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Kids climb a simulated Martian mountain at the United States Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville.
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Space Campers carry out a simulated spacewalk in the USSRC’s Science On Orbit exhibit.
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The bust of Helen Keller stands outside Ivy Green, the birthplace of the famed disabled activist in Tuscumbia, Alabama.
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Many of the children who attend Space Camp in Huntsville every year may go on to careers in the aerospace industry.
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The Pie Factory in downtown Florence boasts that it offers some of the state’s best pizza. It’s a claim that would be hard to dispute.
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The U.S. Space and Rocket Center, one of Alabama’s top attractions, has a world-class collection of rockets and spacecraft, including the only full Space Shuttle launch stack in existence.
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The centerpiece of the U.S. Space and Rocket Center’s collection is one of only three Saturn V rockets remaining on planet Earth.
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An entirely different kind of flight awaits visitors at Below The Radar Brewhouse. Huntsville’s craft beer scene has taken off, with seven breweries opening in recent years.
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Lowe Mill Arts and Entertainment is the largest art facility of its kind in the Southeast.
Strange things grow in the Alabama red clay. You start to notice it everywhere about the time Highway 72 hits the Alabama state line. The northern end of the state is largely rural, but both high-tech experimenters and bleeding-heart soul singers have chosen this place to lay down roots.
You can get a sense of how Alabamans lived before the coming of the automobile and jet travel when you stop at Ivy Green, the birthplace of Helen Keller. The tiny clapboard cottage in Tuscumbia where the blind, deaf, and mute little girl was born, and the well pump where she first communicated with the outside world, are all lovingly preserved. Visiting Ivy Green is a rite of passage for school kids in the area, and the grounds are alive with the sound of chattering youngsters, although weekends are considerably calmer.
In the summer, the U.S. National Landmark regularly stages outdoor performances of The Miracle Worker, the award-winning story of Keller and her dedicated nurse Anne Sullivan.
Florence is just a short drive across the Tennessee River, and it’s clear how much things have changed in the last hundred years. Downtown Florence has become a hub of activity after years of neglect, says Nick Franks, co-owner of On The Rocks, the restaurant and live music venue whose opening in 2008 was the herald of a new era. “We always loved Downtown Florence,” he says. “There was some risk involved, but we thought it was worth it. We felt like it was the time, and we were eager to get started.”
The team’s second downtown property, The Pie Factory, has earned a reputation as the best pizza in Alabama since opening in late 2013. Their crust is both crunchy and chewy, like you want a good pizza to be; their toppings tend toward the spicy, like the Aretha Franklin, a double pepperoni with hot sauce.
“I love our musical heritage,” says Franks, whose menu also boasts a pizza called the Muscle Shoals Sound. “There’s a great sense of community here. … We feel like we’re connected and a part of a greater family.”
The Muscle Shoals SOUND
Producer Rick Hall kicked off the FAME Records musical journey in 1964 with “Steal Away,” a soul hit by Jimmy Hughes. “My dad started FAME back in the late 1950s,” says Rodney Hall, sitting in the studio’s small lobby. “It started as a publishing company, and then he built the studio and started having success as a producer. And 52 years later, we’re still rolling.”
There’s a deep connection between the Memphis and Muscle Shoals musical communities. Aretha Franklin’s career took off here with “Do Right Woman.” Legendary Memphis producer Jim Dickinson traveled here in 1969 to play piano on the Rolling Stones’ “Wild Horses,” one of three tracks the Stones recorded at Muscle Shoals Sound Studio. And the stories go on and on. “We just did ten days with Greg Allman, cutting his new album,” says Hall.
FAME’s hit-making ambiance is unchanged, but the bustling town outside the walls couldn’t be more different from the 1960s. “It’s funny. When I was a kid, everything on this street was all cotton fields,” says Hall. “When my dad built here, there was nothing.”
