Rocket science’s greatest achievements are celebrated inside the Davidson Center for Space Exploration
An actual Saturn V rocket – the dress-rehearsal version of the spacecraft that powered America’s Apollo missions to the moon in the late ’60s and early ’70s – is displayed horizontally inside the 68,000 square-foot museum known as the Davidson Center for Space Exploration. The facility is the largest building found on the campus of the U.S. Space & Rocket Center, Alabama’s top pay-to-enter tourist attraction.
Over 6 million people visited the Space & Rocket Center during the past 10 years.
On sunny mornings, the shadow of a Saturn V replica reaches the eastbound side of a 10-lane portion of I-565. That 350-foot vertical display has greeted passersby and museum visitors at that spot in Huntsville since 1999.
It would be easy for a visitor to this museum conclude that the Saturn V is the greatest achievement in rocket science history. Let's take a look at what you can enjoy during a tour of the Davidson Center.
Enjoy an immersive Apollo experienceThe 476-foot-long Davidson Center. Photo by Ken Thomas.
Learning more about NASA’s Apollo program is the primary experience visitors to the Davidson Center can look forward to. Most persons who enjoy rocket science history will want to spend hours there. Baby boomers like myself who watched the live moon mission broadcasts on TV between 1965 and 1972 will find it to be a place for enjoying many nostalgic memories.
Most space exploration equipment of the era was either disposable, left on the moon or burned up during reentry, so many of the things found at the museum were once mockups and training or test equipment.
Displayed artifacts include the actual Apollo 16 command module and a lunar module mockup. Also ready to be discovered by visitors in the Davidson Center are moon rocks collected during the Apollo 12 mission, a lunar rover, Apollo 12’s mobile quarantine facility and an actual Skylab training module. A portion of the Skylab fuel tank that fell to Earth in Australia is also there.
Of course, the overhead Saturn V dominates the enormous room. Surely, it’s the main point of fascination for most people who enter the building. The three test stages with their engines, the instrument unit that controlled the engines at liftoff, the command module and the lunar module on display were not launched into space. This is Saturn V prototypes used for crucial ground testing and training. Also known as SA-500D, it was actually used to simulate the launch stress caused by the tremendous heat and shaking that the rocket scientists had to overcome.
Pictured: The Saturn V rocket stretches across the interior of the Davidson Center for Space Exploration while a group of people underneath enjoy a catered event.
Together, the vehicle portions on display are essentially identical to the Saturn V rockets that carried American astronauts beyond earth’s orbit. Nine moon missions with astronaut crews and the Skylab launch were among the 13 successful Saturn V trips to space.
Other moon race memorabilia plus International Space Station displays are also found in the Davidson Center. Additional features include a V2 rocket, a kids play area that mimics the surface of Mars and a jarring Saturn V rocket launch experience known as The Force.
FUN FACTS: The U.S. Space & Rocket Center’s street address is One Tranquility Base, named for the spot where the first two astronauts on the moon, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, landed the Apollo 11 lunar module on July 20, 1969. At the moment of that historic touchdown, Armstrong’s first spoken message to those of us back on Earth was calm, short and simple: “Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed.”
The Davidson Center for Space Exploration is named in honor of Dorothy and Julian Davidson, long-time leaders in the Huntsville rocket technology community. Julian died in 2013. Dorothy died in 2021.
Get to know the Saturn V before you go
In 1969, this Saturn V was originally placed outside in the elements at the rear of the Space & Rocket Center property. It has always been displayed horizontally. The rocket was moved inside the Davidson Center when the building was completed in 2008.
The three rocket stages consist mostly of aluminum alloy, stainless steel and titanium.
The first stage is 138 feet in length. It was powered by five F-1 engines, still the most powerful single-nozzle liquid-fueled engines ever used for rocket launches. Each engine is 12.5 feet in diameter and 19.5 feet in length. This propellant stage produced 7.5 million pounds of thrust. It emptied it’s enormous fuel tank within two minutes while burning 15 tons of rocket fuel per second. Rocketdyne developed the F-1.
Stage two is 81 feet in length. It was powered by five J-2 engines. Stage three is 59 feet long, and was powered by one J-2 engine.
