Recent photos sent from Mars may have sparked your family’s interest in space exploration. Fuel your kids excitement about the solar system and space flight by visiting a NASA center. It might lead to a life-long fascination with NASA and aviation. Read for the best places to learn about the moon, the stars and everything in between (and that’s lots!!!) at a NASA location in the U.S.
I grew up in Houston. NASA was in my backyard. Back then, Houston schools hosted legends like astronaut Alan Shepard, who spoke at school assemblies to excite kids about space exploration. Most students in the 80s would gather around a classroom TV to watch the live Space Shuttle launches.From an childhood interest in NASA to a career in aviation, I understand how learning about space as a kid can lead to a lifelong obsession with space exploration. I always tour a NASA location while on vacation since each offers kids a lesson in STEM education. And best of all, NASA visitor centers are fun, with lots of hands-on activities.
NASA Locations to Visit
Space exploration and space flights are in the news all the time. So if your kids are drawn to space and space exploration, head to an official NASA Visitor Center to ignite their curiosity. NASA visitor centers offer retired orbiters, rockets of all sizes along with space suits. Kids can learn with interactive displays and see STEM skills in action as engineers, mathematicians and other scientists learn how to explore space safely.
The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) is headquartered in Washington D.C. and offers NASA centers across the U.S. along with research facilities. Though not all locations are open for visitors on a regular basis and some require reservations months in advance. So here are the best places to learn about NASA with kids.
4 Places to See a Retired Space Shuttle Orbiter
Space and air museums across the country fought for a chance to display a retired Space Shuttle orbiter. Visit one of four locations that house a Space Shuttle to see one on your next family getaway.
- Kennedy Space Center
- California Science Center
- Udvar-Hazy Center
- Intrepid Sea Land Space Museum
Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral Florida
As the mothership of the NASA Visitor Centers, Kennedy Space Center (or KSC) is a must. A quick road trip from Orlando, Kennedy Space Center offers the Space Shuttle Orbiter Atlantis along with a comprehensive history of the NASA space program.
First learn about the early days of the NASA space program. Then see a Saturn V rocket from the Apollo mission to the moon. Another must is learning about the Hubble Space Telescope.
Or sign up for the Astronaut Training Experience at the Kennedy Space Center. Yep, spend five hours training for the Mission to Mars. Reservations and additional admission required.
Finally spend a few hours seeing the highlights or several days exploring all the exhibits. Kennedy Space Center might even ignite a lifetime passion for space exploration in your kids.
Located on SR 405 in the Kennedy Space Center, parking is additional. Admission based on age.
This is an active launch facility for equatorial orbit launches, so check out the NASA.gov site for the upcoming launch schedule.
Read More: Guide to Visiting Kennedy Space Center
California Science Center in Los Angeles
As one of the locations to see a retired Space Shuttle, this is a must for the adventurers. With half of the facility dedicated to space exploration, the California Science Center in Los Angeles offers lots of aircraft to see in and around the facility.
First see the Endeavor, a retired Orbiter from the U.S. Space Shuttle program. Since the Space Shuttle orbiters were built in California, part of the exhibit focuses on the people and parts integral to the program.
Then find the Apollo-Soyuz command module. It docked with the Russian Soyuz aircraft in 1975. Finally see the Gemini 11 capsule from 1966. The Gemini mission bridged the gap from the Mercury missions to the Moon-bound Apollo missions.
Located at 700 Exposition Park Dr. in Los Angeles. Admission based on age.
Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly Virginia
Since the main Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum is filled to the rafters, an annex was built to house the Space Shuttle Orbiter Discovery. Located near Washington Dulles International Airport, kick off a Washington D.C. museum week at the Udvar-Hazy Center.
With two hangars of aviation and space artifacts, you’ll see more than the space shuttle. And be sure to check out the Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird. Then see an IMAX movie before heading up to the Donald D. Engen Observation Tower for a 360-degree view of Washington Dulles International Airport.
Located at 14390 Air and Space Parkway in Chantilly, Virginia. It’s free to visit though pay for parking.
