Space & Rocket Center Launches Shuttle Restoration Project

Some three decades of Huntsville weather have taken its toll on a Rocket City landmark.

The Pathfinder space shuttle is facing a multi-year, multi-million dollar restoration at the U.S. Space & Rocket Center.

Work is underway on the $1.5 million first phase of the project, which begins with removing the Pathfinder orbiter from atop the external fuel tank. Once the orbiter is on the ground, the Rocket Center will work with NASA to evaluate its original metal frame to determine the damage and cost for restoration.

Originally a top priority for 2020, the Rocket Center put the Pathfinder project on hold due to the severe financial effects of the coronavirus pandemic and reduced attendance at the museum and Space Camp.

In August, however, the Rocket Center received a Save America’s Treasures grant for $500,000 from the National Park Service. Subsequent donations from Tim Sheehy, a multi-time Space Camp and Aviation Challenge alumnus and CEO and Founder of Montana-based Bridger Aerospace; Lockheed Martin; the late Dr. Joyce Neighbors; The Daniel Foundation of Alabama; and PPG Industries matched the grant, allowing the project to begin.

Matt Sheehy, Tim’s brother and a Space Camp alumnus and president of Tallgrass Energy in Leawood, Kan., has also made a significant donation for the Pathfinder project as well as other Rocket Center restoration efforts.

“We were honored to receive the Save America’s Treasures grant to help us restore the Pathfinder Space shuttle, a beloved exhibit at the U.S. Space & Rocket Center and a critical piece of hardware in the American space program,” said Rocket Center Executive Director/CEO Louie Ramirez. “We are grateful for the support of community partners and the Sheehy family for their help in getting us started on this important project.

“We look forward to working with our USSRC Education Foundation to raise additional funds to continue the work of restoring this important artifact in the future.”

The Pathfinder shuttle stack was erected in 1988, and is the only full-stack shuttle exhibit in the world. The property of NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center, Pathfinder was originally used as a heavy-lift article to test handling, transportation and other procedures for the shuttle program. Pathfinder is a name NASA gives to articles used to test infrastructure and logistics for its programs.

In the early 1980s, a group of Japanese businessmen paid to modify the structure with plywood and fiberglass to more closely resemble a real orbiter and displayed it from 1983 to 1984 at an exposition in Tokyo. After the expo, Pathfinder returned to Huntsville and was mounted for the display seen today.

The Pathfinder shuttle stack consists of:

  • Orbiter
  • External tank
  • Two prototype solid rocket boosters
  • Three space shuttle main engines, including one flown on STS-1, the first shuttle fight. The other two were engineering development engines.

The Rocket Center has contracted with the Signature Renovations office in Loretto, Tenn., to manage the first phase of the restoration. The second phase will be determined by what is learned in the evaluation stage.

To donate to the Pathfinder Restoration Project, visit rocketcenterfoundation.org.

Built for Business and Baseball: New Avid Hotel at Town Madison Open

MADISON — It is sure to be a home run for business travelers and baseball fans – the new Avid Hotel at Town Madison has the perfect setup for both, at the Madison/Wall-Triana Highway exit of I-565. It is a just a throw across the infield from Huntsville International Airport, Redstone Arsenal and Cummings Research Park.

A fitness center is among the amenities provided at the Avid.

For the business traveler, there are 55-inch HDTVs with free Wi-Fi, a fitness center, free breakfast with fresh-ground coffee, high-quality mattresses and black-out roller shades to promote a sound sleep. 

The Avid includes a 24-hour “market.”

For the baseball fan, it is just a throw from the outfield of Toyota Field, home of the Rocket City Trash Pandas. There are outdoor patios and a 24-hour market for after-the-game munchies and a mini-refrigerator in every room.

According to Pritesh Patel, one of the owners of Jalasai Hospitality Co., the 87-room Avid by Intercontinental Hotels Group is a boutique-style hotel that promises a spotless hotel environment that is always ready for its next guests.

