The Astronomer’s Guide to Vacationing in the United States

So many people liked my “Astronomer’s Guide to Vacationing in Europe” that I thought it would only be right to do the same for astronomy vacationers in the US. A vacation in the United States includes access to some of the world’s most famous astronomical sites including observatories and museums. Modern day astronomy is exciting here, so don’t miss out on these unique and memorable experiences.

There are hundreds of hundreds of astronomical observatories in the US so obviously I’m not going to list them all here. I’ve just listed some of the better known places with regular access and educational programs for the public. I’ve also included the most well known museums with a space (not aviation) or astronomy theme. Happy to add more if I’ve missed some. Please let me know if you have a favorite.

If you take a vacation in the US, take some time out and scratch your astronomy itch. Your spouse may even enjoy the experience with you.

Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum, Washington D.C. Where better to start then the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum. This museum maintains the world’s largest and most significant collection of aviation and space artifacts, and related works of art. It’s two facilities welcome more than eight million visitors a year, making it the most visited museum in the US. It also is home to the Center for Earth and Planetary Studies.

The Museum in Washington, DC, which opened in 1976 and is located on the National Mall in the heart of Washington, DC. The museum’s second building is the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center, located near Washington Dulles International Airport in Chantilly, Virginia. It is a massive structure with open, hangar-like settings that accommodate large aircraft and spacecraft, as well as entire collections of aviation and space artifacts.

The United States Naval Observatory, Washington DC is located on the grounds of the home of the Vice president of the United States. The Observatory is the official source of time for the U.S. Department of Defense and a standard of time for the entire United States. The Observatory produces data and products in the following areas: Astrometry (Integrated Image and Catalog Archive Service, star catalogs, etc.); Astronomical Applications (e.g., rise/set times, Moon phase, etc.); and information on astronomical phenomena and related topics, astronomical and navigational almanacs, and software products. Public tours of the U.S. Naval Observatory are available on a limited basis.

The Hayden Planetarium is a public planetarium, part of the Rose Center for Earth and Space of the American Museum of Natural History in New York City.

The Hayden planetarium is been one of the two main attractions within the Rose Center. The Rose Center receives 5,000 people per hour. The top half of the Hayden Sphere houses the Star Theater, which uses high-resolution video and customized Zeiss Star Projector system to project awesome space shows. The bottom half of the Sphere is home to the Big Bang Theater, which depicts the birth of the universe in a four-minute program.

The Size Scales of the Universe exhibit which shows the vast array of sizes in the universe; the walkway is a timeline of the Universe from the Big Bang to the present. The Cosmic Pathway shows the history of the universe and the Hall of the Universe explores the realms of planets, stars, and galaxies. The Hall of Planet Earth features geology, weather, plate tectonics and more.

The Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum is a military and maritime history museum with a collection of museum ships in New York City. The museum showcases the aircraft carrier USS Intrepid, the submarine USS Growler, a Concorde SST, and a Lockheed A-12 supersonic reconnaissance plane. The only reason to include this museum is because it hosts the prototype space shuttle – Space Shuttle Enterprise and I am a big Star trek fan.

The U.S. Space & Rocket Center in Huntsville, Alabama is a museum operated by the government of Alabama, showcasing rockets, achievements, and artifacts of the U.S. space program. The center showcases Apollo Program hardware as well as interactive science exhibits, Space Shuttle and Army rocketry and aircraft. With more than 1,500 permanent rocketry and space exploration artifacts, as well as many rotating rocketry and space-related exhibits. The center offers bus tours of nearby NASA Marshall Space Flight Center

The Arecibo Radio Observatory is located in Arecibo, Puerto Rico. The US National Science Foundation sponsors several universities to operate it. The observatory’s 1,000 ft (305 m) radio telescope is the world’s largest single-aperture telescope. It is used in three major areas of research: radio astronomy, aeronomy, and radar astronomy.

