Though its name is officially Huntsville, Ala., to those who care about the U.S. Space program, it has long been "Rocket City."
That's because, since 1948, the major research and development programs for U.S. satellites and rockets have been housed at the Redstone Arsenal Army Base there.
Today, at the center of Huntsville, the launching pad if you will, is the U.S. Space and Rocket Center, home to one of the most important artifacts from the age of space exploration -- the august Saturn V Rocket.
Set inside the Davidson Center for Space Exploration, a newly opened $22 million facility, it shines like new and still impresses mightily. At more than 363 feet high and 33 feet in diameter, weighing in at more than 3,000 tons, it's one of the largest of the official National Historic Landmarks in the United States.
Quick facts about Saturn V:
It's considered the most powerful rocket ever built, its payload far greater than any rocket the Russians built during the same era. Saturn V is the only rocket that ever launched travel to the moon (and therefore is nicknamed the Moon Rocket).
Thirteen Saturn V rockets were launched by NASA between 1967-1973; its maiden voyage was Nov. 9, 1967. The Saturn V on display in Huntsville is the most complete of three remaining rockets; the other two are located in the Johnson Space Center and the Kennedy Space Center.
Boeing, Douglas and IBM were the lead contractors for the creation of the Saturn V.
To share some of the work that had been done at Redstone, the U.S. Space and Rocket Center opened in 1970. Before being moved inside the U.S. Space and Rocket Center in 2005, the Saturn V had become a nesting place for birds, raccoons and opossums.
The U.S. Space and Rocket Center is located at One Tranquility Base, (tel. 800/63SPACE; www.spacecamp.com), in Huntsville, Ala. Huntsville sits just south of the border between Alabama and Tennessee, about two hours directly south of Nashville along highways US-65 and US-565.
Nonstop flights from Chicago, Dallas, Atlanta, Detroit, Washington, D.C., Denver and six other cities arrive at Huntsville International Airport (tel. 256/772-9395; www.hsvairport.org). Hertz, Alamo and other agencies have car rental services available on site.
Costs: The facility has a number of programs available for children, families and adults. At the most basic level, visiting the Davidson Center for Space Exploration costs $20 for adults and $15 for kids, which gains you access to view the Saturn V.
Hours and strategy for visiting: The center is open from 9 a.m. - 5 p.m. every day of the year except Christmas eve and Christmas Day, Thanksgiving and New Year's Eve and Day. It's best to arrive early in the day, to take advantage of all the activities offered here. The museum is as much a minitheme park as it is a series of displays, with simulators that mimic the Apollo rocket's cockpit and a rocket launch.
Discounts on multiday programs are typically announced in April and May after the center has evaluated openings in the summer schedule. This year should be a crowded one for the center as 2008 marks the 50th anniversary of Americans in space, with the launch of Explorer I.
Where to Stay in Huntsville:
Expensive: Huntsville Marriott
Moderate: Lake Guntersville Bed & Breakfast
Budget: Holiday Inn Express