The Botanical Gardens are a “must see” attraction in Huntsville. The brainchild of fourteen dedicated Huntsvillians in 1979, the tenacious group eclipsed the seemingly insurmountable goal of raising funds for the gardens, leasing land from the government and clearing the first thirty-five acres for the gardens by 1988. I was delighted to visit the Gardens and attend the Chinese Lantern Festival in May.
The Chinese Lantern Festival was presented to celebrate Chinese Culture. Artisans from Hanart Culture traveled to Huntsville to assemble the Garden’s largest exhibit to date. Chinese lanterns whose main purpose has always been a light source, however, the “The Wild” showcased the evolved lanterns as the art form they have become throughout the centuries.
The lanterns used in the display were made from rayon, porcelain, and medicine bottles. Colored bulbs mounted inside provide the brilliance to the lanterns. The displays were intricately prepared life-sized creations. The featured animal artworks are instantly recognizable, realistic, and communicate the personalities of the animals. Each lantern was crafted by the masters of Zigong, the Chinese center of lantern making.
Eight hundred plus lanterns in seventeen unique vignettes were on display throughout the 112 acres of the gardens. The one-mile pathway provided visitors a stroll through “the Wild.” I opted to attend the Garden display in the late afternoon to see the exhibit in the sunlight and later in its magnificence of the twilight and evening.
My afternoon tour was quick as I had arrived later than anticipated. The Gardens closed before the evening viewing to organize their many volunteers and check the displays for any issues. I visited the Butterfly House to find many butterflies whisking throughout the glass enclosure. The large main lantern display was in the middle of Little Smith Lake just behind the main building of the gardens. Its size was impressive.
I made a quick trek around half of the pathway of exhibits to get an idea of what to expect in the evening. On my return in the evening, the crowd was larger than I had anticipated. The Lantern Festival was a big hit for the Huntsville Gardens.
My decision to return a half-hour before sunset was a good one. Parking went smoothly in the large area set aside for festival parking. It was going to be a busy night, judging from the number of cars arriving. There was an additional charge to attend the Lantern Festival, in addition to the regular garden admission ticket.
The Chinese Lantern Festival was a magnificent exhibit and ideally suited for the gardens. Visitors could enjoy the evening, the beauty of the gardens and the animal displays. Many lingered to appreciate the intricacy of the lantern that created each display.
I’ll admit it; I’m a Space Geek and have followed the Space Program for most of my life. Visiting the U.S. Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville is always exciting. I was anxious to see what would be on display for the 50th Anniversary of the first Moon landing.
Everyone who wasn’t here to experience it first hand on television has seen the tape of Neil Armstrong descending the ladder of “The Eagle” to plant man’s first steps on another world. “One small step for man, One giant leap for mankind.” His words will stand the test of time.
Admittedly, I have been to the Rocket Center before, but each time I visit, I find something new to experience or discover. Turning the corner into the Apollo 11 exhibit, I was transported back to the 1960s when the cold war raged, and it was of national important that we beat the Russians to the moon.
The exhibit itself informs visitors about life during the late 1960s and describes just how we got to the moon. President Kennedy had dropped the gauntlet in September 1962, “We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard,…”
On July 20, 1969, the United States landed men on the moon. Jim Lovell said it best in Apollo 13, “It’s not a miracle; we just decided to go.”
Volunteer docent, Victoria Harville and I chatted as I walked through the exhibit. She was retired from the Navy and was another self-confessed space geek. She then handed me off to Dennis Foster, another volunteer docent who is a retired mechanical engineer who worked on the Saturn 5 engines. Together he walked me through the details of the exhibits, Kennedy’s speech, the President’s assassination, the challenge to beat the Russians and the spacecraft to get us to the moon.
The models of the US and Russian spacecraft sit side by side. He explained that the Russians did not have the capability of designing engines as the US did. One display showed the US timeline of space travel through the moon landing. I heard a roar of engines and Dennis directed me to a video of a Saturn 5 launch. That’s was about as close as you can get to seeing one.
A model of the Saturn 5 rocket dominated the main room of the display. Created by Steve Eves, it is a 1/10 size replica has been flown and weighs some 1600 pounds. I found a video of it being launched.
On display were the hand casts of Armstrong, Collins, and Aldrin. These casts were made, so that the astronaut’s gloves could be custom fitted and comfortable. I thought Command Module Pilot, Mike Collins had the largest hands.
A video of the moon landing was on view and is always of interest. I still get a shiver when Neil steps of the ladder and onto the surface of the moon. Displays on the other Apollo flights and the International space station were just outside the main exhibit area.
After enjoying the Apollo 11 exhibit, I headed to the Davidson Center to view more exhibits. The star of the space is the Saturn 5 rocket that is displayed horizontally. You walk beneath one of the most powerful machines ever created. I also found the Apollo 16 command module.
The Apollo Astronauts habitat caught my attention. This was the trailer where the astronauts lived in quarantine upon their return from the moon. The three astronauts remained inside in the small trailer for 21 days because of the unknown health risks of visiting the moon. I suppose after the small confines of the spacecraft it must have felt large. There certainly wasn’t much privacy.
The US Space and Rocket Center is always an exciting place to visit, space geek or not. Be sure to add this to your list of must-see destinations when in Huntsville, you will not be disappointed.