Double beds await the traveler for a restful sleep.

“This Avid hotel is the perfect fit for this location and community,” said Patel. “Whether you are a business traveler or visiting for a game at Toyota Field, in town for business or pleasure, you will find that we focus on getting the essentials right. The Avid hotel will provide the comfort, modern design and high standard of quality service to exceed your expectations.” 

The Town Madison hotel is the 21st Avid hotel and is a short hop from more than 1 million square feet of new retail, restaurant, and entertainment venues including Duluth Trading Co., J Alexander’s Restaurant, Outback Steakhouse, and 700,000 square feet of office space. 

Dr. Kimberly Robinson Named U.S. Space & Rocket Center Executive Director and CEO

Dr. Kimberly Robinson, a 31-year NASA veteran, has been named the executive director and CEO of the U.S. Space & Rocket Center. She will assume her role Feb. 15.

“I look forward to joining the remarkable team at the U.S. Space & Rocket Center to inspire our next generation of explorers,” Robinson said. “The Rocket Center is a vital part of our community that honors the Rocket City’s storied accomplishments and helps shape tomorrow’s space industry.

“I am excited to bring my knowledge and experience from three decades in the field of space exploration to the Rocket Center and help plan for our vibrant future.”

Robinson is NASA’s Utilization Manager for Advanced Exploration Systems and was previously the Payload Mission Manager for Artemis I, the first integrated flight test of the NASA’s Orion spacecraft, the Space Launch System rocket and the Exploration Ground Systems at Kennedy Space Center.

She also served as the SLS Strategic Communications manager and has received several NASA performance awards including an Exceptional Achievement Medal and a Silver Snoopy.

Robinson received her Ph.D. and master’s degrees in engineering management and systems engineering from the University of Alabama in Huntsville and her bachelor’s in mechanical engineering from Vanderbilt University.

“Along with her vast experience with NASA, Dr. Robinson brings an innovative spirit and the leadership skills needed to guide the Rocket Center as we plan for the future,” said Joe Newberry, chairman of the Alabama Space Science Exhibit Commission board. “Her energy and enthusiasm are contagious and brought her to the top of a rigorous and exhaustive search for our new executive director and CEO.”

Louie Ramirez, who has served as executive director and CEO since January, will remain in a part-time capacity as chief operations officer to assist Robinson in her transition.

Robinson is married to Keith Robinson and has three sons. She is an avid community volunteer and serves as vice president for A New Leash on Life animal rescue organization and has taught at Oakwood University and UAH.

Newly Revitalized Marriott is in the City and of the City

The newly renovated Marriott is ready for the post-pandemic business and leisure traveler.

While the hotel industry was bombarded by COVID-19 incoming all year, the Huntsville Marriott at the U.S. Space & Rocket Center took advantage of the hunker-down time to renovate its aging hotel property located along I-565 at the city’s iconic Saturn V rocket.

Built in 1986, the Marriott was the place to be for travelers visiting Marshall Space Flight Center, Redstone Arsenal, the Space & Rocket Center Museum, Space Camp, and the NASA training facility.

According to the hotel’s new general manager, Brian Woolever, growing trends and feedback from their guests show that travelers have different priorities today than they did 30 years ago. Acknowledging that, the revitalization has been focused on making the Huntsville Marriott the place to be in 2021.

The rooms feature hardwood floors and a more formal, stylish design.

“We replaced carpeting in the rooms with hardwood floors that are much easier to keep clean and introduced a more formal, stylish design that is more along the lines of what a person would put in their homes,” said Woolever. “We decided to go with only an outdoor swimming pool and tripled the size of the fitness center because working out while on the road is the current trend.”

While the Huntsville Marriott, like many other hotels, took a big hit the first couple of months of the pandemic, Woolever expects the newly revitalized Marriott to take off like the famous Saturn rocket next year as the new design will meet the needs of the post-pandemic business and leisure traveler.  

