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When people think of the U.S. space program, Cape Canaveral in Florida and the Johnson Space Center in Houston might come to mind. Another city is just as important to NASA - Huntsville, Ala. To mark the 50th anniversary of the end of the historic Apollo 11 flight, NPR's Russell Lewis visits the place known as Rocket City.
RUSSELL LEWIS, BYLINE: There's a saying that you can't get to the moon without first going through Huntsville. And driving into this north Alabama town, you see proof of that right away.
DEBORAH BARNHART: The Saturn V rocket in front of the Rocket Center is, in fact, the beacon of our city. It is our Statue of Liberty. It's our Golden Gate Bridge here, and we're very proud of that.
LEWIS: That's Deborah Barnhart, the CEO of the U.S. Space and Rocket Center. Huntsville has lived and breathed space for 60 years, and it's never slowed down. This month, the region's economic cheerleader celebrated yet another partnership with NASA.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Good afternoon, everyone. We'd like to welcome you to our powering lunar exploration signing ceremony with Maxar Technologies and Dynetics.
LEWIS: Dynetics is one of almost 300 companies based at Cummings Research Park in Huntsville. It's one of the largest research parks in the country. The aerospace heavyweights are here - Northrop Grumman, Lockheed Martin, Raytheon. More than a hundred other companies are nearby, including Boeing and United Launch Alliance. Jeff Bezos' Blue Origin plans to build its next-generation engines here, and Aerojet Rocketdyne opened an advanced manufacturing facility a few months ago.
TYLER EVANS: This facility is all about the 21st century and the future.
LEWIS: That's Tyler Evans. As he gazes across the large, sparkling workspace, he says Huntsville is more than just buildings.
EVANS: I mean, you can't get a better base of talented rocket scientists and engineers, both mature and, you know, at STEM-centric universities that we can reach into for our future needs.
LEWIS: In fact, half the graduates each year at the University of Alabama in Huntsville are in engineering or science. The region traces its space heritage to the 1950s. NASA historian Brian Odom says it took off when German engineer Werhner von Braun brought his rocket team to work at the Army's Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville.
BRIAN ODOM: He stands, really, at the top of a process that unfolded in the 1950s, number one, which was turning space travel into something that was - once had been science fiction into what would become a reality.
LEWIS: Von Braun and his engineers helped launch the U.S.' first orbital satellite in 1958 and the first American to space in 1961. When NASA opened the Marshall Space Flight Center in 1960, von Braun was its first director. After Apollo and the Saturn V, Marshall would develop the space shuttle's engines and the Hubble Space Telescope. And it's currently working on the next U.S. rocket - the SLS. Even today Marshall continues to play a critical but unseen role, says Jeremy Del Greco, NASA's payload operations director.
JEREMY DEL GRECO: This is science central for International Space Station. All science experiments that are performed on the International Space Station are operated and run through this facility.
LEWIS: Tucked away in a windowless room, controllers keep tabs on the ISS crew around the clock using as many as nine computer screens each to work with them on their experiments. The future of space can be seen a few miles away; here at Space Camp.
JASMINE WHITE: We are going to resume Orion's countdown on my mark - five, four, three...
LEWIS: Since it opened in 1982, almost a million kids and adults have participated in the camps at the Space and Rocket Center. Six participants have become astronauts, including Christina Koch, who is on the ISS now. Sixteen-year-old Jasmine White from Perth, Australia, was learning how to be an astronaut, including how space affects the body.
WHITE: I hadn't really thought about the kind of influences of microgravity in, like, people. I guess I thought about it in the sense that - yeah, stuff's going to be floating. And if you're eating things, they have - like, they're going to float away if they're open - that kind of thing but not really medical as such.
LEWIS: While space camp eyes the future, it also remembers the past. Several dozen engineers from the Apollo program, like Lowell Zoller, volunteer at the museum as docents.
LOWELL ZOLLER: Children I particularly love to talk to because there's a curiosity there. And our job, really, is to motivate these children to follow in our footsteps and - not necessarily in rocket science or anything but in challenging things to move the country forward.
LEWIS: Zoller was talking to museum guests under a Saturn V; one of only three remaining giant moon rockets - a reminder of what this former cotton town has meant and still means to the space program.
Russell Lewis, NPR News, Huntsville, Ala.
(SOUNDBITE OF KELPE'S "POLYMAR E") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.