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Huntsville, Alabama: America’s Birthplace of Space

Saturn V rocket, Huntsville, Alabama
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Saturn V rocket, Huntsville, Alabama

If you are driving past the cotton fields of Northern Alabama’s fertile Tennessee Valley and a 363’ high Saturn V rocket emerges in the skyline you are approaching America’s Birthplace of Space, Huntsville, also known as Rocket City USA. Its U.S. Space and Rocket Center draws more visitors than anything else in the state.

This high-tech city also has a glorious past. Huntsville was incorporated as a city in 1811, named for its first settler, John Hunt. It was at the 1819 Constitutional Convention, held here, that Alabama became our 22nd state. The city prospered as a center of the cotton and railroad industries.

It was headquarters for the Memphis and Charleston Railroad, completed in 1857, the only railroad linking the Atlantic Ocean with Mississippi River and the only east-west railroad in the Confederacy. Huntsville was occupied by Union forces in the War of Northern Aggression (Civil War to Yankees), but spared its ravages, and its historic districts include the largest concentration of antebellum homes in the state.

This city of genteel Southern graciousness and center for aerospace and missile defense was named #1 City in the U.S. in 2009 by Kiplinger’s Personal Finance Magazine.

The dream of space travel came to life here at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center, on the U.S. Army’s Redstone Arsenal, when in 1961 President Kennedy announced the intention to land a man on the moon by the end of the decade and scientists and engineers led by Dr. Wernher Von Braun set out to design the rockets. The ground shook like an earthquake in the 1960s when the engines were in their testing phases.

The rocket will free man from his remaining chains, the chains of gravity which still tie him to this planet. It will open to him the gates of heaven.
Wernher von Braun

Visitors are welcomed at the adjacent U.S. Space & Rocket Center. With the world’s best collection of artifacts from the U.S. space program, interactive exhibits, and space travel simulators, it’s little wonder this is the top tourist attraction in Alabama. It is also home to world-renowned Space Camp.

Space Shuttle,NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center, Huntsville, Alabama
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Space Shuttle,NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center, Huntsville, Alabama

This is the only place in world where you can stand under a “full stack”—the Space Shuttle Orbiter, external tank, and two rocket boosters. You can also walk beneath the full length of a Saturn V rocket suspended from the ceiling of the massive Davidson Space Center for Space Exploration, which opened last February, 50 years to the hour after the launch of America’s first satellite. The top collections from the space race, Apollo missions, Space Shuttle programs, Space Station and next Constellation project are there for all to see and enjoy.

Apollo 16 lunar lander, Davidson Space Center, Huntsville, Alabama
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Apollo 16 lunar lander, Davidson Space Center, Huntsville, Alabama

You can blast 140’ in the air with 4 Gs of force in a simulated liftoff, experience three times the force of gravity as you spin in a G-force accelerator, “train” in an Apollo cockpit, and maneuver through part of the tallest volcano in the solar system on the Martian terrain of Mission to Mars. Ride a Mars buggy in MARS motion-based simulator, Spacewalk, or learn about living and working in space.

For an out-of-this-world experience, nothing tops the U.S. Space Camp and Aviation Challenge. Space Camp’s Mission is to use the excitement of the U.S. Space Program to inspire interest in study of math, science, and technology. High-tech programs that include astronaut training and simulated Space Shuttle and International Space Station activities are offered for students from fourth grade through high school. There are also programs for adults, educators, corporate groups and parent/child pairs. Over half a million students have participated since Space Camp began in 1982.

Producer/director Ron Howard brought many of cast and crew here before shooting Apollo 13, including Tom Hanks, who later enrolled his son in Space Camp. Sons and daughters of astronauts often enroll. Arnold Schwarzenegger, Denzel Washington, Pierce Brosnan, Barbara Mandrell, Evander Holyfield, Don Johnson, and Melanie Griffith are among the stars who have sent their children to Space Camp. Kris Kristofferson and Charlize Theron attended Parent/Child Space Camp with their children.

Moore-Rhett House, circa 1826, Huntsville, Alabama
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Moore-Rhett House, circa 1826, Huntsville, Alabama

Huntsville’s historic district includes Old Town’s fashionable homes of the early merchants, bankers, and attorneys. Many were seized by Union soldiers in the Civil War. One of largest collection of antebellum homes in the South—over 65 structures—is found in Twickenham, the district known by the early name of the town. The Five Points neighborhood has 20th c. middle class homes–Victorians, 1920s and 1930s bungalows, Cape Cods, and 1950s and 1960s ranches.

Harrison Brothers Hardware volunteer Sam Worsham, Huntsville, Alabama
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Harrison Brothers Hardware volunteer Sam Worsham, Huntsville, Alabama

Volunteer clerks from the Historic Huntsville Foundation run the 19th century downtown landmark Harrison Brothers Hardware Store. This popular tourist attraction is Alabama’s oldest operating hardware store. With a hand-cranked cash register and a pot bellied stove, it’s the place to buy marbles by the scoop, soaps and salves, old-fashioned candies, whirly-gigs, and the ever-popular antique silverware, bundled in groups of 12. Across the street is the Schiffman Building, ca. 1845, where Tallulah Bankhead was born on second floor.

desserts at Cotton Row, Huntsville, Alabama
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desserts at Cotton Row, Huntsville, Alabama

Ready for a break? For a top-notch dining experience, stop at Cotton Row, in a former merchant’s house on the corner.

