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10 Great Space-Related Sites

9:34 AM, Jul 8, 2011   |    comments
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CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. -- With the final Space Shuttle launch planned for today, space fans soon will be facing cosmic withdrawal.

Never fear, an array of museums and historic sites can keep the high-flying spirit alive, says Shuttle astronaut Thomas D. Jones , who has spent 53 days living in space.

He shares some favorite earthbound sites with Larry Bleiberg  for USA TODAY.

Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex: Orsino, Florida 

There's no better place to immerse yourself in the saga of human space flight than this spot on the Florida coast.

"It's full of epic history," Jones says, including the first-manned flights, the moon missions and Space Shuttle launches.

He suggests taking the center's bus tour to the oceanfront launch pads for the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo missions.

"It's very evocative of that heroic age in the 1960s when we were racing to the moon."

Strategic Air & Space Museum: Ashland, Neb. 

For decades, space exploration was tied to the Cold War, a connection made clear at this dramatic museum just off Interstate 80.

The hanger-size halls contain huge bombers, and the missile out front underscores how weapons played a role in developing rockets.

"NASA had to use whatever tools that were around, and the Air Force was on the cutting edge," Jones says.

Space Center Houston 

As city boosters like to note, the first city name uttered on the moon was "Houston," the site of Mission Control.

The complex has directed all NASA space flights since 1965. "It's the twin brother to the Kennedy Space Center," Jones says.

It's also where he and scores of other astronauts were stationed as they trained for their outer space assignments.

Visitors can try out extensive hands-on displays and see where the Apollo launches were managed, now a National Historic Site.

U.S. Space & Rocket Center: Huntsville, Ala. 

Huntsville is known as "Rocket City" because of the area's role in developing the hardware to launch humans into space.

"It's the locus of the brute power of space flight," Jones says.

"This was the birthplace of the Saturn family of rockets that took astronauts to the moon."

The popular hands-on museum shows how it all happened.

NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory: Pasadena, Calif. 

The headquarters for robotic space exploration takes visitors across the solar system.

Free public tours, which must be arranged in advance, feature a replica of the Mars Exploration Rover.

"You get a taste of truly far-flung exploration, and where humans hope to follow some day." Jones says.

Smithsonian National Air & Space Museum: Washington, D.C. 

Washington's most popular museum is a must-stop for any space fan.

"This is the Mecca for American aviation and aerospace history," Jones says.

You'll see the Lunar Module, one of Robert Goddard's first rockets, and the German V-2 ballistic missile "It was a terror weapon that eventually led to the space program, putting humans into space more quickly than people thought at the time."

Meteor Crater: Winslow, Ariz. 

About 50,000 years ago, a meteor struck what's now northern Arizona and transformed the landscape.

Jones says the 2.4-mile circumference crater dramatically exhibits the power of extra-terrestrial objects.

"We're not just an isolated little world," Jones says.

"The course of life on Earth has been fundamentally impacted by cosmic powers."

The landscape is so unearthly that Apollo astronauts trained here for their moonwalk.

National Museum of the U.S. Air Force Dayton, Ohio 

Space travel has always been tied to flight, a connection made clear at this comprehensive museum.

"It's the keeper of all our aviation history from the Wright brothers to the space age, Jones says.

"It's magnificent." The space hall contains craft from the Apollo, Gemini and Mercury programs.

Kansas Cosmosphere & Space Center: Hutchinson, Kan. 

This surprising museum connects the nation's heartland with outer space.

The staff excels at restoring space craft.

Exhibit standouts include Soviet Sputniks and the Liberty Bell 7 Mercury capsule, which was recovered from the ocean floor.

Museum of Space History: Alamogordo, N.M . 

The White Sands in southern New Mexico has played a pivotal role in space history, from early rocket tests to research-balloon launches to serving as a training site for Space Shuttle pilots.

An overlook lets you see where these events occurred. Museum exhibits include a mock-up of the International Space Station.


USA Today

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