Our Top 10 Stops for a Space Program Road Trip

It might be a while before you can take this kind of trip to space, so why not hop in your car and check out these 10 stops we've compiled instead?
It might be a while before you can take this kind of trip to space, so why not hop in your car and check out these 10 stops we've compiled instead?
Photo courtesy NASA

If you always wanted to watch a space shuttle launch in person, or if you were the kid who never got to go to space camp, this article is for you. We've compiled 10 stops across America where you can see the U.S. space program up close, in all its adventurous glory. On this 3,093-mile (4,977-kilometer) road trip, you'll see NASA's launching grounds, lots of machines that the agency has hurled skyward and cool memorabilia, like the instructions for planting the first American flag on the moon.

Before you start packing, do a little research. Visit the NASA Web site. There, you'll find all of NASA's latest projects, missions and discoveries. You can even watch launches that you wouldn't otherwise be able to see, even if you tried to show up at the launch pad. However, we're assuming that you prefer action to Internet browsing and that you want a different view of the U.S. space program other than NASA's officially sanctioned one. If so, road warrior, then pack up the car and go.

By the way, if you're an are-we-there-yet kind of driver, wanting to reach your first stop at space-shuttle speed, we're sorry. Your minivan would melt at 17,500 mph (28,163 kph) [source: NASA]. Shuttles simply can't be made of your average car materials. If you don't see why, you really need to make it to our first stop: NASA's center for materials science.

10
Glenn Research Center, Cleveland, Ohio
Flames of fire act differently in space than they do on Earth. That's another thing that researchers at Glenn study -- microgravity combustion research.
Flames of fire act differently in space than they do on Earth. That's another thing that researchers at Glenn study -- microgravity combustion research.
Photo courtesy NASA

Without Glenn (the place, not the man), space shuttle engines might melt, and Hubble might develop holes. At this Midwestern spot, scientists study what materials to use to make space equipment. Space, and getting there, tends to involve extreme environments. Main engines on space shuttles, for example, can reach 6,000 degrees Fahrenheit (3,300 degrees Celsius) and require ceramic parts that can take the heat [source: MSFC].

Heat isn't the only issue. Shuttles also have to resist the corrosive atomic oxygen in space, and for that, Glenn is checking into Teflon. Astronauts need special outfits, too. Researchers here are developing space suits that, after a good pummeling with moon dust, can still shield astronauts from UV rays and X-rays. The "lab" for all of these studies is awesome: Astronauts hang material swatches off the International Space Station and see how they do.

These materials masters also test fuels -- liquids, gels, ion thrusters -- anything that can blast a shuttle into space faster and for less money. And since you can't just plug into a wall outlet in space, Glenn works on power problems. They built the solar panels, batteries and electrical systems for the International Space Station.

Interested? Power yourself over to the Great Lakes Science Center in Cleveland, where you'll find Glenn's visitors' center. Admission is $9 to $11 [source: GLSC]. We also recommend Glenn's free tours of its own facilities, available between April and October with reservations [source: Glenn].

NASA doesn't just shoot items into space. It also studies what's out there, often with the aid of space telescopes. Drive southeast to meet some of its eyes on the sky.

9
Goddard Space Center, Greenbelt, Md.
Want to know what the universe looked like at a tender age? WMAP helped scientists pull together this three-year picture of the infant universe. Colors indicate "warmer" (red) and "cooler" (blue) spots.
Want to know what the universe looked like at a tender age? WMAP helped scientists pull together this three-year picture of the infant universe. Colors indicate "warmer" (red) and "cooler" (blue) spots.
Photo courtesy NASA/WMAP Science Team

Think of Goddard as the space program’s eye. The men and women here image the universe, starting with our little planet. Their satellites watch Earth’s hurricanes, its weather and its polar ice caps.

But we all want to see beyond our own ice caps, and for that, we need telescopes with more specialized instruments. Enter the great space paparazzo, the Hubble Space Telescope. Hubble snaps detailed pictures of space in infrared, visible and ultraviolet light. The telescope has caught everything from colliding asteroids to the first organic molecule on an exoplanet.