Intrepid Sea Land Space Museum in New York City
Discover the Space Shuttle Orbiter Enterprise floating on New York City’s Hudson River. It never flew in space since it lacked engines and a functional heat shield. But it was launched from a modified Boeing 747 for testing.
Then find a British Airways Concorde on the deck of the aircraft carrier, U.S.S. Intrepid. Finally duck into the USS Growler, a submarine that was once the missile command center.
Located at Pier 86 (W.46th St. at 11th Avenue) on New York City’s west side. Admission based on age.
Other NASA Sites to Discover
NASA is more than the Shuttle Program. So learn about the Mission to Mars along with NASA’s Earth Science missions at other NASA locations across the U.S.
Space Center Houston
As the official Visitor Center for NASA’s Johnson Space Center, Space Center Houston is another location packed with space fun. And it’s where Mission Control is located and astronaut training occurs.
In a sprawling complex a tram ride is required to see all the attractions. The standout exhibit is the original shuttle carrier NASA 905 (a Boeing 747) with a full-scale replica space shuttle mounted on top.
Located at 1601 NASA Parkway south of Houston, Texas. Adult admission (12+) is $29.95 and kids admission (4 to 11) is $24.95.
U.S. Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville Alabama
A must for every visitor to Huntsville, the U.S. Space and Rocket Center features a sprawling complex where I found the largest collection of rockets and space memorabilia in the world. A day’s worth of discovery and learning awaits along with an IMAX theater and glimpse into Space Camp.
As a Smithsonian affiliate and the Official Visitor Center of NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center, the U.S. Space and Rocket Center features a rocket park with 27 missiles and rockets that grew into the NASA program. I also found the Space Shuttle Pathfinder, a test simulator along with one of the original Saturn V rockets.
Located at One Tranquility Base in Huntsville, Alabama. Admission based on age.
Visit the official NASA Visitor Center of Langley Research Center. It’s the birthplace of America’s space program, that celebrated its 60th birthday in 2018.
Learn about 100 years of flight and see 30 historic aircraft. Don’t miss the Apollo 12 Command Module that landed on the moon.
Located at 600 Settlers Landing, Hampton, Virginia. Admission based on age.
INFINITY Space Center in Mississippi
Visit the official NASA Visitor Center for the Stennis Space Center, where you can explore America’s largest rocket engine testing facility. Then walk through a mock-up of the International Space Station’s Destiny module.
Learn about the SLS program, Space Launch System, destined to take humans to Mars. Then see the Saturn V S-1C booster from the cancelled Apollo 19 mission at the INFINITY Space Center.
Located at 1 Discovery Circle in Pearlington, Mississippi. Admission based on age.
NASA Goddard Visitor Center in Maryland
As the official NASA visitor center for the Goddard Space Flight Center, it’s close to Washington, D.C. And this facility focuses on Earth Science, so here’s where to learn how NASA explores the Earth from space. It is also associated with the Goddard Institute for Space Studies.
First learn about Goddard Space Flight Center’s James Webb telescope, launching later in 2018. Then learn about Hubbard Space Telescope, that’s been in orbit for 25 years.
Finally learn about the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter and its mission to map the moon’s surface, launched in 2009. It’s looking for ice, or water, and suitable places to land on the moon, important for the upcoming SLS Mission to Mars. And don’t miss a walk through Goddard’s Rocket Garden.
Located next to Goddard Space Flight Center on ICESat Road, it’s free to visit.
Great Lakes Science Center in Cleveland Ohio
Visit the NASA Glenn Visitor Center, located inside the Great Lakes Science Center. Learn about living in space in a dedicated gallery. Then see the Skylab 3 Apollo Command Module.
Located at 601 Erieside Avenue in Cleveland, Ohio. Free with admission to the Great Lakes Science Center admission.
NASA Ames Research Center in California
In a smaller facility, learn about Ames contributions to current and past NASA missions. NASA Ames Research Center features rotating exhibitions. See a moon rock or the Mercury Redstone capsule launched in December 1960.
Located inside the Ames Research Center at Moffett Field off U.S. 101. Temporarily closed.
