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    What’s cooler than browsing through priceless NASA stuff? Doing it with a real astronaut at the U.S. Space & Rocket Center in Huntsville, AL.

    Placed near the still-active Marshall Space Flight Center, the U.S. Space & Rocket Center is the brainchild of Dr. Wernher von Braun, the legendary scientist behind the rockets used to put Americans in space and on the moon.

    With so much history being made with the Apollo program, von Braun and his team knew there should be a place to showcase the hardware that took us into space.

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    Today, it’s truly the showcase von Braun envisioned and may just be the #1 must-see attraction in the entire state of Alabama.

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    The first thing you’ll notice as you park is the massive space shuttle perched with its solid rocket boosters and external fuel tank still attached (the only such full-stack shuttle exhibit in the world).

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    The “Pathfinder”, like most of the hardware featured at the USSRC, was actually used for testing. (In this case, for helping mock up equipment used in actual shuttle flights.) These days, it serves as a giant reminder of just how remarkable the shuttle program was.

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    From the shuttle display, it’s a ginger stroll through the rocket garden, something you don’t get to do everyday. From the smaller Army Redstones to larger rockets from Mercury & Gemini missions, it’s one heck of a stroll through a “garden.”

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    Inside the center, there are dozens of permanent and rotating exhibits celebrating both the past and future of rocket & missile development and space exploration.

    The best part? It’s almost all hands-on… We tried to land a space shuttle in a simulator. (We crashed) We watched kids fly in an attack helicopter simulator. We peeked in on the Space Camp kids learning the ins-and-outs of NASA.

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    It was all great, but the best part of the experience was waiting for us in the Saturn V Hall at the Davidson Center for Space Exploration.

    Inside the hall, is well, a giant Saturn V rocket, one of only 3 remaining in the world. I’d try to tell you how huge it is, but it would be in vain.

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    It’s massive, ok?

    Around it, you’ll find all sorts of relics from the Mercury, Gemini, Apollo, and Shuttle programs including engines, capsules, and even an Airstream used to quarantine Apollo astronauts.

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    Speaking of astronauts… We met one. Let us introduce you to one of the most all-around incredible humans on the planet.

    This is US Army Brig. General Bob Stewart (ret.).

    He’s quite impressive.

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    For starters, Bob served in the Army during Vietnam. Then he was a test pilot. Then he became the first Army man or woman in space aboard STS-41B Challenger, even joining McCandless in testing the new Manned Maneuvering Units (MMUs, aka the “Buck Rogers Backpack”).

    Yes, that’s right… Bob Stewart zoomed around space completely untethered from the shuttle.

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    Then, after another trip on the shuttle, Bob returned to the Army for a promotion to Brigadier General before eventually retiring. Now, he spends his Wednesday afternoons hanging around the Space & Rocket Center, answering questions for people like me. (For more on his incredible list of accolades, visit his NASA bio page.)

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    Sure, the US Space & Rocket Center is impressive… Giant rockets, hands-on experiences, and tons of cool spaceflight history, but it was a chance to meet with a real astronaut that really sent our experience over the top.

    Be sure to look for anyone wearing a white lab coat on your next trip… They’re all either retired rocket scientists or, even, astronauts.

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    A short blog post doesn’t really do a place this great justice. If you’re going through Florida, you have to make a stop at Kennedy Space Center, but… if you’re going through Alabama, you absolutely must make a stop at the U.S. Space & Rocket Center.

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    U.S. Space & Rocket Center

    One Tranquility Base

    Huntsville, AL 35805

    (256) 837-3400 or 1-800-637-7223

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    With southern charm and plenty of breweries because, “rocket scientists love craft beer,” maybe just make a weekend of a trip through Huntsville… The rocket center even has its own campground. Be sure to visit Huntsville.org for more trip ideas in and around Huntsville.

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