Goddard scientists helped build another great imager, the Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe (WMAP), which measures cosmic microwaves and helped pinpoint the age of our universe. In yet another view of space, Goddard runs the Swift telescope, which captures gamma ray bursts, showing us what happens when stars die.

Your stop is the Goddard visitors' center, where you'll bask in color. You’ll see Hubble’s images of galaxies, planets, comets and supernovae. Admission is free. If you want to tour the space center itself and possibly see a satellite being built, you’ll need to come with a school, community or cultural group and to call ahead [sources: Goddard "Welcome," Goddard "Visitor FAQ"].

It’s time to park the car, preferably at the Greenbelt Metro station. You don’t want the headache of parking at our next stop, and besides, it’s just a short subway ride away.

8
National Air and Space Museum, Washington, D.C.

What's better than one free museum? One that's next to nine other free museums on the National Mall, which offer everything from art to zebras. At the National Air and Space Museum, you'll get an overview of space exploration. Start at the welcome center, where you can pick up a free tour led by museum guides [source: Mullen]. Write down your questions -- the time to have a knowledgeable guide at your mercy is now.

If you'd rather explore by yourself, we suggest getting the back-story on the universe and starting with history -- thousands of years of it. At the "Explore the Universe" permanent exhibit, you'll see the history of astronomy in gadgets, starting with ancient astrolabes and finishing with an engineering model of the Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe we were just talking about. You can learn the saga of human spaceflight, both the technology and the politics. Roll through a gallery of lunar rover parts and finish with some freeze-dried space ice cream. If you're still not convinced that the stop is worthwhile, you can touch a real moon rock, and who wouldn't want to do that?

Next, it's back to Greenbelt to pick up the car. Then, drive to Virginia to find out where the first astronauts on the moon cleaned up after their lunar adventures before anyone let them walk around on Earth.

7
Udvar-Hazy Center, Chantilly, Va.
Discovery, seen here at the pad in February 2011, will find a home at Udvar-Hazy.
Discovery, seen here at the pad in February 2011, will find a home at Udvar-Hazy.
Photo courtesy NASA/Kim Shiflett

Yet another branch of the National Air and Space Museum is next, and this one will immerse you in space nostalgia, too. Here, you'll see the objects you pictured as a kid when you imagined space exploration. In a hangar, you'll come nose to nose with America's first space shuttle, Enterprise, so dubbed because the American public rallied the White House to name it after the beloved fictional starship from "Star Trek" [source: NASA]. While Enterprise never flew in space, the museum eventually will get the retired space shuttle, Discovery [source: The New York Times].

Don't forget the clothing rack at Udvar-Hazy. You'll see the space suit used to make the first untethered spacewalk, with its gaseous nitrogen jet pack. Also check out an amazing piece of space history, the silver trailer where the first Americans on the moon were quarantined until doctors were sure they hadn't brought germs back to Earth. Prototype landers and rovers also populate this museum.

This stop is light on the wallet, since admission is free, but you will pay for parking ($15). Frolic around, no matter your age. Relics like these make everyone a little giddy.

Get ready to meet a Viking at your next stop in southern Virginia. It's just a few hours away.

6
Langley Visitors' Center, Hampton, Va.

Crank up your favorite oldies, and go retro at the Langley visitors' center, which sits inside the Virginia Air & Space Center in downtown Hampton. It's filled with space projects from the 1960s through the '80s. For example, back when scientists were planning for Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin to land on the moon, they had worries, like could the astronauts fly the lander? Could they land it vertically? To help the pilots practice, Langley built the lunar excursion module simulator (LEMS). Engineers hung this model of the lunar lander from a frame, dangling it at one-sixth Earth's gravity. The two pioneering astronauts could then practice touching down the vehicle on a fake moon surface. The retired simulator now resides at the visitors' center [sources: Langley, VASC].

While at Langley, you'll also meet a Viking -- not an ancient Scandinavian, however. You'll see a model of the Viking lander that first explored Mars, snapping photos of the soil that showed the planet was actually red and looking for life (none was found) [sources: VASC, Williams]. You can see the basic exhibits for between $9.50 and $11.50 [source: VASC].

