Alabama / Chronological / Destinations / United States

Travelling North Alabama

Over the years of travelling throughout the United States and Canada we have visited many popular landmarks, attractions, and diverse landscapes. Our recent RV travels brought us to the State of Alabama, particularly North Alabama, which led us to two unique attractions: The U.S. Space & Rocket Center in Huntsville and The Unclaimed Baggage Center in Scottsboro.

We stood beneath the enormous engines of the Saturn V rocket in complete awe.

We stood beneath the enormous engines of the Saturn V rocket in complete awe.

Unforgettable Exhibits of Space Travel

The U.S. Space & Rocket Center provides answers to every question ever posed about space travel. As the official visitor center for NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center, the facility houses one of the largest collections of rockets and space memorabilia anywhere in the world.

Just some of the many exhibits on display at The U.S. Space & Rocket Center

Just some of the many exhibits on display at The U.S. Space & Rocket Center

Rocket Park displays 27 different missiles and rockets from the early stages of the U.S. space program.

Rocket Park displays 27 different missiles and rockets from the early stages of the U.S. space program.

A complete shuttle stack in Space Shuttle Park

A complete shuttle stack in Space Shuttle Park

“If you are a rocket geek, this is where you will find everything you ever wanted to see or know. You can spend hours just following the time line of space travel as it relates to the times and news stories in your own life,” Patricia Ammons, a spokesperson, said. “This facility is the Smithsonian’s largest artifact, and we are proud keepers. The whole program is testament to the human capacity.”

More than 700 retired NASA employees make up the team of docents at the center, bringing the reality of space to visitors. Astronaut sightings happen.

“The people who are involved in the space program are here talking about it,” Ammons said. “Yesterday, we had a live feed to the space station.”

In the Saturn V Hall, the Saturn V rocket, built to take people to the moon, stretches 111 meters (363 feet), almost the length of the complex, horizontally. If it were standing vertically, it would equal a 36-storey building. We stood beneath the enormous engines in complete awe.

We walked and walked, every step filled with one more space travel experience. Newspaper and television stories of the past were brought to life. A video of the beginning of the Space Race when President Kennedy said, “We choose to go to the Moon…”

Visiting the U.S Space & Rocket Center was like walking through history. There were Mercury and Gemini capsule trainers, the Skylab training simulator, a Lunar Rover, Lunar Module, and moon rocks. In addition to all these exciting exhibits we also saw a Mobile Quarantine trailer where astronauts stayed to ensure containment of any moon bugs after the Apollo 12 mission, a recovery parachute, and “Casper,” the Apollo 16 capsule. We walked close enough to touch the damage to the heat shield acquired on re-entry into the earth’s atmosphere at 24,500 miles per hour.

Outside Saturn V Hall, in Space Shuttle Park, we stood beneath a complete Shuttle Stack of Pathfinder, the orbiter, a Space Shuttle External (fuel) Tank and two Advanced Solid Rocket Boosters. The Space Shot, an amusement exhibit, simulates a rocket launch for those interested in trying it. It shoots 140 feet straight up in 25 seconds with four times the force of gravity on launch and two to three seconds of weightlessness before a 1 G free fall. The nearby G-Force Accelerator tests human strength against 3 Gs of centrifugal force. A 67-foot IMAX Spacedome Theater and a 52-foot screen in the Digital Theater provide on-screen space action.

In addition to permanent and traveling exhibitions, the US Space & Rocket Center offers Space Camp, an immersive program created to inspire young people from around the world. On their way to becoming the next generation of leaders and explorers, students experience climbing a mountain on the red planet, building and launching rockets, walking on the moon, and more serious challenges like underwater astronaut training, space suit theory and design, orbital mechanics, and jet craft simulation. There is also an Aviation Challenge Camp for those who dream of being fighter pilots. We caught a glimpse of a Canadarm among the Space Camp equipment.

The U.S. Space & Rocket Center allows visitors – adults and kids – to step inside the real world of space travel, to be astronauts for at least a day. To see where modules for the International Space Station were built and where the next American ship – the Space Launch System – is being designed. Mind-challenging toys are available in the Gift Shop. There is a U.S. Space & Rocket Center Campground as a part of the complex. www.rocketcenter.com

Racks and racks of sunglasses

Racks and racks of sunglasses

The Unclaimed Baggage Center: A Shopper’s Delight

We also paid a visit to The Unclaimed Baggage Center (UBC) in Scottsboro, Alabama, which sells everything that has ever been left behind on an airplane at airports. We expected to step into a warehouse but The Unclaimed Baggage Center looks just like a department store.

