Southern Places: Huntsville Alabama’s U.S. Space and Rocket Center remembers the 50th anniversary of the moon landing

Some moments in history take our breath away. Fifty years ago, America’s moon landing millions had millions of Americans holding their breath. The Saturn 5 rocket took off from Florida’s Kennedy Space Center on July 16. Inside the rocket were three men. Two of the men, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, would make history as the first Americans to walk on the moon, with Armstrong uttering one of the most iconic phrases in our country’s history.  Michael Collins piloted the command module Columbia. Armstrong and Aldrin took the Eagle, the lunar model to the moon, hence the phrase, “The Eagle has landing.” Eight days after blast off the three men would splash down in the Pacific Ocean.

The U.S. Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville, Ala. is commemorating the 50th anniversary of the moon landing with an exhibit, “Apollo, When We Went to the Moon.” The exhibit runs until the end of the year so you still have time visit. The Space and Rocket Center also has a permanent exhibit of a Saturn 5 rocket, which is one of only three in the world.

Display at the U.S. Space and Rocket Center

I had not visited the Space and Rocket Center since I was in 6th grade when we took an impromptu visit recently. I have few memories from that trip 40 years ago but the ones I have are unforgettable.  I remember seeing Miss Baker, one of the animals America sent into space. I also remember the G-Force Accelerator, which I got on and got off of for fear I would be sick. I was worried my friends would think I was chicken for getting off but I don’t recall any teasing—at least about that. Miss Baker died in the 1980s and I knew better than to get on the G-Force some 40 years later (my husband, who is normally daring, also declined).

We were there mostly to see the Apollo exhibit, which we found first. The exhibit was more than just displays of memorabilia. Like many of the exhibits at the Space and Rocket Center, the exhibit was interactive with things kids (and big kids) will enjoy. We enjoyed sitting in a ‘moon buggy.’ And I made that ‘one small step for man (or woman) and one giant leap for mankind).

Steve and I try out the “moon buggy”

For me, it was some of the items that some may overlook while enjoying a walk on the moon or time in the buggy. I was moved by a letter from former First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy, who asked that the contributions of her late husband not be forgotten. It was President John F. Kennedy who passionately stated “we choose to go to the moon” in a speech he delivered on Sept. 12, 1962 in Houston Texas’ Rice Stadium. Kennedy was assassinated in November of 1963  and never lived to see the moon landing  The speech is part of the display and you can hear at the exhibition which includes the famous words: “We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard; because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one we intend to win, and the others, too.”

The exhibit does not gloss over the turbulent times of the 60s. The battle for civil rights was blazing. Martin Luther King Jr. and others were leading marches and peaceful protests. King’s life would end by an assassin’s bullet in April of 1968. An unpopular war was taking place in Vietnam. The moon landing brought all Americans together on July 20th to watch Armstrong make those historical steps.

One of the displays in the Saturn V Hall at the U.S. Space and Rocket Center

The Space and Rocket Center does not stop telling the story of the historic moon landing with the Apollo exhibit. Saturn V Hall has one of only three of the Saturn V’s on display. You can learn more about the science behind our space journeys. Something I found interesting: the three men had to continue living together in a small space even after they returned to Earth. They were quarantined in an Airstream RV until they were medically cleared. You can sign up for a guided tour of the Saturn V Hall or walk through at your own pace. The hall includes some play areas for kids.

Shuttle Park at the U.S. Space and Rocket Center

The main purpose of our visit was to see the Apollo 11 exhibit. But the Space and Rocket Center has several standing and changing exhibits, rides and experiences. Kids can climb the Mars Climbing Wall or take a ride in the Hypership simulator. Two great exhibits are outside.  Rocket Park gives you a sense of just how big the rockets are. A large space shuttle is the centerpiece of Shuttle Park.  Families can find a diverse menu at the Mars Grill that is reasonably priced. I enjoyed a burrito bowl and my husband had a grilled chicken sandwich and fries. You can spend an entire day there and not do everything.

