14 NASA Sites Every Space Nerd Must Visit
Celebrate NASA’s birthday by visiting any one of these Space Nerd approved sites around the United States.
Every product is independently selected by our editors. If you buy something through our links, we may earn an affiliate commission.
Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex
Walk the famous Rocket Garden and be in awe of NASA giants, including rockets from the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo programs, and get stars in your eyes in the astronaut hall of fame at the legendary Kennedy Space Center on Florida’s Space Coast. But, the #1 reason every NASA nerd needs to make the pilgrimage to Kennedy is the Astronaut Training Experience, where you can train like the next generation of space explorers getting ready to blast off to Mars. Do you know that NASA has made a lot more than just space shuttles and astronaut suits? Here are 15 everyday items NASA invented.
Smithsonian Air & Space Museum
The most popular Smithsonian Museum on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. features nearly 60,000 space-centric objects from space gloves, NASA rockets, a Mercury capsule, and Neil Armstrong’s Apollo 11 spacesuit. Like the rest of the fabulous Smithsonian museums, the Air & Space Museum is free to enter, and should without a doubt be at the top of the list for NASA nerds. Here are 24 amazing facts you didn’t know about NASA!
Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center
This annex in Chantilly, Virginia serves as a companion to the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum on the National Mall. The Udvar-Hazy Center consists of two massive hangars with thousands of aviation and space artifacts, including a Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird, Concorde, and the Space Shuttle Discovery, and is a must-visit for space nerds when in the Washington D.C. area. Here things you probably don’t know about space travel.
Space Center Houston
You know the line, “Houston, we have a problem!” Now go to the famous space center near downtown Houston to revel in the Starship Gallery, the home of multiple flown spacecraft and national treasures, and get an up-close look at artifacts that trace the progression of space exploration—from the Apollo 17 Command Module, a full-size Skylab Training module, and a Moon rock you can actually touch. Valerie Stimac, dark sky expert and author of the new Lonely Planet book Dark Skies: A Practical Guide to Astrotourism, recommends splurging on the VIP tour of the Johnson Space Center, noting that, “the basic tram tour is fun, but the VIP tour takes you much deeper into the workings at Johnson—it’s ideal for those who already know some of NASA’s current projects and want to learn even more.”
Museum of Science and Industry
This fantastic Chicago museum isn’t NASA focused but is home to the Apollo 8 capsule (the first manned spacecraft to orbit the moon) and the Aurora 7 module. Bring your NASA nerd kids to spend hands-on time in the cool re-creation of the International Space Station—where future space travelers can push buttons, learn about the dry food “enjoyed” by astronauts, and pretend they are blasting off into outer space.
California Science Center
“At California Science Center in Los Angeles, don’t miss out on seeing the external tank outside once you’ve spent time with the Space Shuttle Endeavour,” urges Stimac. She adds that, “this is a temporary setup, but you can look down the length of the massive tank to get a sense of the scale for what it took to launch the shuttles.”
Jet Propulsion Laboratory
Unlike the other NASA nerd locations on this list, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) is slightly more difficult to gain access to however individual and group tours are available for free with advance reservation. Once inside you will see the “unique research facility that carries out robotic space and Earth science missions.” The JPL developed America’s first Earth-orbiting satellite, first successful interplanetary spacecraft, and deploys robot missions to study planets, comets and the moon. This site in Pasadena, California is a must for space nerds because it was the Jet Propulsion Lab that helped first open the Space Age! Tours include visits to the Space Flight Operations Facility and the Spacecraft Assembly Facility.
U.S. Space & Rocket Center
There are several reasons to visit this NASA site in Huntsville, Alabama but the biggest is the chance to see a true National Historic Landmark—an authentic Saturn V rocket—one of only three in the world, along with the Jupiter IRBM, Juno II, Mercury-Redstone, Redstone, and Jupiter-C rockets. Stimac of SpaceTourismGuide.com says you should “book your tour of Marshall Space Flight Center in advance. There’s only one tour per day, and it can easily fill up depending on how many people are visiting on a given day.”
Goddard Visitor Center
NASA established this center in Greenbelt, Maryland as its first space flight complex in 1959 and today Goddard studies the Earth, sun, our solar system, and the universe. Here, you can learn about the Hubble Telescope which has been in orbit for 25 years, explore the landing sites of the Apollo missions and examine a moon rock that Apollo 14 carried back to Earth. And don’t dare miss the tree in the traffic circle in front of the Visitor Center: It is a sycamore tree that flew as a seed aboard Apollo 14 as part of a joint project between NASA and the U.S. Forest Service.
Vandenberg Air Force Base
SpaceTourismGuide.com’s Valerie Stimac offers up her best insider tip for an awesome off-the-beaten-path NASA experience, noting that, “While most people head to Florida for rocket launches, don’t overlook the chance to see a launch in California. NASA launches from Vandenberg Air Force Base near Lompoc, California. Granted, the launches aren’t as frequent as they are from Kennedy Space Center in Florida, but this should be added to your NASA bucket list. Speaking of, here’s a bucket list idea for every state.