Space: it’s the final frontier and an obsessive phase that lots of kids seem to go through. Dinosaurs, trains, diggers, animals, or something else entirely. If your kids are anything like mine, once they are interested in something, they become miniature experts, wanting to read every book, watch every YouTube video, and memorize every fact they can on the subject, and space is a favorite around here. We definitely have a couple future astronauts in our midst!
Yes, it can be exhausting doing the same things over and over, listening to the same songs, reading the same stories, and being toddler-splained to by a three-year-old, but this is a good thing. Studies show that young kids who show “intense interest” in certain subjects are poised for success as they grow older, and learning concepts that might escape them are suddenly easier to grasp when explained through the lens of something they love (How the Power of Interest Drives Learning). Bottom line: we should be indulging in these interests while we still have their attention!
Traveling is, of course, a great way to do this indulging – books and videos are nice, but it’s so much more interactive and exciting to see their passions played out in the real world. So from my house full of space geeks . . . er, enthusiasts . . . here are some of our favorite destinations to help foster a love of all things astronomy and expand the minds of our curious little future astronauts.
We’ll start with the obvious: NASA spots.
Space Center Houston/Johnson Space Center, Houston, TX
At the Houston complex, you’ll be able to walk through their a very comprehensive museum on space exploration, go inside a space shuttle replica, see a SpaceX Falcon 9, and my personal favorite, visit the Apollo Mission Control Center from which the first lunar landing was led in 1969. Go ahead, caption that photo “Houston, we have a problem”, I won’t judge you.
Kennedy Space Center, Cape Canaveral, FL
Kennedy Space Center has a great, interactive museum as well, plus it’s the permanent home of the space shuttle Atlantis. What’s great about the Kennedy Space Center is that if you time your visit right, you can also witness a rocket launch! An amazing experience for those budding future astronauts! These launches happen regularly throughout the year, and though there are a lot of factors you can’t plan for, like weather, seeing one in person is a pretty incredible thing. You can reserve tickets to watch directly from the Kennedy Space Center, the closest public viewing area, or plan it around a beach day — nearby Cocoa Beach is a great spot to hang out and there are plenty of beachfront restaurants, like Sandbar Sports Grill, that have great views of the launches. Sand, surf, sun, space — what more could you want?
Other spots to watch launches in the United States are the SpaceX launch site in Boca Chica, TX where the ‘Starship’ is being built and tested for missions to the Moon and Mars! Plus unmanned launches from Wallops Flight Facility on the Eastern Shore of VA, and the Vandenberg AFB Space Launch Complex, about an hour north of Santa Barbara, CA.
The Smithsonian National Air & Space Museum in Washington, D.C. and nearby Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, VA are both home to incredible historic aircraft and space artifacts, not to mention the most popular and comprehensive collections in the world on the subject. And, amazingly, as part of the Smithsonian, they’re free! At these museums, you’ll be able to see everything from the 1903 Wright Brothers Flyer to Charles Lindbergh’s Spirit of St. Louis. Be sure to have your future astronauts check out the Apollo 11 Command Module Columbia and the Space Shuttle Discovery as well!
The Air & Space Museum is undergoing extensive renovations which are set to be completed in 2022, and waiting until these are finished will be so worth it!
The Intrepid is a museum housed on an aircraft carrier, so while that alone will probably delight your little ones, it’s another spot where you’ll be able to see a retired space shuttle, the Enterprise, plus tons of exhibits and programs designed specifically for kids. While you’re in the city, also visit the Hayden Planetarium at the American Museum of Natural History. The space show at the planetarium might not capture the attention of very young kids, but there are astronomy exhibits, plus a great secret splash pad at the Arthur Ross Terrace with a great view of the planet models in the museum.
If you’re visiting New Mexico, there are a few cool spots that you can build into a fun space-themed road trip. The Very Large Array (VLA) is home to twenty-eight 25-meter radio telescopes, which scan the skies for radio frequencies to discover and examine deep space objects. You may recognize it from the movie Contact, in which scientists detect an alien signal. That is the type of work being done here, too! There is a small visitor center, but what you’re really here to see are the giant radio dishes that are on railroad tracks to shift their position. From there you can head to Spaceport America near Truth or Consequences, which is the future launch site for Virgin Galactic’s fleet of tourism spaceships. The center is closed to the public, but if you plan it in advance you can take a tour. The building itself is a work of art!
Last but not least, let your little future astronauts explore alien life with a classic road trip stop in Roswell, where a UFO famously crashed in 1947 . . . well, allegedly. But Roswell has taken this tale and has really run with it – there are all sorts of UFO and alien-themed attractions, street art, and dining options, like Stellar Coffee Co. You’ll have no shortage of photo ops!
Las Vegas is home to some strange sights itself, but if you want to level up your Vegas weirdness factor, plan a little half-day trip to Rachel, NV, the closest you can get to secret base Area 51, the alleged test site for recovered UFOs. While you obviously can’t visit the base itself you can drive around the vicinity along the Extraterrestrial Highway (no, really), leave a letter for an alien at the Black Mailbox, and grab out-of-this-world grub at the Little A’Le’Inn. This is a really fun road trip but do plan accordingly: this is truly the middle of nowhere. Services are few and far between, so make sure your car is gassed or charged, snacks and water are plentiful, and of course, be safe. Watch out for cows and no trespassing!
I hope you space fans have found a few things to add to your travel wishlist! From the educational to the inspirational to the downright weird, there are plenty of sites to spark a love of the sciences and have a ton of fun while doing it.
What else would you add to the list, fellow space nerds? Happy exploring! 👽🖖
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