Space Center: Still amazing 50 years later

·3 min read

Jul. 31—HUNTSVILLE — "This is still the most amazing engineering piece of machinery we have ever created."

Those were the words spoken to me by Huntsville native and NASA veteran Kim McCutcheon, who's now a guide at the Davidson Center for Space Exploration at the U.S. Space & Rocket Center.

He was describing the center's Saturn V rocket, which is just as big and just as amazing to a 60-year-old man as it was to a 10-year-old boy 50 years ago.

That was the last time I saw it.

I was a space junkie as a kid (still am), and my yearly visits to my uncle, aunt and cousin in Athens were always highlighted by that short drive to what was then the Alabama Space and Rocket Center.

I had the chance to revisit on July 20, a date not chosen by coincidence. It had been 53 years since man first placed his footsteps on the moon and 50 years since my last visit to Huntsville.

The original museum space is nothing like I remember it.

I remember being able to walk through the solar system in a room filled with black light and the fear I would fall in (although the floor a few feet below was clearly visible).

The museum now hosts many interactive games for the kids and displays of galactic pop culture history — many of which were actual valuable childhood possessions for me.

A record album of the moon landing broadcasts, a View Master that was the virtual reality of the day, lunchboxes, books and souvenir pins line the walls.

That solar system room has now been displaced by an 8K Intuitive planetarium and the View Master has given way to the Apollo 11 Virtual Reality Experience fueled by 21st century technology.

But, the G-Force centrifuge spinning at 45 miles per hour simulating the force of 3Gs remains.

Gravity, as it turns out, has not changed.

The moon is still prominent, but we've learned much more over the last half century.

There is still an awe and wonder staring into an Apollo capsule which carried three men to the moon and back and knowing the cellphone in my pocket has thousands of times more computing power than that capsule and the lander it carried.

And, despite its ordinary appearance to the human eye, there remains an extraordinary feeling to put my face just a few inches from an actual rock from the moon's surface.

An extra bonus is talking to "Skeet" Vaughn Jr. who stands by a mock-up of the lunar rover he helped develop.

I have aged and so has science — the second perhaps better than the first.

I remember the excitement of the first moon lander in 1966 and the landing of the Viking on the surface of Mars ten years later.

We have been able to see all the planets up close and personal and the Hubble and James Webb telescopes have brought far away galaxies into our living rooms.

That is why, for the most part, the U.S. Space & Rocket Center I visited this year is very different from the one I visited 50 years ago.

There is probably more information now than its walls can hold.

That makes the history it holds even more amazing and still makes the jaw drop, no matter the age of the visitor.