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Rocket City, Alabama: space history and an eye on the future

August 07, 2018

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NASA astronaut Dottie Metcalf (right) talks to space-camp camper Bria Jackson of Atlanta before giving a speech at the US Space & Rocket Center in Huntsville, Alabama.—AP
NASA astronaut Dottie Metcalf (right) talks to space-camp camper Bria Jackson of Atlanta before giving a speech at the US Space & Rocket Center in Huntsville, Alabama.—AP

HUNTSVILLE: The birthplace of Nasa’s rockets lies in the land of cotton, hundreds of miles from Cape Canaveral’s launch pads in Florida. From the first US satellites and astronauts, to the Apollo moon shots, to the space shuttles and now Nasa’s still-in-development Space Launch System, rocket history lies in Huntsville, Alabama.

Huntsville’s nickname, Rocket City, is thanks largely to Wernher von Braun and his team of fellow German-born rocketeers who settled here in the 1950s. The city has long been home to the Army’s Redstone Arsenal and Nasa’s Marshall Space Flight Center. But now it’s attracting new generations of engineers, scientists and techies. Tourists come for the history. Kids and adults come to learn at a Space Camp.

It was von Braun, Marshall’s first director, who wanted to showcase Huntsville’s rocket development and testing. Thus was born the US Space and Rocket Center, an official Nasa tourist spot that houses one of only three remaining Saturn V moon rockets, this one a National Historic Landmark.

Von Braun planted the seed for Space Camp as well. Why band camp, football camp and cheerleading camp, but no science camp, he wondered. He didn’t live long enough to see Space Camp open in 1982, but since then, 800,000 youngsters and grown-up space fans have attended daylong, weekend or week-long sessions with space, robotics and aviation themes.

Its address? One Tranquility Base, Huntsville. As in “Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed”, words spoken by astronaut Neil Armstrong when he set foot on the moon. The 50th anniversary of those first moonsteps is next July. Huntsville plans to shoot up thousands of little rockets in commemoration.

The DNA from America’s original rocket force still permeates Huntsville, according to Deborah Barnhart, the US Space and Rocket Center’s executive director. It’s Alabama’s No 1 paid tourist attraction, with bus tours into the restricted Redstone and Marshall, and wild rocket-style rides like Space Shot and G-Force Accelerator.

“We’re all space geeks and we love it,” Barnhart said.

‘Trying to inspire aviation-oriented people’

But Hunstville isn’t just about history. Ongoing research aims to return astronauts to the moon and on to Mars. “We’re looking to the future, really looking to travel in space, trying to figure out the problems of living and working in space,” Barnhart said.

German-style beer gardens are hosted beneath the Saturn V every Thursday evening, spring to fall. Engineers and their families mobbed a recent one. Beverages included T-Minus, a locally made, tangerine-flavoured beer and Monkeynaut brew.

“It’s probably the most scientific small town in America,” said retired Apollo programme worker Billy Neal, a volunteer docent who shed his white lab coat for that night’s Biergarten.

Miss Baker, the squirrel monkey who preceded Mercury astronauts into space in 1959, is buried at the US Space and Rocket Center. Space Campers sometimes leave bananas at her tombstone.

Nearly 1,000 campers from around the globe swarmed the rocket center during a typical week this summer. They launched small rockets and got the feel of walking in space while dangling from the ceiling in harnesses or scuba diving in a water tank smaller but similar to what astronauts once used for practice. They were strapped into a mock cockpit coming in for a Mars landing and sat behind computers as flight controllers for the Mars mission. They even live in dormitories that look as though they belong on the moon or Mars.

In July, campers got to meet the first Space Camp graduate to actually launch into space, Dottie Metcalf-Lindenburger. She attended a Space Academy for older students the same month that shuttle Discovery delivered the Hubble Space Telescope to orbit in 1990. She went on to fly aboard Discovery in 2010 as a Nasa astronaut-educator.

Her goal is to help campers “see that what they were doing this week isn’t so very different than what we did in the programme and how it prepares you for real space ... and then also to hopefully impart some things like all of us are going to go through rough times, but there are ways to stay plugged in”.

“This is a thinly veiled workforce development programme,” said Barnhart of the US Space and Rocket Center. “We’re trying to inspire people in STEM. We’re trying to inspire aviation-oriented people” as well as robotics and cyber-security specialists. She added: “These young people, here, they’re going,” into outer space some day.

Published in Dawn, August 7th, 2018