Take a Space-Themed Vacation Here on Earth

Griffith Observatory and space shuttle Endeavour.
Thousands gathered at Griffith for the last flyover of space shuttle Endeavour before it was delivered to the California Science Center in September 2012.

 NASA

Looking for someplace out of this world to visit on vacation? The U.S. is filled with great places to go, from NASA Visitor Centers to planetarium facilities, science centers, and observatories. 

For example, there's a place in Los Angeles where visitors can touch a 150-foot-long wall covered with an image of millions of galaxies. Across the country, at Cape Canaveral, Florida, take a tour of U.S. Space Program history.

Up the East Coast, in New York City, take in a planetarium show and see a great solar system model. Out West, space enthusiasts can visit the New Mexico Museum of Space History, and just a day's drive away, they can see where Percival Lowell's fascination with the planet Mars led to the construction of an observatory where a young man from Kansas discovered the dwarf planet Pluto.

There are so many space-themed places to visit in the world, but here's a sneak peek at five of some of the coolest.

Head to Florida for a Space Fix

Entrance to the Kennedy Space Center Visitors Center.
Dennis K. Johnson / Getty Images

Space enthusiasts flock to the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Center, east of Orlando, Florida. It's billed as the greatest space adventure on Earth, offering tours of the Kennedy Space Center launch pads, the control center, IMAX® movies, children's activities, and much more. A special favorite is the Rocket Garden, featuring rockets that boosted many of the U.S. space missions to orbit and beyond.

The Astronaut Memorial Garden and Memorial Wall is a contemplative spot to remember those who lost their lives in the conquest of space. Each year, there's a remembrance service held there to honor the lost astronauts and cosmonauts.

At the center, visitors can meet astronauts, eat space food, watch movies about past missions, and if they're lucky, get to watch a new launch (depending on the space program's schedule). Those who have been here say it's easily a full-day visit including an outdoor rocket garden and indoor exhibits and activities. Bring the sunscreen and the credit card for admission, souvenirs, and goodies! 

Astronomy in the Big Apple

Rose Center and Hayden Planetarium
Bob Krist / Getty Images

Space in New York City? Of course! That's what awaits those who take some time to go to the American Museum of Natural History's (AMNH) and its associated Rose Center for Earth and Space. The museum is located at 79th and Central Park West in Manhattan. Visitors can make it part of a full-day visit to the museum with its many famous wildlife, cultural, and geological exhibits. Or, they can simply take in the Rose Center, which looks like a giant glass box with a giant globe enclosed. It contains space and astronomy exhibits, a model solar system, and the beautiful Hayden Planetarium. The Rose Center also has the fascinating Willamette meteorite, a 32,000-pound (15,000 kg) space rock that fell to Earth some 13,000 years ago. 

The museum offers a popular Earth and Space Tour, which lets people explore everything from the scales of the universe to Moon rocks. AMNH has a free app available through the iTunes store to help guide visitors through its many fascinating exhibits. 

Where Space History Began

Rocket Outside the New Mexico Museum of Space History
Richard Cummins / Getty Images

Nobody would expect to find a cool space museum out in the desert near White Sands, New Mexico, but in fact, there is one! That's partly because Alamogordo was a beehive of space travel activity in the early days of the U.S. space program. The New Mexico Museum of Space History in Alamogordo commemorates that space history with special collections, the International Space Hall of Fame, the New Horizons Domed Theater, and a space science research unit.

Admission costs are available on the website, and the museum offers discounts for senior citizens and youngsters under the age of 12.

Also plan to visit White Sands National Monument, a set of dunes suitable for exploration and climbing. It lies near one of the largest and busiest flight-test areas in the country. It was on the nearby White Sands Missile Range that the space shuttle Columbia orbiter landed in 1982 when its regular landing areas were closed by bad weather.

A Grand View of the Heavens from Mars Hill

Lowell Observatory
Richard Cummins / Getty Images

Tourists passing through Arizona on vacation can check out Lowell Observatory, perched on Mars Hill overlooking Flagstaff. This is the home of the Discovery Channel Telescope and the venerable Clark Telescope, where a young Clyde Tombaugh discovered Pluto in 1930. This observatory was built in the late 1800s by Massachusetts astronomy enthusiast Percival Lowell to help him study Mars (and Martians).

Visitors to Lowell Observatory can see the dome, visit his mausoleum, take tours, and participate in astronomy camps. The observatory is at 7,200 feet altitude, so it's important to bring sunscreen, drink lots of water, and take frequent rest stops. Visiting Lowell Observatory makes a fascinating day trip before or after visiting the nearby Grand Canyon. 

Not far away from Flagstaff is another famous hole in the ground, the mile-wide Meteor Crater in nearby Winslow, Arizona, where a 160-foot-wide chunk of space rock slammed to the ground some 50,000 years ago. There's a visitor center that explains what happened during that impact and points out how the surrounding landscape was changed by it.

Turning Visitors Into Observers

Griffith observatory exhibits.
One part of the exhibition at Griffith, which spans from stargazing to astronomy research. This section includes "The Edge of Space" and "Depths of Space".

Griffith Observatory, used by permission 

Perched high in the Hollywood Hills overlooking downtown Los Angeles, the venerable Griffith Observatory has shown the universe to millions of visitors since it was built in 1935. For fans of Art Deco, Griffith is a fine example of this architectural style. However, it's what's inside of the building that really gives people a celestial thrill.

The observatory is chock full of fascinating exhibits that give fascinating peeks at the solar system, the galaxy, and the universe at large. It features a solar telescope called caelostat, and a Tesla coil exhibit that shows the power of electricity. There's also a gift shop called the Stellar Emporium, and place to eat called the Cafe at the End of the Universe.

Griffith also houses the Samuel Oschin Planetarium, which presents fascinating shows about astronomy. Astronomy lectures and a film about the observatory are presented in the Leonard Nimoy Event Horizon theater. 

Admission to the Observatory is always free, but there is a charge for the planetarium show. Check out the Griffith website and learn more about this Hollywood-fabulous place! 

At night visitors can peek through the observatory's telescope at solar system objects or other celestial objects. Local amateur astronomy clubs also set up for star parties, open to the public. Not far away is the famous Hollywood sign and a view of downtown L.A. that seems to go on forever! 

Fast Facts

  • Space-themed tourist attractions exist throughout the US. and many other countries.
  • Planetarium and science center facilities offer great access to space and astronomy information.
  • Observatories such as Lowell in Arizona offer specialized experiences for astronomy enthusiasts.