Spacewalking through the South

By Verna Gates & Mary Ann DeSantis | Photography courtesy of Kennedy Space Center, Huntsville US Space and Rocket Center, Verna Gates and Mary Ann DeSantis

As 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing approaches, space centers around the South are launching programs and events to mark the occasion.

On July 20, 1969, millions of people around the world watched as Neil Armstrong emerged from the Apollo 11 “Eagle” lunar module and took a giant leap for mankind. Back on Earth, a surprising number of Southern space centers had played a crucial role in America’s journey to the moon.
This is the summer to visit one of these historic – yet still vital – centers to learn what it’s like to be an astronaut, beginning with a spacewalk at the U.S. Space & Rocket Center in Huntsville, Alabama. Travel a little farther to see the actual launch pads at the Kennedy Space Center or get an insider’s look at the International Space Station Gallery at Space Center Houston. And closer to home, NASA’s John C. Stennis Space Center in Hancock County offers a behind-the-scenes tour through the rocket-engine testing complex.

U.S. Space and Rocket Center®
Huntsville, Alabama
Bouncing around in a one-sixth gravity chair delivers the kind of joy that banishes all thoughts of dieting. Just one touch of the toe on the ground sends you high into the air, free from earth’s pull. The landing is gentle, like dancing in bunny shoes. It feels like you could break all records in the high jump, possibly in the pole vault.
Next stop, the Multi-Axis Trainer (MAT) is designed to train astronauts to deal with disorientation. It works. As I spun freely in all directions, my greatest hope was that my stomach would soon catch up with me, as it did on this thrilling ride. The MAT separates the wanna-be astronauts from the land lovers.
Welcome to Space Camp at the U.S. Space & Rocket Center in Huntsville, Alabama.
In 1950, a group of immigrants descended on this tiny Southern burg, ready to launch a whole new era of exploration. By the end of the first day, each of them possessed a library card and a place at the new Redstone Arsenal. Wernher von Braun and his German rocket team moved to Huntsville to help America convert rockets of war into vehicles to travel the solar system. His Saturn V rocket launcher propelled man to the moon. As director of the NASA’s Marshall Space Rocket Center, he pushed presidents and citizens alike to reach for the stars. His Redstone-Mercury Rocket sent Alan Shepherd into space as the first American astronaut. Ten years later, the Apollo 11 mission made a giant leap for mankind and fulfilled the lifelong dream of von Braun.
In my “rocket mission,” I joined a group of intrepid space travelers on a replica of the space shuttle bound for the moon. Others made their way to Mars. From the list of positions, ranging from the captain of the ship to the control center, we divvied up jobs.
Sitting in the capsule, I was handed a booklet filled with instructions for my station. Everyone had a job to do on lift off. The captain also read out all of the instructions, step by step. Even reading along and listening on my headset, I still managed to flip the wrong switches, demonstrating the wisdom of pursing a career that doesn’t have the potential to send me into a black hole. Along the way, problems are presented to solve, from weather to engine problems. The emergency binder was smudged with sweaty thumb prints.
Once the launch commenced, sound effects and all, we moved out of the command capsule into the second pod of the space shuttle. Lots of switches got flipped before I entered my station, where we were growing plants as part of an experiment. As I left the main area, I put on a space suit, and yes, it does make one look fat. But feeling cool is well worth it.
That night, we slept well in our pods. There is the option to stay in an adjoining hotel, but when else can one sleep in an astronaut bed and use waste management instead of the bathroom? Expect several co-workers in the 12-person bunk rooms. You can also hear children giggling in adjoining pods.

American citizens can also request a bus tour of the Marshall Space Flight Center, where scientists and engineers are preparing for NASA’s next out-of-this-world mission.
Adult Space Camp consists of three days and two nights. The $599 fee includes the camp and all of its activities, meals and pod space for sleeping. You may be randomly assigned the lunar or Mars mission, depending on the weekend you select. For more information, visit

Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex
Merritt Island, Florida
The KSC Visitors Complex has done a remarkable job balancing history with its theme park attraction, which delights kids of all ages. Lest you forget it is still a working facility where scientists and engineers are developing new projects, a bus tour takes you throughout the working spaceflight center. On the way to the Apollo/Saturn V Center, you will get a drive-by of the historic Launch Pad A, used for both Apollo and Shuttle missions and now Space X; the modified Launch Pad B, which is used for NASA’s Space Launch System, and the massive Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB).
As part of the 50th anniversary celebrations the Apollo center itself will be re-launched on July 15 with new interactive and immersive exhibits. And on July 16 – the anniversary of the Apollo 11 launch date – visitors can relive the launch sequence in real time and experience the atmosphere of the historical moment.

Space Center Houston/Johnson Space Center
Houston, Texas
The ears of the world were listening as Neil Armstrong reported from the lunar surface, “Houston, the Eagle has landed.” But no one was listening more closely than the controllers at Houston’s Manned Space Center (renamed the Johnson Space Center in 1973).
Former Public Affairs director Hal Stall saw the need to share the JSC story, especially with youth. He approached community leaders and formed the non-profit Manned Space Flight Education Foundation, Inc. The foundation hired experts from Walt Disney Imagineering to generate the concepts that would become Space Center Houston. The center includes several unique exhibits and experiences, including a chance to tour the astronaut training facilities or to take a dynamic look inside the International Space Station Gallery.

John C. Stennis Space Center/Infinity Museum
Pearlington, Mississippi
Since the 1960s, NASA’s John C. Stennis Space Center has been America’s rocket engine test complex. The first and second Saturn V rocket stages for NASA’s Apollo Program, including those used to carry humans to the moon, were tested there. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, there was a saying in the communities surrounding the center, “If you want to go to the moon, you first have to go through Hancock County, Mississippi.”
Today, the center is doing ground-breaking scientific work, including testing for the Space Launch System (SLS), which will carry man even farther into space.
The Infinity Science Center, a non-profit museum at the NASA Stennis Visitor Center, offers a blend of space, Earth science, engineering and technology content, and innovative programming that is accessible to everyone. In addition, a guided 20-mile guided tour from the Infinity Center takes visitors through the restricted gates of the research facility at the heart of the 125,000-acre Stennis buffer zone.

Read More in DeSoto Magazine online.