“Houston, we have a problem.”
Thanks to classic films like Apollo 13, most people have heard of NASA’s space centers in Houston, Texas, and Cape Canaveral, Florida. But not many know that NASA’s first space center is housed in a sleepy commuter town in central Maryland.
Goddard Space Flight Center was established in 1959 in Greenbelt, a suburb of Washington, DC. Why here? Economics and politics: the land was cheap and the location convenient to NASA’s DC headquarters.
Unlike its more-famous cousins, Goddard focuses on nonhuman space exploration. And in its 55-year-history, it has enormously contributed to our understanding of the universe. Its COBE mission confirmed the Big Bang theory through detailed measurement of cosmic radiation. The SWAS program discovered that water is prevalent throughout space. And its Hubble Space Telescope continues to provide us with achingly beautiful pictures of our universe.
Goddard itself is a sprawling campus locked down by road blocks and razor wire. More than 9,000 people work here, their daily life enhanced through perks like on-site restaurants, weekly farmers’ markets, and belly dancing lessons.
The public unfortunately doesn’t see this bustling mini-city. Instead, we plebs are directed to the visitor center, a welcoming building just outside Goddard’s fenced-in grounds.
The visitor center is interactive and entertaining for both children and adults. Touch-screen displays explain space phenomena like black holes and solar flares, while hands-on exhibits teach about magnetic fields and plasma.
Climb into a life-size model of the Gemini capsule and marvel at 1960s ingenuity while fighting down a claustrophobia-induced panic attack.
While at a model of the Webb telescope–the Hubble telescope’s successor, set for a 2018 launch–I wonder about other missions going forward. NASA’s budget is notoriously low for what they want to accomplish, and even though Goddard does important work, it’s not nearly as flashy as the manned programs overseen by other space flight centers.
That said, there is still some pizzazz to be found at Goddard. In addition to interactive exhibits and spacecraft models, genuine artifacts pepper the building. Spacecraft from the 1950s Vanguard program hang from the ceiling. A moon rock, brought back to Earth on Apollo 14, sits in a heavily alarmed display case.
It’s undeniably cool to see something that was once on another celestial body now just a few inches away.
Outside, a handful of large artifacts overlook the Goddard campus. Some, like the sounding rockets, have actually made their way into the heavens.
Others, like the Apollo capsule, were used for testing and training purposes.
The visitor center packs an enormous amount of things to see into its relatively small footprint. The staff are knowledgeable and eager to answer additional questions. The only real disappointment is the gift shop, which is unapologetically sold out of “astronaut” cinnamon apple wedges.
When I arrived, my car was nearly alone in the parking lot. When I leave, the place is filled with families, gleeful boys and girls scurrying from exhibit to exhibit. It’s a welcomed sight in this time of NASA budget cutbacks–only public support will get NASA the funding it needs to continue its critical exploration.
If You Go
Goddard is located at 8800 Greenbelt Road in Greenbelt, MD. Ample signage directs cars to the nearby visitor center. The visitor center is also accessible by public transportation from DC.
The visitor center is free and open Tuesday-Sunday. Exact hours depend on the season; check their website for details.
In addition to regular hours, the visitor center is also open for special events. The model rocket launches, held the first Sunday of every month, are particularly popular.