Rocket Center. Though centered around the space program, Huntsville offers attractions covering interests from arts and entertainment, history and nature, as well as STEM. But for the sake of simplicity – and because we love a good theme – we’re going on a trip in our favorite rocket ship.

There are about as many things to do at the US Space & Rocket Center as there are stars in the sky, but let’s hit the highlights. The Davidson Center for Space Exploration offers a chance to learn about the development of the space shuttle program, view military hardware, tour a model of NASA’s Payload Operations Integration Center and two International Space Station modules as a part of the “ISS: Science on Orbit” exhibit. The Center also offers 15 minute demonstrations that introduce scientific principles and astronomical facts, in addition to one of the largest collections of rockets and space memorabilia on display anywhere in the world.

Museum exhibits take visitors on the full journey of the beginnings of America’s space program to space-based science and discovery missions of today, to the future of space exploration. Impressively, Davidson houses a magnificent, full-scale, fully restored Saturn V rocket, one of only three in the world. For a truly out-of-this-world experience, guests can request a tour from an Emeritus Docent: a NASA Marshall Space Flight retiree, sharing their first-hand passion and knowledge.

Visitors who prefer to do, rather than view, can test the Human Exploration Rover Challenge course, experience a motion-based flight simulation on board HyperShip and even have an underwater astronaut training scuba experience! At Rocket Park, guests can experience 3Gs of centrifugal force aboard G-Force Accelerator and experience 3Gs of liftoff and simulated microgravity on Moon Shot. If you feel the need, the need for more speed, you can sign up for a return trip to Huntsville and a week at the center’s renowned Space Camp, where more than 750,000 students (and adults) have conducted simulated missions.

A Saturn 1B rocket sits on display at a rest stop outside of Huntsville Alabama

Five Space Camp graduates have gone on to become astronauts –
all women!

Chances are whatever you’re interested in, Huntsville has a tour for it! There are multiple digital history tours that can be experienced on foot or from a car, or guided history tours in-person, ghost walks of three historic areas and a civil rights driving tour focusing on the city’s rich cultural heritage.

Take a break from the city and get back to nature at the Monte Sano State Park cabins. The mountain park offers original 1930s Civilian Conservation Corp stone cabins with working fireplaces, screened porches and a breathtaking view of the surrounding valleys.

Enough about rocket science, what about the science of brewing? Start and end your day (we won’t tell you which goes with which) with Downtown Huntsville’s Craft Beer Trail (13 locations strong) and a Craft Coffee Trail (nine locations).

High-tech Huntsville seems
100 years away from Harris Brothers Hardware, the oldest continuously operating hardware store in the state. More than a hardware store, Harris Brothers’ stocks arts and crafts items, vintage toys and candies, marbles by the scoop and items relating to Huntsville and Madison County’s history – the perfect place to find a souvenir.