100 Years of Von Braun

The US Space and Rocket Center has a travelling exhibit on Dr. Wernher von Braun open until May. I went with my father, hoping that this exhibit would be more museum-ish than my last visit
I started out with paying my respects to Miss Baker, the squirrel monkey who traveled to space. She’s buried near the entrance to the Space Center. I remember when I was a kid, there were always bananas at her grave. There weren’t any there this time, though. I suppose it is getting too hot and buggy here in Huntsville. 
Inside the Space Center kids ran around. It was the last day of Space Camp, and some kids were dropping some serious cash in the gift shop on t-shirts and little stuffed monkeys in space suits.  
I was a little bit worried about the exhibit when we walked in and this is the first thing we saw:
a “Rocketpedia” entry on von Braun. Coupled with the bicycle “believed” to have been used by von Braun’s younger brother as he pedaled in search of Americans to surrender to at the end of World War II, I was worried the whole exhibit would be full of non-items. 
There was a cool documentary video playing in segments throughout the exhibit, so I was sure I’d know a lot more about von Braun by the time I reached the last display case. But I was worried that the inspiration level would be on par with bupkis. 
But around the corner the cool factor started climbing. Check out this group of badasses.
Wernher B. is the second from the right.
This is what gets me excited. Old ephemera. You can feel the past. 
WvB’s calender for  July, 1969
Von Braun’s calendar from 1969 was one of my favorite pieces on display. He drew through each day with a red pencil and a ruler after it was finished. Each line matched up precisely. 
Next was von Braun’s desk. 
Von Braun’s desk at the USSRC
There’s his Hugo award in the foreground. If you look just behind it, you can see his daily to do list. He would write everything he had to do for the day on a sheet in his notebook. As he completed the tasks, he would fill in the bar that ran through the center (those are the red bars in the center of the pages). 
Von Braun also had a pretty awesome Moon globe on his desk. 
There were lots of photographs of von Braun – looking dashing, cutting ribbons, trying out spacesuits in submersion tanks, and walking on the Moon. 
There was also a section that had “the inspiration of the rocket scientist as a young man” as its theme, with lots of amazing retro art. 
And one of his journals, open to a sketch he made when he was 15 years old, of a manned rocketship.
At the end of the exhibit, there were three giant panels with a quote from von Braun:

My friends there was dancing here in the streets of Huntsville when our first satellite orbited the Earth. There was dancing again when the first Americans landed on the Moon. I’d like to ask you, don’t hang up your dancing slippers. 

I was rather sad when I read these words. It was only a few months ago that I attended a celebration at the Space & Rocket Center for 30 years of the space shuttle – and its end. 

Overall, I enjoyed and learned a lot from this exhibit. I hope the US Space & Rocket Center has more exhibits like this in the future, and less traveling shows like CSI and such. What would I like to see an in-depth presentation on next?

Space Lab!


A Visit from Orion

Earlier this month, a test module of the Orion Pathfinder visited the Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville.

Orion Capsule on display in Huntsville

The Space Center hosted a lecture as part of their Pass the Torch series. Todd May, NASA’s Space Launch System Program Manager, and Mark Kirasich, NASA’s Orion Deputy Project Manager gave a presentation on the Orion project.