The radio telescope is famous from its appearances in films, most notably the movie Contact with Jodie Foster. It is listed on the American National Register of Historic Places beginning.

The Arecibo Observatory’s Ángel Ramos Foundation Visitor Center has lectures, as well as interactive exhibits and displays about the operations of the radio telescope, astronomy, and atmospheric science.

A tour of the Kennedy Space Center, Merritt Island, Florida, should be on everyone’s bucket list. Short of becoming an astronaut, there’s no better way to experience and the enormity and excitement of the US space program. KSC has several types of tours ranging from bus tours to visiting operational facilities. I recommend you take the most in depth tour you can afford. I escorted VIP tours for 11 shuttle launches and I can tell you KSC is an extraordinary place. Make time and save some money for the Apollo/Saturn V Center which features a massive 363-foot-long Saturn V rocket.

Just outside Kennedy Space Center is the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex. It features exhibits and displays, historic spacecraft and memorabilia, shows, two IMAX theaters, a range of bus tours of the spaceport, and the Shuttle Launch Experience, a simulated ride into space. There are nearly 2 million visitors per year.

The United States Astronaut Hall of Fame, is located just south of Titusville, Florida. The museum honors American astronauts and features the world’s largest collection of their personal memorabilia. It is operated as part of the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex.

The Kitt Peak National Observatory and Museum is one of the most well known in the US. It is located 56 miles southwest of Tucson, Arizona on the Tohono O’Odham Reservation. It sits at an elevation of 6,875 feet above sea level.

The Kitt Peak Visitors Center offers three guided one hour tours daily. The tours begin in the Visitor Center with a discussion followed by a the walking tour to the telescope. In addition to the tours, the Observatory has Sun gazing programs, nightly observing programs, and monthly advanced observing sessions. I once made the mistake of waiting until mid summer to take a trip with the expectation of spending a night using the telescope at Kitt – big mistake. The facility closes from July 15 to September 1 for monsoon season. Who knew? Monsoons in Arizona? Also, be advised that the observing programs are not particularly cheap.

Meteor Crater is the world’s best preserved meteorite impact site. It is Northern Arizona near Winslow. The site is the result of an asteroid hitting the earth at 26,000 miles per hour. This event occurred approximately 50,000 years ago.

Meteor Crater is nearly one mile across, 2.4 miles in circumference and more than 550 feet deep. It has outdoor observation trails, indoor air conditioned viewing (definitely hot out there), wide screen movie theater, and a small interactive discovery center at the Visitor Center located on the crater rim. There is even a nearby RV park for those of you thinking of taking the drive.

The Armstrong Air and Space Museum is in Wapakoneta, Ohio, the hometown of Neil Armstrong. The museum chronicles Ohio’s contributions to the history of space flight. Among the items on display are an F5D Skylancer, the Gemini 8 spacecraft in which Armstrong flew, Apollo 11 artifacts and a moon rock. The museum’s Astro-theater features multimedia presentations of the sights and sounds of space against a starry background.

The Stafford Air & Space Museum is located in Weatherford, Oklahoma. The museum features exhibits about aviation, space exploration and rocketry, and a collection of over 20 historic aircraft.

Stafford displays include artifacts from the Space Shuttle program, Hubble Space Telescope and the Mir Space Station, a Moon rock, a Titan II missile, a Mark 6 Re-entry vehicle and a Gemini spacecraft. Numerous other items on display include: a Gemini flight suit, space food, survival items flown to the Moon on Apollo 11, and the actual flight pressure suit astronaut Thomas P. Stafford wore on Apollo 10, the first flight of the lunar module to the moon.

