Huntsville, Alabama: Space and Rocket Center is nerd heaven

Houston gets all the glory when it comes to space exploration. It was from the city's Johnson Space Center that scientists co-ordinated the Apollo 11 mission in July 1969 that famously put Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on the moon.

But who did all the hard work developing the technology that got the American astronauts up there to make history? For that story, you need to visit Huntsville, Alabama.

At the end of World War II, the US government secretly recruited more than 1600 of Germany's best scientists to work in the military. One of the most influential was Wernher von Braun, a brilliant engineer who'd worked on the Nazi's rocket program. After joining the newly-created National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) in 1960, he and his Huntsville-based team went on to create the Saturn V, the game-changing rocket that would eventually put man on the moon.

You can see a reconstruction of Braun's office in the US Space & Rocket Center, a vast museum on the outskirts of Huntsville that shows the – literally – ground-breaking propulsion work that not only sent people into space, but also launched hundreds of satellites and facilitated the Space Shuttle program.

Since 1982, the centre has run a successful Space Camp, where kids from all over the world can learn about space exploration (Australia is the No. 1 international participant). In June last year, Serena Auñón-Chancellor became the fourth Space Camp alumni to make it into space.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing and there will be celebrations all over the country. While most will commemorate the landing on July 19, Huntsville will focus on the launch three days before. Numerous events are planned, including parades, concerts and an attempt to set a new Guinness World Record for the most rockets launched simultaneously.

Even if you don't visit for the anniversary, the centre has enough exhibits and artefacts to keep space nerds entertained for days. Highlights include a live feed from the International Space Station, a Smithsonian lab full of engineering challenges for kids and several fascinating mock-ups depicting life in space (who knew astronauts recycle their own urine and sleep standing up?)

Outside in the Rocket and Shuttle Parks is an impressive assortment of aircraft and rocketry, including the training planes used by Shuttle pilots and a Saturn V replica.

Of course, for most people the highlight is seeing an actual Saturn V, which is displayed, on its side, in a cavernous hall in the neighbouring Davidson Center for Space Exploration.

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To this day, it remains the tallest, heaviest and most powerful rocket  developed. During testing, it shook the foundations of Huntsville houses and registered as an earthquake 150 kilometres away.

Standing beneath this 111-metre behemoth is quietly humbling and it gives you a new respect for the astronauts who risked their lives every time they climbed into the tiny capsule at its zenith.

Since this pinnacle, America's space program has faltered to the point where the US now pays the Russians to launch things. Hopefully, the Space Launch System (SLS) will rectify that. Developed in Huntsville, this revolutionary new rocket will be the most powerful  built – a Saturn V-lookalike capable of sending people to the Moon, Mars and even beyond.

TRIP NOTES

Rob McFarland was a guest of Alabama Tourism, Delta Air Lines and Brand USA.

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FLY

Delta Air Lines flies daily to Birmingham, Alabama, via Los Angeles. See delta.com

VISIT

One Tranquility Base, Huntsville, Alabama. Open daily, 9am to 5pm. Adults $US25, children $US17. See rocketcenter.com

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