What was most exciting about their presentations was the focus on Mars. The Orion program’s aim is to get humans on Mars, and further out into our solar system. 
The entire right half of the auditorium was filled with schoolchildren from Georgia. I’m really glad they were there, because after the lecture there was a Q&A session, and they were the only ones who came prepared with questions. 
And their questions were really great. 
The presenters had made a big deal of telling the children that they were the future of the space program. And that they’d be the ones exploring Mars and other worlds someday. 
When it came time for the Q&A, one boy asked his question with a tone of exasperation beneath his politeness: “So, you keep saying we’re the future, and we’re going to get to go to space when we’re older. But do you ever think there’ll be a time when kids can go to space? Like, at the age we’re at right now?”
He’s itching to go to space. He wants to go now
And even though I was sitting on the left side of the room, with people my age and mostly older, there were rumbles of support for the kid’s question. We want to go too. 
Outside the US Space & Rocket Center in Huntsville, AL
Another great question asked by one of the schoolkids:
“So why did we ever switch to the shuttle when we knew that the Apollo design worked?”
The presenters said that the shuttle design helped carry payload back and forth to the International Space Station. 
After the lecture and Q&A ended, we wandered out into the Davidson Center. At the end of the long hallway that holds the Saturn V rocket, there’s a glass display case with this inside:
An Apollo capsule on loan from the Smithsonian
I grew up in the 80’s, so the shuttle missions are my milestones, just like the Apollo missions were for my father. I watched the Challenger live on TV in my elementary classroom. And I remember sitting in the break room at work watching the last US shuttle launch on the television and feeling a great sadness at never going to one of the launches down in Florida. 
But maybe the capsule design is better for capturing the imagination of the world. 
With the shuttle we ferried supplies. But with Orion, the focus is exploration, heading further and further out into the cosmos. And that sense of exploration is what makes people excited about the space program. It’s what fuels great stories and films that inspire children to study the sciences. Stories of the USS Enterprise would not have been as interesting if they’d spent all of their time between Earth and the ISS. 
Before the Orion visited Huntsville, I had no idea what was going on right now in the space program. With the shuttles decommissioned, I thought the whole program was in decline, and that we’d be forever hitching rides. 
But the space program is still alive, and I’m ready to start exploring. Even if it’s only in my stories. 
Hatch to the Apollo capsule

Click Your Heels, Come Home

After visiting the Ham Radio Festival two weeks ago, my father and I attended the 30 Year Celebration Festival at the US Space and Rocket Center. 
I’ve been going to the Space and Rocket Center since I was a kid. I can remember racing my small plastic space shuttle on the asphalt outside the Space Center, grinding the little plastic wheels on the sidewalk to make the ignition sparks light up.
Living away from my hometown for years, and coming back without having really planned to, has changed my perspective on the city.   
The Space Center was one of the many things I took for granted about living in Huntsville.
The Celebration at the Space Center was huge. There were tons of people everywhere. We had to park in a grassy field and ride a school bus to the Space Center, because the usual parking lot was completely full. 
We picked up free Mission Badge stickers and listened to a band play songs from The Sound of Music as we wandered beneath the Saturn V rocket. Then we lined up and waited for the big deal – an astronaut autograph signing. 
We’d been out and about since 9am, and we were getting a bit tired. But there was a whole separate building of the Space Center we hadn’t been in – a building with a traveling Dinosaur exhibit! So Dad settled into the theatre to watch a short film about the last space shuttle mission, and I walked over to the museum building in search of dinosaur awesomeness.
But the dinosaur exhibit was mainly an excuse for small-child friendly activities, like digging in a sand box to excavate fake dinosaur bones. I spent a minute staring at a cast of the T-Rex Sue, the mainstay of the exhibit, and then wandered down a hallway, hoping for some more grown up dinosaur fun. 
Instead I walked into a hallway that somehow survived the museum’s recent overhaul. The Space and Rocket Center used to be packed full of archival goodness. Amazing objects from the space program. Things that filled you with awe and excitement and the desire to know more.
Doesn’t it just make you want to read up on the history of the space program? Or at least watch Apollo 13?
But I guess models of Space Lab and displays of spacesuits don’t bring in as much money as traveling exhibits. So all of these archival bits were whisked away, and the empty space filled with activities for the very, very young.
Except for one, small hallway, one I spent a lot of time in when I was younger, because it held the only Hugo Award I had ever seen in person.
The one that belonged to Wernher Von Braun. 
Seeing his Hugo Award motivated me to keep writing when I was younger. It let me know that yes, there are other people out there who love these stories of space and science and strange things as much as you do
My parents took me to so many kid-friendly museums when I was a child. We went to one nearly every time we took a family vacation.
I cannot remember any of them.
But I remember standing in front of the dinosaurs at the Smithsonian. I remember being awed and frightened by the wingspan of a pterodactyl.
And I remember wandering through the Space and Rocket Center, the models of people in Space Lab and the International Space Station sparking within me a burning desire to leave Earth and go into space.
How can we inspire the next generation of star voyagers if flimsy traveling sideshows push away the images, the excitement of discovery?