Who Wants to Go to SPACE CAMP?
Future astronauts and aerospace engineers start at Space Camp. Several astronauts cite Space Camp as the place that launched their desire to join NASA.
So this is the destination for your children if they flip on their flashlights to study the stars after bedtime. Don’t fuss, sign them up for an upcoming session.
With programs for kids as young as 7 all the way to adults, Space Camp offers STEM-based camps in a variety of topics. Find two-day introductory mini-camps or week-long summer resident camps, future astronauts get a taste of the space life without leaving Alabama.
For families that share a love of space, Space Camp offers family camp. In a three-day program, families work together to learn about rocket construction and use training simulators.
Aviation Challenge Camp
Learn to fly like a military fighter pilot in this aviation focused camp.
- Mach I ages 9 to 11
- Family Aviation Challenge with kids 7 and older
- Mach II ages 12 to 14
- Mach III ages 15 to 18
Train like an astronaut with a simulated mission to space.
- Space Camp ages 9 to 11
- Space Academy ages 12 to 14
- Advanced Space Academy ages 15 to 18
- Adult Space Camp ages over 18
- Family Space Camp with kids 7 and older
Space Camp Robotics
Make and manuever robots on land, in the air and under water.
- Robotics Camp ages 9 to 11
- Robotics Academy ages 12 to 14
Additional camps for teachers and educators as well as group camps.
Space Camp is located at the U.S. Space and Rocket Center. Meals and lodging are provided in camp-like dorms.
Wanna See a NASA Launch?
To get an up-close look at a NASA launch requires an invitation and thorough background check. The general public can catch a glimpse of a launch at Kennedy Space Center in Florida, Vanderberg Air Force Base in California and Wallops Flight Center on Wallops Island in Virginia.
Kennedy Space Center actually sells tickets for upcoming official NASA launches. Learn more about the price and process on the Kennedy Space Center website. This site is used for equatorial orbital launches.
Vanderberg Air Force Base offers free viewing spots for official NASA launches. A bus ride is required since the site doesn’t offer public parking. Another option for rocket launches is a beach since the rockets head out over the Pacific Ocean. This site is used for polar orbital launches.
NASA Wallops Flight Center offers free viewing spots for NASA launches from the Visitor Center. Located just four miles from the launch pad with free parking on a first-come, first-served basis. This site is used for sub-orbital NASA launches.
Read More: Guide to Port Canaveral in Florida
Other NASA Locations
Named after famed astronaut John Glenn, this NASA facility designs and develops innovate technology in aeronautics and space exploration. It does not offer in-person tours at this time though virtual tours are offered once a month. The NASA Glenn Research Center is located Cleveland, Ohio, and has another facility in Sandusky, the former Plum Brook Station.
Originally founded in the 1930s, the Jet Propulsion Lab (or JPL) is a research and development center managed by California Institute of Technology. It builds and tests robotic spacecraft at its facility in a cleanroom. It doesn’t offer in-person tours though take a virtual tour to see the Spacecraft Assembly Facility. The NASA Jet Propulsion Lab is located in Pasadena, California.
Originally named the NASA Dryden Flight Research Center, it was renamed after astronaut Neil Armstrong. It is the premier location for the atmospheric flight research and operations. As the home to the Shuttle Carrier Aircraft, the modified Boeing 747 that carried the Space Shuttle Orbiter is parked at the center. It is located in Edwards, California on Edwards Air Force Base so tours are arranged through the Air Force Public Affairs Office.
As a part of the NASA Marshall Space Flight Center, the Michoud Assembly Facility has one of the largest production buildings in the U.S. Formerly it assembled the space shuttle external fuel tanks and now works on the space launch system (or SLS) for the next generation of space exploration. It is located in New Orleans, Louisiana and not offering tours at the moment.
Officially named the Mary W. Jackson NASA Headquarters, the famed NASA mathematician, it is located in Washington, D.C. It doesn’t offer tours.
The NASA White Sands Test Facility is a rocket engine test facility that tests and evaluates space flight components. It is located near Las Cruces, New Mexico, and doesn’t offer tours.