Once known as the watercress capital of the world, Huntsville, Ala., transformed into “Rocket City” when it became the nation’s center of research and development for space exploration.
The status is celebrated at the U.S. Space and Rocket Center, which is the official visitors center for NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center and features an authentic Saturn V rocket, interactive exhibits and space memorabilia.
The campus was the idea of Wernher von Braun, a German engineer who came to the U.S. under a military contract in 1945 to make ballistic rockets. He and his team worked in Texas but moved to Huntsville, about 190 miles north of the capital, Montgomery, to be closer to the Redstone Arsenal, which produced pyrotechnical devices during World War II. Over the years, von Braun and other scientists would develop the first rockets that launched satellites into space and put astronauts on the moon.
Von Braun wanted to set up a permanent exhibit of U.S. space program hardware. The U.S. Army donated land, and the center opened in 1970. It is known for its popular Space Camp, an immersive educational program for children ages 9 to 18 that opened in 1982. Campers spend the six-day interactive session learning about astronaut training techniques, sleeping in quarters like those on board the International Space Station and engaging in real-world applications of STEM subjects. There are also programs for adults, families and corporate groups.
The space center is in House District 25, represented by Alabama House Speaker Mac McCutcheon (R). NCSL caught up with him to talk about the center and Huntsville’s history with space.
What does the U.S. Space and Rocket Center mean for your district?
There is no doubt about the economic impact. The space facility’s entire campus is one of the largest tourism destinations in the state of Alabama. Then when you look at Space Camp itself, it brings in people from all over the world, to introduce them to our culture in Alabama as well as the space program and what it has done for our country.
Have you been to Space Camp?
I have been there, but I have never officially attended Space Camp. My wife was one of the first participants in the Space Camp program. When they were trying to get the program off the ground, they were allowing the employees to offer input, and she was one of the first ones involved in that. Then my son worked in Space Camp as a counselor when he was in college.
Why is it important to offer Space Camp?
People who are involved in education, our leaders, and people throughout the country, are keenly aware of the need to produce the future workforce of our country. When it comes to the area of science and technology, the Space Camp program is part of that education. We are trying to open up the minds and creativity of these kids, using history as well as moving forward with future innovations. I can’t emphasize how important that is. When you look back at people who attended, we actually have some astronauts in the space program who attended Space Camp.
What else is great about your district?
We’ve got a diverse district. You can drive and see farmers, cottonfields and corn in a rural area, and in a matter of minutes you are visiting with rocket scientists. We have a very good education system, and UAH (University of Alabama in Huntsville) is one of our major four-year universities. We have huge programs in cybersecurity, and the U.S. Space Command is moving to Huntsville from Colorado. (Editor’s note: Colorado’s U.S. senators, Michael Bennet and John Hickenlooper, have requested a review of the decision to move the command.)
The Saturn V rocket stands on the property on campus. For the people who live in this area, District 25, people drive by that rocket and it’s almost like seeing the Statue of Liberty. To us it symbolizes the work, technology and the history that put Huntsville on the map.
The Space and Rocket Center is also part of Alabama Senate District 3, represented by Arthur Orr (R).
“My District” gives NCSL members a chance to talk about life in the places they represent, from high-profile events and destinations to the fun facts only the locals know. The responses have been edited for length and clarity.
Nora Caley is a Denver-based freelance writer.