US Space & Rocket Center

Thursday, 12th February 2009 by

NASA’s first visitor centre, and one of the world’s largest public collections of space bits is the U.S. Space and Rocket Center near Huntsville, AL.

The main building houses hundreds of space-related artefacts, including bits of real moon rock and the remains of a space monkey, but luckily the best sights are too large to squeeze inside the building and have to be displayed outside1.

Welcoming you to the centre is an A-12 Blackbird which, as I’m sure you know, isn’t a spacecraft, it’s a plane. But, it’s a very cool plane, so we’ll let them off2.

Also noticeable from the entrance is the massive Saturn V, the rocket design that launched NASA’s Apollo and Skylab missions.

However, like the Blackbird, this isn’t a spacecraft; it’s just a full-size mock-up produced especially for the park.

Hoping to actually see some real space things, we come to another Saturn V, this time lying down.

Now this is (sort of) the real deal. Although all three stages come from separate test models not destined for flight, it does have all the inner workings and has thus been awarded the prestigious status of a US national monument.

Alongside Saturn V stands a smaller rocket, Saturn I, which was NASA’s first dedicated “space launcher”.

Again, this particular rocket was never launched, and like the Saturn V is actually a mish-mash of test models. Someone who clearly knows too much about space rockets complains that the booster is even painted incorrectly: “the roll pattern on the fins is also off, as the black-white boundary should be horizontal to the ground an[d] bisecting the root edge of the fins.” Of course we all noticed that glaring error.

Around the other side of the building we find the only “full stack” space shuttle display in the US.

The empty steel model, known as “Pathfinder”, was constructed as an simple weight for testing cranes and other support equipment. It was given the NASA livery in Japan, where it spent some time at the “Great Space Shuttle Exposition” of 1984.

It then returned to America to where we see it now, sitting atop two prototype booster casings which never went into production.

So that was the U.S. Space and Rocket Center, where we can see precisely zero rockets that have ever actually been into space!

  1. Actually, the Saturn V we see here has since been moved indoors, so they must have had a lot of free space in there. 

  2. NASA did fly the related YF-12s in the 1970s, and this A-12 has its tailfin painted in a similar style – presumably they thought no-one would notice the difference?