“We could outfit everyone in Scottsboro, even the entire county, with a pair of sunglasses, ear buds, and a baby stroller,” said Brenda Cantrell, the Marketing Manager for The Unclaimed Baggage Center. “Here, it’s not a matter of if an item is going to come in it’s a matter of when.”

With 7,000 new items appearing on the premises every day, it’s possible to stumble upon unexpected treasures like bagpipes, an African mask, Sam the Ram, or a stuffed Canadian goose.

Diamond ring and ruby belt buckle

Diamond ring and ruby belt buckle

“We have good deals, great deals, and we have fantastic deals,” said Cantrell as she showed us a diamond ring appraised at $39,250, which was for sale at $19,000. Right next to it was a $13,000 ruby belt buckle priced at $5,000. In the electronics department, Phyllis paid $15 for a portable cell phone charger and $10 for headsets.

Have shoppers ever found their own belongings? It only happened once. A woman lost her ski boots and several months later, her husband visited The Unclaimed Baggage Center during a business trip. He saw a pair of boots that he thought his wife would like. They appeared to be about the right size so he bought them. When his wife opened the box, she knew immediately that the boots were hers.

The center’s daily “Unclaimed Baggage Experience” is a demonstration to explain the behind-the-scenes process of sorting luggage contents. Lamont was chosen from the crowd to sort through a piece of lost luggage.

“We’re glad to have ya,” Cayla Wilborn, the store ambassador, announced to customers over her microphone. “Only one person has seen the inside of this bag in order to be sure there won’t be anything harmful, dangerous, or overly embarrassing.”

The Unclaimed Baggage Center bag openers have 25 different categories to sort items. Lamont only had to consider four. Sell it, clean it, give it away, or trash it. She donned an apron and plastic gloves and unzipped the suitcase.

“I can tell, judging by the way these clothes are wadded up and thrown into the bag, this lady was on her way home,” Wilborn said. “Some of the items are just like new so she was a shopper.”

Electronics department

Electronics department

Approximately one-half of 1 percent of checked bags on domestic airlines in the United States does not arrive at a destination with their owners. Carry-on bags are often left in overhead compartments. After three months of trying to unite passengers with their luggage, the airline companies sell the unclaimed bags to the Unclaimed Baggage Center. The company also acquires lost belongings from bus lines, trains, rental cars, and unclaimed cargo depots.

“We have found interesting things over the 40 years that the Unclaimed Baggage Center has been in business,” Wilborn added. “We have seen a live rattlesnake, shrunken heads, snowshoes and more than one complete suit of armor.”

One hundred and fifty employees empty luggage, sort the contents, clean and repair, appraise, and price and organize items for display in the store. The Unclaimed Baggage Center has the largest commercial dry cleaning and laundry facility in Alabama. Electronic equipment is tested and all personal data deleted. Once each item is appraised by experts, it is offered at 20 to 80 percent below retail cost.

Additionally, The Unclaimed Baggage Center donates wheelchairs, walkers, canes, medical supplies, and hundreds of thousands of eyeglasses to charitable organizations. Hard-sided suitcases are hand-decorated by elementary school students and given to foster children as a message that someone cares.

Angel Barbara Finche Smith

Angel Barbara Finche Smith

Customers at The Unclaimed Baggage Center can be as interesting as the items for sale. The day we visited, we met Barbara Finche Smith who was dressed like an angel. She and her team of angels stopped in on their way to perform at a church. In September each year, The Unclaimed Baggage Center holds a ski sale. It’s ten times larger than those commonly held on Black Friday. www.unclaimedbaggage.com

An added plus for RVers is The Unclaimed Baggage Center allows overnight camping on its premises. If space in the RV is a challenge after an afternoon of shopping, The Unclaimed Baggage Center can also ship parcels around the world.

Whether you’re a shopping adventurer or space enthusiast – or both – the Unclaimed Baggage Center and the U.S. Space & Rocket Center are two good reasons to visit North Alabama.

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