Why did this small Alabama town become a mecca for popular music? “There’s a lot of answers to that,” Hall says. “Things came together. The honest answer is that there’s not anything to do here except for play music and drink. People sat around on their porches and entertained each other. In the late 1950s, radio had been out for a while, but the recording industry was still developing. Albums weren’t even a big thing at that point; it was all singles. The recording industry certainly wasn’t in small towns. Nashville’s music industry didn’t take off until the early 1950s, so Muscle Shoals wasn’t far behind.”
Rocket City Brews
Arriving in Huntsville as the sun is going down, a prosperous little city with a metro-area population of 400,000, it’s hard to miss the Rocket. It’s a 363-foot replica of a Saturn V, the ship that took men to the moon. During World War II, the sleepy town of Huntsville was chosen by the U.S. Army as a place to manufacture ordnance such as artillery shells and rockets. After the war, German scientist Werner Von Braun brought his team to the Redstone Arsenal, and Huntsville became Rocket City.
Happily, one of the pleasant side effects of populating a town with chemists is that a lot of them took up brewing beer as a hobby. “I came up here right when the whole craft beer thing started taking off,” says Jason Allison, general manager of Below The Radar Brewhouse. “I’ve watched these breweries grow up; Straight to Ale and Yellowhammer were among the first to get going. We’re up to seven, and there’s an eighth that’s supposed to open Downtown soon.”
The other Huntsville breweries peddle their fare in tap rooms, but Below The Radar is the first full-service brew pub in town. Brewmaster Eric Tollisin makes a mean stout, and the hot wings are already legendary.
With more than 620,000 visitors last year alone, the number-one tourist attraction in the state of Alabama is the U.S. Space and Rocket Center (USSRC). “We’re the official visitor’s center of the Marshall Spaceflight Center,” says Pat Ammons, USSRC Director of Communications. “We have a lot of NASA artifacts, we have a lot of cooperation from NASA, and we’re great friends, but we receive no funding from NASA, and no operational funding from the state.”
Founded in 1970 during the heady days of the Apollo moon landing project, the USSRC boasts one of the greatest collections of spaceships on Earth. The Redstone Arsenal was the site of hundreds of rocket engine tests during the space race, and much of the test hardware that didn’t explode ended up here. A Redstone, the rocket that propelled Alan Shepard into space, sits a few meters from the prototype of John Glenn’s Atlas rocket. But the crown jewel of the rocket collection is the Saturn V, one of three left on this planet.
The one which towers over the Space and Rocket Center is a replica, built to give you the visceral understanding that this spacecraft that can fly at 25,000 mph is 40 stories tall. The real Saturn V is laid out inside its own protective building, surrounded by space artifacts and interpretive exhibits — the most fascinating of which goes into detail about the rocket’s massive computers, which boasted a then-whopping 100K of memory, and which performed flawlessly even when struck by lightning while going faster than the speed of sound. At the rocket’s tip sits a genuine lunar vehicle: Casper, the Apollo 16 Command Module which carried astronauts John Young, Charlie Duke, and Thomas Mattingly to their three-day stay on the Moon in April 1972.
But there’s a lot more to the USSRC than its priceless space artifacts. As we’re standing in an International Space Station simulator inside the new Science On Orbit exhibit, a group of kids clad in the distinctive blue flight suits of Space Camp runs through the module. Ammons asks where they’re from. “We are Indians from Dubai,” one boy says in careful but confident English. Then they’re off to complete their important mission.
Space Camp attracts young science enthusiasts from all over the world. “Not everyone who comes to Space Camp goes on to become an astronaut, but so many of them have gone on to work in the aerospace industry, engineering, and a wide variety of fields,” says Ammons. The driver of the Mars Curiosity rover is a Space Camp alum, as are the leading engineers in Amazon founder Jeff Bezos’ private space company, Blue Origins.
The five NASA astronauts the program has produced have all been women.
“I think for females, when they come here they see a level playing field in a way that they haven’t seen before,” says Ammons. “When you give people a level playing field, all sorts of things can happen. Teamwork is also a big part of our Space Camp program. It’s good to shine, but you can’t achieve anything if you try to do it all by yourself. … I have really come to appreciate the value of what we’re doing in space, the creativity, the teamwork, the passion. I can see what we do here at Space Camp, what a life-changing thing it can be. It’s such a positive thing to be a part of.”