It's time for a long drive to Alabama, but the directions aren't rocket science. The destination, however, does quite a bit of that.

5
Marshall Space Flight Center, Huntsville, Ala.

This center is known for rocket design. Its rockets have launched many NASA missions into space, including Apollo 11, carrying Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin for their first steps on the moon.

Not only would the "Eagle" not have landed on the moon without Marshall, no one would be on the International Space Station without the work of the center's scientists. They built and maintain the space station's oxygen generation and water recovery systems.

The center also lends NASA's telescopes a little X-ray vision. Marshall manages the Chandra X-ray Observatory, a telescope that records distant sources of X-rays in space. With it, we can see objects in space that would otherwise be obscured. The penetration Chandra gives to space is like the details doctors get when they use X-rays to see through the skin, down to the bones. Chandra has snapped the wreckage after galaxies collide and the mess left over after a star dies [source: Harvard].

Unfortunately for those who want to delve into the wonders of Chandra, Marshall has no official visitors' center. With a $15 to $20 admission, you can learn a little Marshall history inside of the U.S. Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville. But the main attraction there may be the rides that throw you around at several Gs.

Want to see NASA's mission control? Pack up and head southwest to the Longhorn state.

4
Johnson Space Center, Houston, Texas
With equipment bay doors open, a crew member prepares to work inside of the Hubble mock-up in the Neutral Buoyancy Lab, one of the many cool spots Johnson has to offer.
With equipment bay doors open, a crew member prepares to work inside of the Hubble mock-up in the Neutral Buoyancy Lab, one of the many cool spots Johnson has to offer.
Photo courtesy NASA

Johnson Space Center is home to America's program for human spaceflight. It houses NASA's mission control center, which directs space shuttles, both past and present. The old control room is where flight directors heard Apollo 13's, "Houston, we've had a problem." From the new mission control, Johnson scientists manage all astronauts aboard the International Space Station.

Along with directing, Johnson tests equipment for human spaceflights. It has several temperature-controlled vacuum chambers, one large enough to fit parts of a space shuttle, meant to simulate the conditions in space. Space suits and tools for spacewalks go in and, hopefully, work [source: Dean].

Astronauts also train at Johnson in a pool unfit for the Olympics. The pool, called the Neutral Buoyancy Lab, has mock-ups of the International Space Station and the Hubble Space Telescope inside. Astronauts from all over the world suit up, dive in and practice -- space walks, telescope repairs or installing parts on their new home among the stars. In fact, all International Space Station astronauts trained there [source: Jeffs].

Start at the privately owned Space Center Houston. For $90 and your advance reservation, guides will lead you on a five-hour tour of the Johnson facilities, where you can roam the Apollo mission control room. Sit in the flight director's chair? Don't mind if you do. You can also peer through windows into the new mission control, stand at the entry of the largest vacuum chamber and a walk a catwalk over the pool [sources: Space Center Houston "Level 9 Tour," Space Center Houston "Ticket Prices," Moore].

After gas and a well-spent $90, is your wallet feeling a little empty? Don't worry. The next stop is free.

3
Stennis Space Center, Bay St. Louis, Miss.
NASA has to make sure the engines work right? The public checks out an evening engine test of a space shuttle main engine at Stennis.
NASA has to make sure the engines work right? The public checks out an evening engine test of a space shuttle main engine at Stennis.
Photo courtesy NASA

In the Deep South, you'll find grits, greens and rocket engines. This space center tests rocket engines and space shuttle main engines for NASA and others. Surrounded by canals, the place has a neat layout. Stennis uses the waterways to transport rocket parts to the site and then assembles the rockets in separate facilities. The next stage is the test stands, which determine whether rocket engines can fire at high altitudes and in space. Staff members simulate the conditions the engines will encounter by shooting gases at the engine and changing local pressures.

