STEM + Huntsville = Aren’t they just one in the same?
By Keith Parker
Huntsville, Alabama, my hometown (there are not many of us natives in this metro of transplants) is often called the Silicon Valley of the South, and for good reason. Huntsville is a city devoted to science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). While many people talk STEM, we actually live it. Home to NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center, where America’s next space vehicle is being designed, as well the vast engineering laboratories of the U.S. Army Aviation and Missile Command and Missile Defense Agency, the Rocket City is just that, a place where people build rockets. Nestled in a valley in the Appalachian foothills, the city stands with one foot in the future and one in its antebellum past, where oaks compete with rockets for space on the blue Alabama skyline.
I’m going to suggest activities that you and your family can do over a three-day weekend. Since it’s impossible to capture everything in this article, I’m going to focus on those activities that interest the scientist and child in all of us!
About three miles west of our historic downtown area, standing like a sentinel over the Rocket City, is a 36-story tall Saturn V Moon Rocket that beckons travelers to come and revel in the jaw-dropping wonders that my hometown has engineered for over half a century.
The U.S. Space and Rocket Center, a Smithsonian Affiliate, is Huntsville’s can’t-miss attraction and home to U.S. Space Camp. The Center could actually fill your entire three-day itinerary, but because my editor is an unusually cruel person, I am not allowed to populate this article with three days’ worth of Space Center activities. Instead, I will simply say this: If you have ever wondered what STEM professionals do with their lives, the Space Center is the place to find answers. Would you like to see an actual Apollo 16 capsule? Would you like to get inside a Mercury vehicle? You can do that here. And so can the kids. How about the International Space Station? Want to see what it looks like? There’s a complete model. Or how would you like to ride inside a Mars Rover, crashing over sand dunes and weathering storms? Well, there’s a full-blown simulation. Like movies? The Space Center has those, too. There’s an IMAX theater where you can see the latest blockbuster, or a variety of National Geographic films in breathtaking 3D (trust me, they’re not boring) on a 52-foot screen. Ever wondered what a rocket park looks like? We have one, with 27 rockets from various eras of space and missile research. Ever wondered just how big the Space Shuttle was? You can see the real Pathfinder shuttle on display. And then there is the Davidson Center, the piece de resistance of the museum, which houses an authentic Saturn V Moon Rocket and is the center of gravity of any visit to Huntsville. As if that’s not enough, NASA itself makes tours available to the Marshall Space Flight Center, where you can see the ongoing research into new space technologies (like the one I work on) that are going to take us back to the Moon, and on to Mars, the asteroids, and maybe even Europa. You can find everything you need at www.RocketCenter.com.
Another day in Huntsville is another day that brings out the inner STEM geek in all of us. After an amazingly spicy breakfast at Little Rosie’s Mexican Restaurant, treat yourself and the kids to the Sci-Quest Hands-on Science Center on Highway 72 West. This is a hands-on science museum and activity center that appeals to big and small kids alike. Use a real microscope or see your hair stand on-end from their Van Der Graaf generator.
After that, you should head to downtown, where 200-year-old antebellum mansions are shaded by magnolia trees (a full day of sightseeing in itself), and experience a gourmet burger or pizza at one of our local restaurants ringing the town square. Then, the whole family can embark on one of our newest adventures: the Huntsville Escape Room. This is part of an entertainment experience that’s sweeping the nation. Using your wits, intellect and deductive skills (the kind you use in real science and engineering) you and your team will frantically search for the clues to escape from a locked room in 60 minutes! Intrigued? I know I am.
Along the eastern boundary of Huntsville lies Monte Sano Mountain, a mesa-like hill where I lived until I was 7-years-old. My family settled up there in the late 1940s, and it has always been a second home for me. Shady and breezy, the mountain harbors one of Alabama’s State Parks where you can hike along winding mountain trails right up to the planetarium of the Von Braun Astronomical Society. Yep, smack in the middle of the breathtaking Alabama woods is an observatory, purportedly Wernher von Braun’s pet project while he lived in the same neighborhood I did. It’s an inexpensive, beautiful and awe-inspiring way to end to your three-day stay in Huntsville. And in case you’re curious, even as a native, I do all of the things I’ve told you about. Huntsville really is a fun place.
Check out these restaurants
In addition to Little Rosie’s, which I mentioned above, you can kick the morning off with a good, ol’-fashioned Southern breakfast at Gibson’s BBQ or Edith Ann’s, both on Memorial Parkway South. My favorite place for lunch, which keeps with our rocket scientist theme, is Ol' Heidelberg, a German restaurant located near Research Park. I’ve been eating at Ol’ Heidelberg since I was a little boy, when their eatery was nothing more than a nook in a local mall. Try the Chicken Schnitzel Cordon Bleu and breathe in the authentic German décor. You won’t be sorry.
Some of my other favorites include Anaheim Chili (with a delicious variety) and TerraNova’s (a favorite local Italian place). For dinner, or a night out with the grownups, I would be remiss if I didn’t plug Below the Radar on Holmes Avenue downtown. It’s a pub with a huge selection of microbrew ales and some burgers that are true whoppers.
- U.S. Space Center: http://RocketCenter.org
- Sci-Quest: http://sci-quest.org/
- Huntsville Escape Rooms: at www.huntsvilleescaperooms.com/
- Von Braun Astronomical Society: http://www.vbas.org/.
- Little Rosie’s: https://www.littlerosiestaqueria.com/home
- Below the Radar: http://btrbrew.com/about-us/
- TerraNova’s: http://www.terranovasrestaurant.com/
- Ol’ Heidelberg: http://olheidelberg.com/
- Edith Ann’s: https://www.facebook.com/EdithAnnsTasteOfHome/
- Gibson’s BBQ: http://gibsonsbbq.com/
In closing, I can’t emphasize enough just how special Huntsville is. Whether we’re talking interplanetary exploration or research into national missile defense, if you’re interested in careers and education in STEM, you need to visit the Rocket City early and often. In Huntsville, the sky is not the limit. I know, I live here.
Your author is Keith Parker (that’s me). I am a real, live, breathing (thank goodness), authentic native of Huntsville, Alabama, spending my day job supporting computer modeling efforts at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center. In the evening, when I’m feeling creative, my laptop and I dream up some zany stories that would make The Twilight Zone look positively mundane. I’m also a feature writer about Star Trek for JustUsGeeks.com. My latest novel, Madness Rising, is a science fiction tale coauthored with Jack Parker, which will be published quite soon by KDP. I’m married to a brilliant and beautiful woman who is far too smart and good for me. We live near downtown with two awesome teens, a playful dog, and two rather unconventional cats. In addition to my family, I love history, hiking, humor, brewpubs, college football and collecting small, shiny objects.
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