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Moon Landings week: Visit NASA in Texas, Florida & Alabama

By: Maxine Sheppard

July 19, 2019

Saturn V rocket on display in the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral © Shutterstock

Saturn V rocket on display in the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral © Shutterstock

"This nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the Earth."

Those were the words of President John F. Kennedy in a landmark speech to Congress in 1961, and as we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the momentous 1969 moon landings, there’s never been a better time to learn about the history of the space race and its impact upon humanity.

Across the USA, a total of 14 NASA locations provide tours or offer visitor centers that are open to the public, so to mark a half century since this giant lunar leap forward we bring you the lowdown on the three most popular sites.

Kennedy Space Center, Florida

Forty-five minutes east of Orlando, the Kennedy Space Center is a must-visit attraction for space aficionados, and home to numerous interactive experiences. Located on a barrier island along the Atlantic Ocean coast, the centre was NASA’s launch HQ from the start of the space race in the 1960s to the last shuttle launch in 2012 (and thanks to certain high-tech entrepreneurs, you can once again view live rocket launches from Cape Canaveral).

For many enthusiasts, the biggest thrill is the bus tour that takes you past the gargantuan Vehicle Assembly Building and Launch Complex 39 as they prepare for future missions. Other special interest tours are available that grant access into exclusive areas like the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. You’ll also stop at the Apollo/Saturn V Center where the Apollo programme is really brought to life – it’s home to one of the three remaining Saturn V rockets, the largest rockets ever constructed. Major exhibitions here include Heroes & Legends, home to the U.S Astronauts Hall of Fame and the Firing Room where you can relive the countdown to launch of Apollo 8 on the actual consoles used during the Apollo launches.

The other major draw at the Kennedy Space Center is Space Shuttle Atlantis, displayed as only astronauts have seen her in flight, rotated 43.21 degrees with her remote-controlled mechanical arm extended as if just undocked from the International Space Station. Only an elite handful of veteran astronauts took part in one of her 33 missions, but you can get pretty close to knowing how they felt on the center’s most hair-raising attraction, the Shuttle Launch Experience. Designed by a combined team of theme park engineers, astronauts and NASA employees, the spectacular simulator offers an experience that’s as close as you can get to replicating the reality of a space shuttle launch within the limits of Earth’s gravity. The journey ends with a dazzling view of our planet from outer space.

Kennedy Space Center, Space Commerce Way, Merritt Island, Florida 32953, open every day of the year.

Rocket Garden surrounded by Palm Trees at the Kennedy Space Center, Cape Canaveral, Florida © Shutterstock

Space Center Houston

As the official visitor center of NASA Johnson Space Center, the Space Center Houston does an amazing job of relaying America’s space flight programme, and is by far the city’s most popular attraction.

The Smithsonian-affiliate museum is one of the only places in the world where you can watch astronauts train for a mission and take a behind-the-scenes tour of NASA. The complex is also home to Independence Plaza, the United States’ only exhibit with a lifesize, high-tech replica shuttle mounted on top of one of the two original Boeing 747 shuttle carrier aircrafts used to ferry space shuttles from their landing sites back to the shuttle landing facility in Florida. Both the aircraft and the shuttle are accessible to visitors.

Other exhibits include the International Space Station Gallery, which includes interactive live shows demonstrating what day-to-day life is like on the ISS, as well as the Starship and Astronaut galleries – home to moon rocks, spacesuits and other Apollo-era artefacts. To commemorate the moon landings, there’s also a 50th anniversary Apollo Art retrospective which runs until November. Best of all is the 90-minute tram tour that takes you to the NASA Johnson Space Center facility itself. You can tour the astronaut training facilities and see Mission Control, from where NASA led the Gemini and Apollo missions, including the historic first moon landing as well as earlier space shuttle missions.

Space Center Houston, 1601 NASA Parkway, Houston, Texas 77058, open 9am – 8pm daily except Christmas Day.

Independence Plaza, Houston © xiquinhosilva : Flickr Creative Commons CC by 2.0

U.S. Space & Rocket Center, Huntsville

Less well known internationally than either Houston or Cape Canaveral, the U.S. Space & Rocket Center in Huntsville, Alabama, is the official NASA visitor centre for the Marshall Space Flight Center – the first such NASA visitor centre to open, in fact, way back in 1970. America’s space programme actually started here in 1958, when Dr Wernher von Braun, a German rocket scientist, became the first director of the space flight center and the chief architect of the Saturn V launch vehicle that propelled the Apollo spacecraft. Now a designated National Historic Landmark, this Saturn V moon rocket is on display here, as is the world’s only full-size Space Transportation System display which includes an external tank, a set of twin solid rocket boosters and the space shuttle orbiter, Pathfinder; a meticulously restored test article made of steel and wood.

As well as these exhibits, the rocket center also offers daily tours of Redstone Arsenal, the U.S Army Material Command and Marshall Space Flight Center headquarters, which served as the primary site for the design of space launch vehicles into the 1960s. Highlights include the Payload Operations Integration Center, which helps astronauts conduct hundreds of science experiments on the International Space Station every year.

Best of all for wannabe astronauts are the NASA-approved Space Camp, Aviation Challenge Camp and Robotics Camp residential education programmes for students ages 7-18. The popular week-long Space Camp offers a unique insight into life onboard the International Space Station, and you’ll also train like an astronaut on the 1/6th gravity chair and the multi-axis trainer, and even construct and launch your own model rocket. Programmes for adults are also available, so grown-up space nerds needn’t miss out on all the fun.

U.S Space and Rocket Center, 1 Tranquility Base, Huntsville, Alabama 35805, open daily from 9am – 5pm except New Year’s Day, Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.

The U.S Space and Rocket Center, Huntsville, Alabama © Shutterstock

Other NASA sites

The Houston, Huntsville and Cape Canaveral sites may be the best known, but 11 other NASA visitor centres are dotted across the United States:

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Maxine Sheppard

Maxine is the co-editor of the Virgin Atlantic blog. Travel and music are her joint first loves, and despite having written for Virgin for more years than she cares to remember she still loves nothing more than jumping on a plane in search of new sights and new sounds.

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