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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.

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Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complexvia

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.

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Smithsonian Air & Space Museumvia

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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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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 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.”

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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.

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Vandenberg Air Force Base’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.

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Nebraska Star Partyvia

Nebraska Star Party

This annual event held in Valentine, Nebraska each August draws hundreds of space enthusiasts with massive telescopes and an eagerness to talk shop, share views of the unfiltered night sky, and help novice space nerds and families of all ages better understand the wonders of space. This Star Party in a charming city hoping to become a certified dark sky site is a fantastic opportunity to make a first trip for this kind of stunning nighttime experience.

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Intrepid Sea-Air-Space Museum

Not only does the Intrepid Museum’s Space Shuttle Pavilion showcase the space shuttle Enterprise but this aircraft carrier in the Hudson River in New York City gives NASA nerds the opportunity to take an out of this world VR journey to the International Space Station and “experience what it’s like to work, learn and live in the microgravity environment.” Additionally, there a new mixed reality exhibit to honor and educate 21st-century space lovers about the unsung women in the U.S. space program. These remarkable women are brought to life through Microsoft HoloLens and hosted by a holographic Dr. Mae Jemison. Plus, you’re on an aircraft carrier in Manhattan—it doesn’t get much cooler than that!

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Virginia Air and Space Center

The Virginia Air & Space Center in Hampton, Virginia features interactive STEM exhibits spanning 100 years of flight, more than 30 historic aircraft including a Viking Lander which took the first color photograph of Mars showing us that it truly is the Red Planet, the Apollo 12 Command Module which orbited the moon 31 times in 1969, and many other pieces of NASA’s rich history. This NASA Visitors Center also has a hands-on space gallery, unique space flight artifacts, and more! Did you know that astronauts don’t have to have perfect vision?

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INFINITY Space Center

Space nerds should visit this underrated NASA site in Pearlington, Mississippi for its copious amounts of exhilarating hands-on learning. Plus, there’s the positively stunning Saturn V first stage booster and its five gargantuan F-1 engines outside the center and an Apollo 4 capsule and Mississippi native Fred Haise’s authentic astronaut suit inside. Next, read on for the 24 astronomy facts you probably never learned in school.

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Jeff Bogle
Jeff Bogle is an Iris Award–winning photographer, avid traveler and English football fanatic who regularly covers travel, culture, cars, health, business, the environment and more for Reader's Digest. He is the proud dad of teen daughters.