Because NASA's space shuttle program ended in July 2011, the facility's scientists no longer test engines for NASA's shuttles. There's still work to be done though. As private companies design rockets to power commercial spaceflights or to take U.S. astronauts to the International Space Station, Stennis will test the engines [source: Stennis].

Check out the visitors' center for free. Start at the Mississippi Welcome Center, from which shuttles leave every 15 minutes on Wednesdays through Saturdays. The shuttle drives through the center's grounds and drops passengers off at the StenniSphere, which is the museum. Among the facts you'll learn: how much land Stennis needs around it so the rest of Mississippi doesn't hear the rocket engines.

If you'd like to see an engine test, call the Stennis visitors' center to find out the schedule, and you may serendipitously spot one from your tour, where you'd watch from a quarter-mile away.

Start your car, then start your countdown. The next stop is where space shuttles blast off.

2
Kennedy Space Center, Cape Canaveral, Fla.
Rockets stand proudly on display at Kennedy's "Rocket Garden."
Rockets stand proudly on display at Kennedy's "Rocket Garden."
Photo courtesy NASA

Kennedy Space Center is the closest you can get to a space shuttle launch. All NASA space shuttles launch from there. Since summer 2011's Atlantis marked the last one, you might be interested in what happens nearby, at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. Launches from the station include rockets carrying robotic spacecraft, satellites and occasional space experiments. You can watch from a few locations in Florida, listed here [source: Kennedy "Launch Viewing.]

Launches aren't the only attraction at Kennedy. Check out the space suit worn by Alan Shepard, who was the first American in space, and, as a slightly lesser credential, the only person to hit a golf ball on the moon [source: NASA]. John Young's space suit is also there, with the instructions written on his cuff for planting the American flag on the lunar surface. You can also fire away your Qs at a Q&A session with a modern astronaut.

You're yawning. You want launches. At Kennedy, for $15 to $21, you can take a guided tour called "Today & Tomorrow," where you'll see the empty launch pads. But don't expect to stand under them. You'll be viewing from 3 miles (5 kilometers) away [source: Kennedy Space Center visitor's rep].

If spacecraft are your thing, stroll in a garden among retired NASA rockets, see the real Gemini 9A spacecraft and get inside a replica of an Explorer-series space shuttle. Admission for all exhibits, plus a bus tour that takes you within 4 miles (6.5 kilometers) of the launch pads, is $33 to $43 [source: Kennedy "Admission"].

Kennedy is a great stomping ground for the space program, so come out and stomp. Believe us, you'll appreciate contact with the ground after your next stop.

1
Something Like the Vomit Comet, Various Locations
In this iconic NASA image, six astronauts finally get a taste of weightlessness onboard NASA's KC-135. Did you want to end your road trip this way?
In this iconic NASA image, six astronauts finally get a taste of weightlessness onboard NASA's KC-135. Did you want to end your road trip this way?
Photo courtesy NASA

No, it's not a type of projectile vomiting, nor is it a comet. The Vomit Comet, so named by journalists, is a series of planes flown by NASA. The agency's pilots knew that by flying in stomach-turning parabolas, they could create weightlessness for everything onboard. At first, NASA used the plane to train astronauts and test equipment. Later, flights were extended to college students for scientific experiments.

Unless you're a college student with a stellar project, you can't ride the Vomit Comet. You can, however, buy a seat on the Zero Gravity Corporation's airplane. Zero-G states that it aims to make weightlessness accessible to the public [source: Zero-G]. The company emphatically does not call its plane the Vomit Comet. Its pilots, however, also fly in parabolas, giving passengers the sensation of weightlessness, lunar gravity and Martian gravity. So, get on, and try not to -- well, you know.

The price for this adventure is steep: $4,950 per person [source: Zero-G]. You'll also need reservations. The plane flies out of Las Vegas, Washington D.C., Cape Canaveral and sometimes other cities. Check the flight schedule to find out when and where you can meet it.

It's time to drive home, settle in to your bed and fall asleep to the light of your glow-in-the-dark NASA poster. What do you think, Armstrong-admirer? Was yours or Neil's a better ride?

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Sources

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