Wednesday, January 27, 2010

U.S. Space & Rocket Center


Marshall Tour Continued! And I cannot stress enough that it was a truly grand place to visit... grand timing, too. In January of 1960, President Dwight D. Eisenhower transferred the Army Ballistic Missile Agency, led by Dr. Wernher von Braun, to the newly created National Aeronautics & Space Administration, beginning formation of NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center. 2010 is this their 50th anniversary!

I learned this and many other useful facts while touring through multiple exhibits. To my great delight, Heather S. arranged for a knowledgeable tour guide to escort us through Marshall’s museums:

Al Whitaker
Left: Space Camp's Media Man, Al Whitaker

Al Whitaker, Media Relations Director of the U.S. Space & Rocket Center, is also a 17-year veteran news anchor and reporter for WAAY TV in Huntsville, and thusly an easily recognized, respected figure. What a bonus! Being guided by him through various areas and artifacts – from Saturn V to Huntsville's contribution to American rocketry – was decidedly more fun and educational than wandering alone. And boy does he have some great stories...!

For example, one of my favorite artifacts is the solar array and other items from Skylab, which was managed by Marshall Space Flight Center, and proved man could live and work in space.

Skylab was one of the first things I remember seeing on television as a child: how they ran experiments in micro-gravity, how Skylab hosted the first physician in space (astronaut Dr. Joseph Kerwin) – and of course, how debris unfortunately plummeted onto Western Australia in July of 1979.

Imagine THAT falling in your backyard

As pieces re-entered Earth’s atmosphere, sonic booms and all, Dorothy and Mervin Andre of the town of Esperance collected another oxygen tank similar to the one above, spherical containers, a hundred-pound door hatch and various strips and shards of metal.

Al said that Mervin (town council president at the time), issued a ticket for littering to the visiting Americans of the recovery team! That cracked me up! I sure don’t recall hearing that story on television at the time, but merely remember thinking the Australian government was remarkably cool about the whole thing, having announced from the capital city of Canberra that Skylab had "fallen harmlessly into the ocean" while pieces were in fact raining down over The Outback.

I actually went a-Googling for details, and found that the Andre couple now operate The Skylab Museum of Australia, which gets about 12,000 annual visitors. Seems they’re proud and happy to share their salvage, and even happier to remind Americans that the ticket remained unpaid for three decades.

Last July, they held an anniversary celebration whereby two American radio hosts, Barker & Barley of Highway Radio, challenged their morning listeners to raise the $400 necessary to pay the littering fine on NASA’s behalf, finally settling the ticket in 2009.

Al Whitaker
Al & Me in the US Space & Rocket Center

Check out the Marshall Photo Gallery on Picasa to see some of the other items from famous space projects, including Project Gemini’s mission simulator, the first monkeys in space, the Skylab Spiders and more! Thank you so much for the great tour, Al... I had a blast! :)