10. Green Bank National Radio Observatory
Home of the world’s largest (100 meters in diameter) fully steerable radio telescope, the Robert C. Byrd telescope in Green Bank, West Virginia, came online in August 2000. Green Bank also serves as part of the High Sensitivity Array, a group of linked radio telescopes spanning the North American continent with the resolving power of one large instrument via a process known as Very Long Baseline Interferometry. A Science Center complete with interactive exhibits is also onsite, and public and group tours are available. Another impressive collection of radio telescopes open to the public is the Very Large Array, near Socorro, New Mexico, featured in a previous story on this site.
9. McDonald Observatory
Located near Fort Davis in West Texas, The McDonald Observatory is just a day trip out of El Paso. The main workhorse of this complex is the 9.2 meter Hobby-Eberly telescope, and while you won’t get to look through that particular instrument, public viewing is conducted, weather permitting, through a 36-inch reflecting telescope. Solar viewing is also open for the public in a dome located adjacent to the visitor’s center.
8. Kitt Peak National Observatory
Located 55 miles southwest of Tucson, Arizona, Kitt Peak National Observatory is open to the public and houses 26 separate astronomical instruments. Although surpassed by larger complexes such as the newer Large Binocular Telescope on Mount Graham in the same state, Kitt Peak remains a center for astronomical research and a great place to really appreciate the true diversity of telescope design. Highlights to watch for are the McMath-Pierce Solar Telescope, the largest solar telescope in the world, and the 4-meter Mayall Telescope. Kitt Peak also offers a nighttime observation program as well as overnight sessions for advanced observers to image through 16-inch & 20-inch instruments.
7. Lowell Observatory
Located in Flagstaff, Arizona, don’t miss the historic Lowell Observatory for a look at turn-of-the 20th century astronomy in the United States. Established in 1894 by Percival Lowell, his remarkable 24-inch Alvan & Clark refractor is still used for public outreach. Most of the modern-day research takes place at the observatory’s Anderson Mesa site 12 miles southeast of town, but Mars Hill is an excellent place to start your own cosmic explorations. In addition to the refractor that Lowell used to make his spurious observations of Martian canals, don’t miss the 13-inch Pluto Discovery Telescope. Flagstaff is also a great home base for visiting the Grand Canyon and another notable astronomical site, Meteor Crater.
6. Kansas Cosmosphere and Space Center
The Great Plains might be the last place you’d expect to find a notable space museum, but that’s what you’ll experience in Hutchinson, Kansas, at the Kansas Cosmosphere and Space Center. Not only does it house a world-class planetarium, but the Cosmosphere has one of the world’s largest collections of space hardware, second only to the National Air and Space Museum, and the largest collection of Soviet space equipment outside of Russia. An SR-71 Blackbird is also on display, as well as Mercury and Gemini hardware and the original Apollo 13 Command Module.
5. Johnson Space Flight Center
Located in Houston, NASA’s Lyndon B. Johnson Space Flight Center is the home for the U.S. space agency’s manned spaceflight program. As a consequence, most astronauts and their families live in the surrounding community, and you may just catch a glimpse of a T-38 on a training flight whizzing by. Highlights include the Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory (one of the largest swimming pools in the world) and the old Apollo Mission Control. Catch a glimpse of the current control room where technicians supervise operations aboard the International Space Station.
4. Jet Propulsion Laboratory
Headquartered in Pasadena, California, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory is to robotic spaceflight what the Johnson Space Flight Center is to manned missions. Landers and spacecraft on Mars or in orbit around Jupiter and Saturn have all been conceived of and controlled here, including the Voyager spacecraft on their Grand Tour of the outer solar system and the twin Viking spacecraft. JPL is also the home of NASA’s worldwide Deep Space Network. Don’t miss highlights include the 25-Foot Space Simulator and the Space Flight Operations Facility.
3. U.S. Space and Rocket Center
Located on land donated by the nearby Redstone Arsenal near Huntsville, Alabama, the United States Space and Rocket Center contains more than 1,500 pieces of space hardware, including a fully restored Saturn V rocket and a full-size space shuttle orbiter mockup mounted on an external tank and twin solid-rocket motors. Rocket pioneer Dr. Wernher von Braun conceived of the facility as a way to get the public excited about space exploration. Opened in 1970, the grounds now include an IMAX and Space Shot and G-Force simulators, and every year the facility hosts a Space Camp, which was made famous by the 1986 movie of the same name.
2. Kennedy Space Center
This is the heart of Florida’s Space Coast, located near Titusville and just outside of Orlando. The Kennedy Space Center conducts NASA’s manned space launches, and the adjacent Cape Canaveral Air Force Station hosts a majority of the U.S. East Coast’s unmanned missions (Wallops Island, Virginia, is the other East Coast facility). The KSC visitors center also contains a world-class IMAX theater and well-organized bus tours that lead visitors through Apollo-era control rooms, a viewing gantry, and a shuttle simulator.
1. National Air and Space Museum
Housing the largest collection of spacecraft and aircraft in the world, the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum is one of the most popular attractions in Washington D.C. In addition to housing such aviation icons as the Spirit of St. Louis and the 1903 Wright Flyer, keep an eye out for such historic spacecraft as Friendship 7, the Apollo 11 command module and an un-flown Apollo Lunar Module and Pioneer spacecraft. Simple words don't do justice in describing the rich collection of U.S. history on display here. And don’t forget the Smithsonian’s satellite museum near Dulles International Airport, the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center, which currently houses the Space Shuttle Enterprise.