Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Huntsville, Alabama

Although it took me over 30 years to get there, I finally got to go to Space Camp.....sort of.  We flew up to Huntsville, AL on Saturday morning to spend the Memorial Day weekend.  Although it was a smooth flight up, we did have to contend with persistent headwinds.  We were asked to descend to 4000' near Atlanta for traffic, but it helped get us out of the winds for a bit and we enjoyed the closer view of the scenery below

We landed without issue at Madison County Executive Airport (KMDQ) which is located just north of downtown Huntsville.  We were promptly met on the ramp as we shut down and the linemen brought our rental car out to the plane to load up.  With the great service from the FBO (Executive Flight Center), we were quickly on our way towards town.  On the way out of the airport we noticed one part of the ramp with some Army helicopters.  I had to show the girls the CH-47 Chinooks so they could see what their Grandpa Nelson used to fly.  Pretty cool!

We were all hungry for lunch so we headed straight for Red Robin to enjoy some tasty burgers, but most of all those steak fries and ranch!  After lunch we checked in at the Huntsville Embassy Suites located downtown.  We quickly realized this was centrally located and getting around Huntsville was surprisingly quick and easy.  Everything we wanted to see and do around town was only minutes away.

After settling in, Kristi and Mary laid down for a nap so Abby and I headed for the Space & Rocket Center.  The Space & Rocket Center is on the reciprocity list for our home science and history museum so we were able to get in for free!  We started inside looking at the exhibits on black holes, the US Army rocket programs, and various space shuttle and lab displays.  There is even a flight simulator you can experience to land the space shuttle.  And yes, I managed to keep her on glide path and on center line for a decent landing!

From there we went outside and looked at the static display of the Space Shuttle Pathfinder.  It was originally built as a full scale model so various facilities could us it for testing and handling preps prior to the first flight of the real space shuttle.  You can read more about its history here: Shuttle Pathfinder

Next we went to an area of static displays of some of the first rockets used for manned spaceflight.  It's amazing how relatively small some of these were; especially those flown during the Mercury Program.

Also on static display are some of the Army's various rocket and missile systems developed and deployed over the years.  I was really interested to see the Army submarine that was used in the early days around Kwajalein Atoll to recover rocket parts.  I got to visit there  while sailing aboard the USNS Observation Island in the late 90's while supporting our BMD programs.  The submarine was so small, but I guess it was quite a success for it's designed purpose.

After that we went back inside to another building to see the Apollo V rocket.  Apparently all the rockets on static display outside are mock-ups, but the Saturn V rocket in the building is the real deal.  It was left  over from when the Apollo Program was shutdown.  The Saturn V rocket is just plain immense and awesome!

There a tons of other displays inside as well. You can sit in a Mercury Capsule and an Apollo Capsule.  I'm definitely too tall!  You can look inside a Gemini Capsule and it struck me as the only one that really was laid out and seemed like the cockpit of a flying craft compared to the others.  At the end of the building is a Lunar Module (LM) display, the actual Apollo 16 Command Module, and a moon rock.

Before heading back to the hotel, Abby and I decided to give the G-Force Accelerator ride a try.  It was fun, but I'll stick with my 1 G.

The next morning we drove 45 minutes southeast of town to Cathedral Caverns State Park.  You have to take a guided tour through the caverns, but it is truly worth  the visit.  To see it is amazing enough, but to also get the history of it all was great. The entire walking tour is along a wide path with no stairs.  It was designed that was by the discoverer so that even folks with disabilities can enjoy it as well.  Because of that, those of us with little one can even bring our strollers!  It took about and hour and a half or so to complete.  Even our little Mary did well walking the 1.3 mile adventure, but definitively stated at the end she was tired of walking underground!  It also happened to be about nap time when we were done so it was perfect timing.

Once again we left Kristi and Mary at the hotel to take a nap.  Abby and I headed to Sci-Quest, which is a hands on science museum located across the freeway from the Space & Rocket Center.  Our museum membership got us in there for free too!  We spent the next  few hours exploring the various exhibits from electricity and magnetism, to body functions, and sound.  The weirdest exhibit has you squeeze hidden bottles and guess the smell.  The options were: armpit, mouth, feet, and.........anus!  Yeah, it was pretty gross, but very funny.

Monday morning we got up, packed all our stuff and checked out of the hotel.  The weather was forecasted to be cooperative all day so we all headed to to the Space & Rocket Center for another full day.  They were having extra activities for the kids on Memorial Day so Abby and Mary enjoyed those along with a few rides.  We took our time and enjoyed all the exhibits again.

After a late lunch in the Mars Grill, we headed back for Madison County Executive Airport and loaded up our plane for home.  In the interest of time and flexibility, I decided to fly home VFR and just pick up flight following, which was a breeze with Huntsville Approach.  We took off around 1600 CDT and cruised along at 5500 feet.   That kept us below the few to scattered cumulus, but also kept us in continuous light turbulence for a good portion of the flight home.  Unfortunately the winds shifted from Friday and we were confronted with headwinds again!  Oh well.  The only bad part of the flight home was that after fighting the continuous chop and some up & downdrafts, the autopilot failed.  I'm hoping that maybe it is just a connector that came loose.  I'll check it out later this week when I get a chance.  So I had to hand fly for about half of the three our journey.  I did very well and the air nicely smoothed out for the last hour or so before landing back at home.  We landed around 2000 EDT, just before sunset, and we all enjoyed sleeping in our own beds after a fun adventurous weekend in Huntsville, AL.


  1. Will have to add this to my fly to list! Great trip!

  2. I'll 2nd the "add to the fly list".

    Great write up as always. I could really get lost walking around all that space flight history from my childhood. Nice mix with the caverns too, a nice change of pace.

    Auto pilot? What is this AP you speak of? :) I just have a wing leveler; I do all my flying by hand. Maybe someday I'll add the AP, hopefully prior to the Florida trips. ;)

    1. They AP is the MOST HELPFUL piece of equipment I have in the plane. It allows me to fully concentrate and enjoy my in-flight movies! :)

    2. Wing leveler? What is this "wing leveler" you speak of...? :-D

  3. Geoff - This looks like an awesome trip! My grandmother's brother was an engineer on the Redstone rocket project and lived for a long time in Huntsville. It looks nicer than my little kid memories of the place would suggest. Thanks for the inspiration!


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