When you think NASA, you probably think of the Kennedy Space Center in Port Canaveral, Florida (it’s where many of the launches take place). Or you think of the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas (as in, Houston, we have a problem) where most of the operation aspects of missions are handled.
But situated on the outskirts of Washington, DC, there’s another NASA facility called the Goddard Space Flight Center and until this week, I had never been nor did I have any idea of what actually went on there.
It’s silly, of course, because all of that information is right at my fingertips and I never even bothered to explore. I didn’t know if you could visit Goddard or if it was even worth visiting. So what changed my mind? I was finally invited to be a chaperone on my son’s field trip which was, of course, scheduled for the Goddard Space Flight Center.
(As a side note, we’re fortunate enough to live in a school district where there are more parents volunteering to chaperone than there are spots. As a result, I’ve never been selected for a field trip in almost six years of schooling. But I know realize that chaperoning a 5th grade field trip is probably way different than a kindergarten trip!).
I was pretty excited to tag along on this trip because I generally have a love of all things space. At one point, I wanted to be an astronaut. At another point, I was ready to take up astronomy. Now, I’m just your average stargazer that gets excited at launches and nerds out over new space development.
This may or may not have been apparent to my group of four boys on the field trip.
Here are some things you need to know before I take you on the same tour I subjected the boys to.
Where is Goddard Space Flight Center located?
It’s in Greenbelt, Maryland.
Do they launch rockets at Goddard? If not, what’s the point of a space center?
Nope. Too many things to get in the way of launches, like trees, cars, animals, PEOPLE. It’s a pretty congested area. BUT, they do some pretty cool things.
They don’t build the rockets that fly into space. They help build and manage the THINGS the rockets take into space. Like important satellites, rovers, and space telescopes among other things. More on that below.
Can you visit the Goddard Space Flight Center?
You sure can. Just make sure you go in the right entrance (if you pick the wrong one, they’ll certainly tell you). Because it’s a government facility, it’s free of charge and typically open every day of the week except Mondays.
What is there to see and do at Goddard Space Flight Center?
Ooh, good question. Let’s get started.
There are permanent exhibits just inside the main entrance of the visitor center that cover a the intersections between life and space. Others dive deeper into how we collect data showing photographs and artifacts collected on space missions.
Hands down, though, my favorite exhibit was on the James Webb Space Telescope. This massive telescope was conceived before the Hubble Space Telescope was even launched in 1990. And in 2019, all the years of planning, research, engineering, and design come to fruition as it’s launched with an unusual destination: the sun. Unlike the Hubble telescope that orbits around the Earth, the JWST will orbit around the sun (at quite a distance) and give us a look into deep space in a way that’s 100 times more powerful than anything we’ve seen.
Can you tell I’m excited?
While the kids weren’t as excited about this as I was, they did love anything that was more interactive like the Solarium.
With all of that energy, the kids needed a break which was a good time to step outside and discover the Goddard Rocket Garden, full of sound rockets and other equipment used in previous missions.
We ended up back inside for an hour long discovery session in the room that housed the Science On a Sphere. A planetarium gives you the perspective of space from the surface of a planet. The Science on a Sphere gives you the perspective of the surface of a planet from space.
With a 6 foot glowing sphere using four overlapping projectors, the kids were able to enjoy everything from Earth’s weather patterns to the details of gaseous giant, Jupiter.
And with that, our two hours at the Goddard Space Flight Center was up. We didn’t have enough time to see it all and we didn’t even hit the gift shop (apparently, that’s not allowed on field trips anymore!).
All that means is that I’ve got another trip planned when the weather warms up so that we can go for the Astrobiology Walk (I didn’t even know astrobiology was thing!) and spend more time at the things we missed inside.
If you’re traveling to the Washington, DC area, it’s definitely worth a trip to the Goddard Space Flight Center. I’d recommend this ideally for kids ages 8 and up.