Huntsville also has several other fun places for families to visit including the Huntsville Botanical Gardens and the Earlyworks Children’s Museum. We will be back to learn more about all of Huntsville has to offer!

U.S. Space and Rocket Center, Huntsville, Ala.

Admission: General Admission is $25 for those 13 and older. Admission is $17 for those ages 5-12 and children 4 and younger are free. Senior and military discounts are available. You can purchase several add-ons including movies in the planetarium and guided tours.

Parking: You can park for free right outside the center.

Directions:  Huntsville is located right off U.S. You know you are getting close when you see the large replica of the Saturn V rocket in the distance. Exact directions from your location can be found here.

Dining: The Mars Grill is located inside the center. The food is reasonably priced and you have a lot of variety. Huntsville has several well-known eateries and local restaurants for everyone’s taste.

Where to stay: Huntsville has several brand-name hotels near the U.S. Space and Rocket Center. We booked an apartment through Airbnb that was reasonably priced and had a kitchen just in case we wanted to save money and cook for ourselves.

For more information:

U.S. Space and Rocket Center website

Huntsville/Madison County Convention and Visitors Bureau website

Southern Places: The Noccalula Falls Experience is a must see for the summer

At the top of Noccalula Falls in Gadsden, Ala. is a statue of the Native American princess named for the stunning waterfall. The story of the young woman who jumped into the ravine to avoid marrying a man she did not love has been told thousands of times. This summer, Brian Clowdus has brought Noccalula’s story alive with an immersive theater experience set where the events unfolded.

The Noccalula Experience features classically trained actors who not only act but sing and climb on the Gorge Trail that leads to the bottom of the falls. The audience can walk down the slope to the play’s setting or be assisted by park staff in a Gator.

Sarah Elaine as Noccalula

Once the audience is assembled, music begins and Noccalula appears. Portrayed passionately by Atlanta actor Sarah Elaine, we quickly learn the princess is in love with Wa-ya, portrayed by Jonathan Varillas. The actors expertly portray the joy of two young people in love.

But their joy is short lived as Noccalula is told by her father, portrayed by Pedro Ka’awaloa, that she must marry Tsu-la to broker peace with another tribe. Woven throughout the story is the voice of Noccalula’s mother, who guides her daughter to her fateful decision.  Irene Bedard, known as the voice of Pocahontas in the 1995 Disney movie, provides the voice of Noccalula’s mother.  

Theater lovers will revel in seeing the story told on the path where the Native American legend was born. Once at the play’s first setting, the walk through the journey is an easy one for adults and children. Benches are provided in some of the areas for those who need them but the audience should be prepared to stand for about an hour during the performance.

A scene from the Nocculala Falls Experience

After the play, the audience can take the rocky hike down to the gorge or return to the trailhead. Park admission is included with the theater ticket. Noccalula Falls has beautiful winding trails filled with historic cabins and beautiful foliage. My favorites are the covered bridge and old-fashioned post office. Everyone will enjoy seeing the animals in the petting zoo. And if you get tired, just catch a ride on the train that winds through the park. A miniature golf course is adjacent to the park. Adults can play for $5 and $4 for children and seniors.

Here’s what you need to know about the Noccalula Falls Experience

When: Every Friday, Saturday and Sunday through July 7. Shows are performed at 2 p.m., 4 p.m. and 6 p.m.

Where: Noccalula Falls Park, 1500 Noccalula Road, Gadsden, Ala.

Admission: For 2 p.m. and 6 p.m. shows: $15 for adults. $10 for seniors, military and kids

For the 6 p.m. show: $25 for adults. $15 for seniors, military and kids.

You can purchase tickets and get more information here.

Other information: You do need to walk down a steep incline to get to where the play begins. A driver in a Gator is there to assist you if you don’t feel comfortable walking down. The play is performed on the trail but relatively easy to walk.