Shown above is the SA-500D during the 1960s. This is the Saturn V test vehicle that's on display inside the Davidson Center for Space Exploration. From top left: the stage 1 booster being positioned for shake tests, the complete rocket inside the dynamic test stand and Dr. Wehner von Braun standing near stage 1's massive F-1 engines. NASA photos (public domain).
Including the rocket-grade kerosene used for fuel, the combined set of booster stages and payload weighed 3,100 tons. Of course, as a museum display, it weighs a fraction of that since the fuel tanks are empty.
This rocket, SA-500D, was designated to be a National Historic Landmark in 1987.
The Rocket City continues to earn its nickname
Six miles south of the museum, NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center is found inside the gates of the Redstone Arsenal Army post. NASA considers the Space & Rocket Center to be the official visitor information center for Marshall.
Rockets for Apollo were fabricated by NASA at Marshall. But before NASA even existed, Huntsville became known as The Rocket City due to the missile and rocket work done there. Early milestones included development of rockets like the Juno that launched the first American satellite or the Redstone used for the first Mercury missions.
Today’s NASA spacecrafts are also developed, tested and managed at Marshall. The agency’s Space Launch System rockets are being prepared for upcoming trips to the moon, and perhaps eventually, Mars.
From Nov. 16 to Dec. 11, 2022, the first SLS rocket was used for the successful uncrewed Artemis I mission that allowed the Orion space capsule to take a single lap around the moon.
Plans are for Artemis 2 to take another lap around the moon, but this time with a crew of astronauts. With the Artemis 3 mission planned for 2025, NASA intends to send four astronauts to set up a base near the moon’s south pole.
FUN FACT: The current SLS rockets are essentially upgraded space shuttle rockets and are 15% more powerful than the Saturn V. They currently provide 8.8 million pounds of thrust compared to the Saturn V’s 7.5 million pounds of thrust.
History fan? Check out my other article, The top 25 downtowns in North Alabama for heritage tourism
What else you can enjoy at the U.S. Space & Rocket Center
Other rockets, Space Shuttle Park and a variety of military aircraft including an A-12 Oxcart jet and a Chinook helicopter are among the things you will find outdoors on the property.
Currently, the full-scale Pathfinder Shuttle is being restored. While looking forward to its late-summer 2023 completion, visitors can still view its huge tank and boosters. A modified Gulfstream training aircraft and a T-38 jet are also found in Space Shuttle Park.
The other, smaller standing rocket near the center of the campus is the Saturn I which was a vibration test article from the Saturn development phase.
Also available for visitors to enjoy are a mixture of outdoor and indoor features like the G-Force simulator, the Moon Shot simulator, the Hypership experience, virtual reality experiences and more. Movies and other presentations at the National Geographic Theater and the INTUITIVE Planetarium are popular.
Download the official U.S. Space & Rocket Center map.
There is plenty of free parking. Hours are 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. every day except Thanksgiving, Christmas Eve, Christmas and New Year’s. Event updates are frequently provided on the Space & Rocket Center’s Facebook and Twitter pages. Coupons and discounts are sometimes offered there, as well.
Some experiences require combination tickets which include general museum admission, while others do not. For example, movies in the National Geographic Theater require a combination ticket which includes both general and movie admission. Tickets for some shows at the INTUITIVE Planetarium and special events like parties are typically sold without the general admission requirement.
General admission tickets are currently priced as follows:
- Age 12 and up – $30
- Age 5 to 12 – $20
- Age 4 and under – FREE
NOTES: Free admission is offered to NASA civil servants and retirees, and TVA employees and retirees with their badges. Small discounts are available for persons who receive food assistance.
Check the Space & Rocket Center event page for details about special events. A great example of a special event is Biergarten. Most Thursdays between March 16 through October 12, 2023, Biergarten attendees enjoy authentic German cuisine, drinks and live music in the Saturn V Hall.
TRAVEL IDEA: The Huntsville Marriott is adjacent to the Shuttle Park section of the Space & Rocket Center. Almost half of the hotel rooms feature views of the rocket center making it a logical lodging choice for a two-day visit, especially for Marriott Bonvoy members.
For Marriott Bonvoy members who anticipate that they will need some retail therapy while in Huntsville, the Westin Huntsville is found a little over two miles away at Bridge Street Town Centre, the city’s premier shopping destination.
Looking for other Huntsville travel ideas? See my article, Summertime in beautiful historic downtown Huntsville.