When Dr. Wernher von Braun arrived in 1950 in the tiny Alabama town which called itself the "Watercress Capital of the World," Huntsville boasted a population of 15,000. Today, it is forged forever in history as the place where America's space program was born; where the rockets were developed that put the first U.S. satellite into orbit and sent men to the moon; where the power for today's space shuttle was developed; where the modules for the International Space Station were designed and built; and where the next generation of spacecraft, the Ares I and Ares V, are currently being designed.
It should come as no surprise that Huntsville is also home to one of Earth's largest space museums and attractions: The U.S. Space & Rocket Center®.
During the final months that von Braun and his team of scientists were refining the giant rocket that sent Apollo astronauts to the moon, he was also preparing to launch another important project: a permanent exhibit to showcase the hardware of the space program.
Today, the U.S. Space & Rocket Center houses thousands of artifacts, including the charred Apollo 16 Command Module, a rock brought back from the moon, the original Saturn V lunar rocket vehicle and a full-sized space shuttle mock-up.
It is also the home of SPACE CAMP®, the world's pre-eminent youth science activities program. More than a half-million young people and adults from all 50 states and dozens of foreign countries have participated in the various SPACE CAMP astronaut training activities since the program began in 1982. Space Camp is designed to encourage young people to pursue careers in science, math, engineering, robotics, and aerospace industries by giving them a firsthand introduction to the exciting work being done in the space program.
AVIATION CHALLENGE®, added in 1990, is geared toward young people interested in military and commercial aviation with programs for all age levels based on "Top Gun" flight training. It is regarded as the nation's leading military aviation- based educational camp program.
The birth of the U.S. Space & Rocket Center
Von Braun was director of NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center (MSFC) in Huntsville when he approached the Alabama Legislature with the idea of creating a museum jointly with the U.S. Army Missile Command and NASA. After Alabama lawmakers and its citizens voted in 1968 to finance construction, the U.S. Army donated land on its Redstone Arsenal, which is also the site of the sprawling NASA center.
Von Braun called the Space & Rocket Center, "the finest of its kind in the world" and continued to be a firm supporter even after leaving Huntsville for a high-level NASA position in Washington. Throughout his career, he was a leading exponent of space exploration and is credited with having popularized the concept with magazine articles as early as 1952.
His vast collection of papers, from grade school report cards to private notes and correspondence, is housed in the museum and has been catalogued for use by researchers and scholars.
Huntsville, meanwhile, added tribute to the German- born space pioneer by naming its civic center in his honor.
Since opening its doors in 1970, almost 16 million people have toured the U.S. Space & Rocket Center. The vast majority of those visitors have been from out of state or from foreign nations. Many of the more than 400,000 people who visit annually are school students on field trips to their future. The Space Center houses hundreds of pieces of rocket and space hardware valued in the tens of millions of dollars. Dozens of active exhibits involve visitor participation, prompting one official to note: "Here, everyone can be an astronaut for the day."
The museum, which achieved Smithsonian Institution Affiliate status in 2002, serves as a major repository for the Smithsonian Institution's National Air and Space Museum in Washington, having some 300 major artifacts on loan.
The space museum is also the visitor's information center for NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center.