The New Mexico Museum of Space History is a museum and planetarium complex in Alamogordo, New Mexico. The museum includes exhibits about the planets of the Solar System and space flight. It holds mock-ups and training units of many space artifacts such as satellites, the Space Shuttle, and the lunar lander. The Clyde W. Tombaugh IMAX Theater and Planetarium has a projection dome that doubles as an IMAX screen and as a planetarium. The Air and Space Park is an outdoor exhibit area holding large artifacts,

The Chabot Space and Science Center, is located in Oakland, California. It is a hands-on center featuring interactive exhibits, a digital planetarium, a large screen theater, hands-on activities, and three powerful telescopes.

The Center’s observatory existed in the San Francisco Bay Area programs since 1883. The Center has three observatory telescopes. 1. an 1883 eight inch refractor telescope; 2. a 20″ refractor telescope (the largest refractor in the western United States open to the public); and 3. 36″ reflecting telescope.

Lick Observatory The Lick Observatory hosts a Summer Visitors Program, inviting the public to observe through a 36-inch Great Lick Refractor and Nickel 40-inch Reflecting Telescope.

Each evening also features two Lick astronomers who present multimedia lectures on their research or topics of current interest. A “History of Lick Observatory” talk is also presented. Local amateur astronomers outside the buildings provide additional telescopes and informal astronomy discussions.

The Music of the Spheres Concert series is also held annually in the summer. This covers a wide variety of styles from up-tempo bebop, “modal” tunes, swing and blues, to Latin jazz, ballads and jazz waltz.

The Griffith Observatory , located in Los Angeles, has been featured in several Hollywood films. It opened in 1935 and has been host to 75 million visitors, It is one of southern California’s most popular attractions. The Observatory is located on the southern slope of Mount Hollywood in Griffith Park. The Observatory hosts a variety of public education programs. It even has a new 190-seat Leonard Nimoy Event Horizon presentation theater. A theater named after Spock. How cool is that?

The Mauna Kea Observatories are located on the summit of Mauna Kea on the Big Island of Hawaii. The facilities are located in a 500-acre special land use zone known as the “Astronomy Precinct” in the Mauna Kea Science Reserve.

The featured telescopes on Mauna kea are the twin Keck telescopes. They are the world’s largest optical and infrared telescopes. Each telescope stands eight stories tall (WoW!), weighs 300 tons and operates with nanometer precision. The telescopes’ primary mirrors are 10 meters in diameter and are each composed of 36 hexagonal segments that work in concert as a single piece of reflective glass.

The Observatory’s headquarters are in Waimea. Volunteers are available Monday through Friday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. to greet guests and educate them about Keck and the other Mauna Kea observatories.

The Observatory does not provide tours of Mauna Kea. But the summit of Mauna Kea provides dramatic scenery and an unforgettable visitor experience. Guests with 4-wheel drive vehicles are permitted to drive to the 14,000-foot summit of Mauna Kea, weather permitting. At the summit, the Keck Observatory has a visitor’s gallery with exhibits describing our research and operations. Gallery hours are 10 a.m.- 4 p.m., Monday-Friday.

The Space Foundation Discovery Center located in Colorado Springs is a space, science and technology attraction. It is an interactive, museum-quality destination that advances space-based science, technology, engineering and mathematics (S-STEM) in the exciting context of space exploration, development and utilization.

Last but certainly not least is the Federation of Galaxy Explorers mobile space science center.  Assuming you can catch it roaming the East Coast this 42 foot rocket is a portable space science center that consist of CubeSat telemetry, rocketry, vacuum chamber, robotics, geosciences, nutrition, health sciences and 3D printing for manufacturing.

That about completes an astronomer’s vacation needs in the US. Happy to add more if I’ve missed some. Please let me know.


4 thoughts on “The Astronomer’s Guide to Vacationing in the United States

  1. Many of these were mentioned in my 2012 DragonCon presentation on astro-tourism (not a coincidence since most of the usual suspects pop to everyone’s mind), so relevant pictures of many sites can be seen in One afternoon when I was observing at Kitt Peak, I took over the public tour since the guide was sick. Not only was it longer than usual – but one visitor was an Ohio dentist who had read my book on galaxy formation! You never know,

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