Burritt Smith Williams House, Huntsville, Alabama
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Burritt Smith Williams House, Huntsville, Alabama

Homeopathic physician Dr. William Henry Burritt, was mindful of the laws of nature when designing his home, one of first examples of green building in the nation. You can tour his 167 acre retirement estate, now known as Burritt on the Mountain, pat the friendly farm animals, and explore the authentic 19th century Alabama farmsteads and rural structures on the grounds.

saddlebag house, Huntsville, Alabama
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saddlebag house, Huntsville, Alabama

Whether morning or afternoon, you’ll find a shady spot in the in the Saddlebag house, built with porches on both sides. Capture the cooling breeze in the dogtrot house’s open area, known as a dogtrot, between the two living areas.

There are three unique history venues in Huntsville’s EarlyWorks Museum Complex — Constitution Village, Huntsville Depot, and the Children’s Museum. It’s Alabama history made fun for all ages.

Alabama Constitution Village village spinster, Huntsville, Alabama
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Alabama Constitution Village village spinster, Huntsville, Alabama

At Alabama Constitution Village, interpreters in period clothing take you back to what Huntsville was like in 1819. Catch the aroma of freshly baked bread and discover how thrifty villagers reduced the high cost of mail. See the many tasks that were part of daily life, learn how to use a courting candle, and master the art of the gee-haw whimmy diddle. It’s a refreshing step back in time.

You can climb aboard locomotives, start the engine of Huntsville’s first ladder truck, ride a trolley around the track, and listen as robotic ticket vendor Andy Barker tells about the old days at the Huntsville Depot, one of America’s oldest remaining railroad structures. See the graffiti left behind by Civil War soldiers when the depot was occupied as a Union camp and prison for Confederate soldiers. It was the first public building in Huntsville with inside plumbing and rest rooms, then known as “retiring rooms”, and was used for passenger trains until 1968.

Gin some cotton, listen to a talking clock, strolls through mines, and walk the gangplank of a 46’ keelboat at The Children’s Museum, the South’s largest hands-on history Museum. Hear folktales from the Talking Tree, play giant size instruments, and try on 19th century-style costumes. It’s a fun way to learn for kids of all ages.

Children also enjoy the presentations, pulleys, mirrors, and other devices at the Sci-Quest Hands-On Science Center. The most popular exhibit appears to be the burping man.

Botanical Gardens, Huntsville, Alabama
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Botanical Gardens, Huntsville, Alabama

What better way to spend the day than a visit to Huntsville’s 130 acre Botanical Garden. It’s home to America’s largest seasonal butterfly house and special exhibits like the fall Scarecrow Trail and December’s Galaxy of Light.

Museum of Art, Huntsville, Alabama
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Museum of Art, Huntsville, Alabama

The collection continues to grow at the Huntsville Museum of Art. Of particular interest is the menagerie of finely detailed silver animals by Italian luxury jeweler Buccellatti and the Sellars Collection, which adds historical depth to its collection with 406 works of art by America women. The Sellars collection is the largest single collection of its kind, created mid-19th century through mid-20th century, when women’s art received little recognition. The museum overlooks Big Spring International Park and the Von Braun Center, North Alabama’s impressive multi-purpose entertainment, convention, and sports complex, popular arena, concert hall, playhouse, and banquet hall.

Grab a cone of gelato. It’s a taste of Italy as a gondola glides through the 10 acre lake with a view of the Saturn rocket at the fashionable Bridge Street Town Center. In a former cotton field 6 miles from downtown, 2 miles from Space and Rocket Center, there’s something for all—street performers, children’s train, benches with wifi hotspots, shopping, and dining. The first Westin Hotel in the state offers fine dining and a fabulous spa. Monaco Pictures has opened an upscale movie theater/ lounge/restaurant for a one-of-a kind movie experience. The upscale balcony level, with lounge and Enomatic wine tasting room is reserved for guests over 21.

Just outside Huntsville, get an authentic taste of the South and eat with the locals at the unpretentious Greenbrier Restaurant. It is set amidst cotton fields on Old Highway 20, once the mail road between Decatur and Huntsville. Country musicians used to sing from the top of the building to attract business. Sip sweet tea as you enjoy a fried feast of catfish, oysters, crab cakes, and hush puppies, along with barbeque, slaw, and corn dogs. Still hungry? Top it off with ice cream– just 25 cents with a meal.

Huntsville—It’s history with a Southern accent, state-of-the art high tech fun, gracious Southern hospitality, down-to-earth experiences, and a reach for the stars. Ready to launch your adventure?

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