Ammons says the most magical moments at the Space and Rocket Center are when the future and past of space exploration occasionally intersect. Shortly before Neil Armstrong’s death in 2012 at age 82, he came to the Marshall Spaceflight Center to honor the retirement of an original Apollo rocket scientist.
“He didn’t make many public appearances,” Ammon says. “But he walked down the center of the hall under that Saturn V rocket toward the stage that was set up in the front. All these Space Camp children were lined up, and he was shaking hands and high-fiving them. Everybody in that building was just tearing up.”
When puppeteer Anna Sue Courtney arrived in Huntsville, she didn’t see a city of scientists. “When I came here in the 1980s, the people I knew were mostly artists,” she says. “I worked at an Alabama Filmmaker’s Co-Op doing children’s programming. As many rocket, NASA, and Army people that are here, I didn’t know any of them. I sort of walked into this alternative community that was super-supportive.”
Some of those artists eventually organized into the Flying Monkey collective, which put on art shows, musical performances, and theatrical events that defy easy description. “We did a lot of what people would call pop-ups now,” she says.
But after years of moving from place to place, the troupe began looking for a more permanent home. “We thought, we could rent some place and not have to carry everything around!”
In 2003, the Flying Monkeys found a home in a sprawling, abandoned textile factory called Lowe Mill. “The owner saw the potential,” Courtney says. “We divided it up into studio spaces. We used to call them ‘art kennels.’ It took a long time to get air, but we had heat.”
Cleaning, painting, and organizing the space took time, but there were many willing hands. Eventually there was a regular artists market and a spacious theater. Music shows included the soon-to-be-superstars The Alabama Shakes. “They were just called The Shakes back then,” recalls Courtney.
Courtney says the spirit of experimentation helped make Lowe Mill the largest arts space in the entire Southeast. “There was not really any model for doing this. A lot of things have happened in 13 years. I think it would have been really hard to start with a single artist here or there. You couldn’t have generated enough energy. There were maybe 15 people, and we were bringing live music and visual art and lots of craziness. We would make up really strange events. We kicked up a lot of commotion.”
Lowe Mill’s improbable success has surprised even the people who were already there. “We moved in during the Year of the Monkey, and here it is, the Year of the Monkey again,” Courtney says. “We didn’t know we would be here for a full cycle.”
With an educated population of scientists, military personnel, artists, and techies, it’s no wonder that a vibrant culinary scene has begun to spring up in Huntsville. Five years ago, Chef Stephen Bunner opened his restaurant, called 1892 East, in the city’s Five Points historic district. He wanted a “high-quality, casual-based food in an inviting environment that used local and regionally sourced agreements wherever feasible. I wanted it to be Southern influenced without being purely Southern. That way if I wanted to do a little pesto garnish, I could do it.”
But he wanted to avoid the fine-dining label. “That makes you a special-occasion restaurant, and I didn’t want that. We have a large base of regulars. The neighborhood has accepted us. The city as a whole has also accepted us.”
1892 East combines the best aspects of haute cuisine and a down-to-earth eatery. “Traditional Southern cooking is a lot like traditional French cooking, in that you cook from the ground up,” Bunner says. “You cook what you have. That didn’t always mean cooking richly, but it did mean cooking rich food well.”
Chef Bunner’s influences come together in his exceptional stuffed, pan-roasted trout with sautéed onion and Serrano-style ham filling on fingerling potatoes and a bed of garlic-braised greens. His menu also boasts an extensive vegetarian menu featuring a grilled tempeh dish with roasted sweet potatoes, wilted spinach, and a rosemary and lemon pesto, making 1892 East a must for non-meat eaters visiting the Rocket City.
The Huntsville area is in the midst of some explosive growth, which pleases longtime residents like Bunner. “It’s a mishmash of high tech and agriculture,” he says. “Huntsville’s history is in the soil, but its head and future continue to be in the clouds.” For more information on where to stay and where to eat when visiting, go to huntsville.org.