5 Must-Visit National Space Day Destinations
PHOTO: The Horsehead Nebula. (photo courtesy of Thinkstock, all other photos via Wikimedia Commons)
Happy National Space Day! Observed annually on the first Friday in May, this cosmic day was popularized by former astronaut and Senator John Glenn and is meant to celebrate the accomplishments and usefulness of space exploration while inspiring youngsters to pursue space-related careers. It is tradition to share favorite space photos on the day using the hashtag #NationalSpaceDay, but why not have a real-life cosmic adventure at the following destinations?
1) Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, Washington DC
PHOTO: Apollo 11's Command Module at the Smithsonian.
Opened in 1976, the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum contains the largest collection of aerospace artifacts in the world. Some amazing, historical hardware is on display here. An example of the U.S. Air Force’s experimental X-15 rocket plane that brought intrepid pilots into the lower reaches of space dangles from the ceiling, and Columbia, Command Module for the Apollo 11 mission, holds court for starters — but everywhere you turn here there is some iconic nugget of space history to enjoy, including a bona fide moon rock.
Don’t miss the The Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Virginia — a satellite location of the Air and Space Museum. The Space Shuttle Discovery has a permanent home there, alongside other aerospace all-star vehicles.
2) Kennedy Space Center, Cape Canaveral, FL
PHOTO: Kennedy Space Center's rocket garden.
KSC is hallowed ground for U.S. space history. The very first manned American space mission (and the second manned mission ever) took off from here, progressing to lunar missions flown on the skyscraper-sized Saturn V, followed by all the Space Shuttle missions.
Landmark unmanned missions also departed from here — including the first U.S. satellite and rockets that sent probes to all eight planets, and out into interstellar space.
This Floridian spaceport is thriving into the future as well, with commercial spaceflights ramping up, and NASA’s next manned foray into deep space coming soon.
With some strategic planning, visitors will have the opportunity to witness a launch and/or meet a real-life astronaut.
3) Maunakea, The Big Island, Hawaii
The peak of Maunakea, a dormant volcano on The Big Island of Hawaii is not only the highest point in the 50th state at nearly 14,000 feet, it’s also one of the world’s top spots for astronomical observations. Slightly lower at 9,200 feet, the visitor’s center is the prime spot for visitor stargazing, as summit telescopes are private. Once you acclimate to the altitude, enjoy a free observation put on by staff and volunteers. Don’t forget to dress warmly and have a full tank of gas.
4) Baikonur Cosmodrome, Kazakhstan
Baikonur was once the super-secret center for Soviet Union space launches — the first human spaceflight by Yuri Gagarin is but one historical mission that took off from here. But as the Cold War thawed, the area has become more open to tourism. Companies such as Best Russian Tours are offering itineraries that bring travelers right up to Soyuz rockets and launch pads with expert scientists and historians leading the way.
5) Visit the Apollo Program Landing Sites
PHOTO: The Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter's image of the Apollo 11 landing site.
OK, this one will have to wait for a National Space Day in a decade or three. No doubt when humans begin colonizing the moon, the Apollo landing sites will be considered must-visit destinations. Future guided tours to these locations will take lunar tourists through a host of landscapes. Earlier missions landed in the flat lunar maria — Apollo 11 touched down in the Sea of Tranquility and Apollo 12, the Ocean of Storms. But later missions landed in some spectacular areas — Apollo 17, the last of these first lunar missions, had astronauts towered over by mountains while they explored a valley deeper than the Grand Canyon in the Taurus-Littrow region.
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