“You can feel the business travel industry biting at the bit,” he said. “It is ready to move, especially once the vaccine hits and our hotel will not be the run-of-the-mill hotel of the past. We have the right concepts and the right leadership in place to take it to the next level.

The Marriott management team: (l-r) General Manager Brian Woolever; Garien Shelby, Food & Beverage director; and Paul Romero, director of Sales and Marketing.

“We want to be a Marriott hotel that is in the city, and of the city.”

Woolever isn’t the only new management leader at the Huntsville Marriott. Paul Romero is the new director of Sales and Marketing and Garien Shelby has joined the team as Food & Beverage Director.

Our focus has been putting ourselves in a position to be the best we can be when that travel light switch turns back on,” Romero said. “We put the key players in place so when we get back normal travel again, we will be the best travel experience possible. 

The Barrel Room Bar has been rebranded with a laid-back vibe, offering a variety of high-end bourbons and hand-crafted southern cocktail favorites.

“Everything from our suites and our new restaurant concept, Southern Chop, which is Garien’s creation; to the newly designed and rebranded Barrel Room Bar; we will provide a hotel experience that is A-plus across the board.”

Shelby said the new restaurant is grateful to be a part of the Marriott, but he believes Southern Chop will be a favorite among locals that can compete with the best of the best restaurants in Huntsville and Madison. 

“Southern Chop will showcase Alabama southern cuisine, grandma’s classics and food we grew up on in the South like southern braised greens, pinto beans, cornbread, and pimento cheese,” said Shelby. “We put a spin on it by adding hand-cut steaks or fresh seafood from the Gulf Coast, and as much local produce as we can find.”

The renovations include elevated meeting and group space.

The Barrel Room Bar is no longer just a lobby bar, but completely rebranded with a laid-back vibe, offering a variety of high-end bourbons and hand-crafted southern cocktail favorites.

Other renovations feature elevated meeting and group space, including 16 event rooms and more than 20,000 square feet of total event space.

The Huntsville Marriott design concepts are managed and developed by Ascent Hospitality. The company will begin construction on a Marriott Autograph Collection Hotel in downtown Huntsville in the coming months.

Limited Edition Huntsville-themed Holiday Cards Return for 2020

Back by popular demand, the Huntsville/Madison County Convention & Visitors Bureau has released limited edition Huntsville holiday cards.

The response from visitors and locals was so great in 2019, the CVB is offering them again for the 2020 holiday season.

“The cards were a big hit in 2019, likely because they’re so uniquely Huntsville – they’re perfect as a card, a souvenir, or even a gift,” said Judy Ryals, president/CEO of the CVB. “In a year where a seasonal greeting card may be taking the place of in-person celebrations for so many, we wanted to offer these as a way to add a special ‘Rocket City’ touch to this holiday tradition.”

The designs, which were created by local graphic artist Crisy Meschieri, feature Huntsville points of interest including Alabama Constitution Hall Historic Park & Museum, Big Spring International Park, the Galaxy of Lights at Huntsville Botanical Garden, Temple B’nai Sholom, and of course, the Saturn V rocket.

The cards are sold in sets of four for $6, including a combination set of four designs. They are sold at the Downtown Huntsville Visitor Center and online at www.rocketcityshop.org.

The Visitor Center is at 500 Church Street in downtown Huntsville and is open Monday-Saturday, 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. and Sundays from noon to 3 p.m.

Holiday Magic Pass Offers Discounts to Major Huntsville Holiday Activities

Visitors set their sights on Huntsville as a top destination for family travel, outdoor recreation, space history and – around this time of year – a premier vacation spot for holiday revelry.

To ease the burden for families to enjoy the wide variety of events without breaking the bank, the Huntsville/Madison County Convention & Visitors Bureau (CVB), in partnership with area attractions, has released a holiday events coupon sheet providing discounts to six major holiday offerings in the Rocket City.

The free Huntsville Holiday Magic Pass is available online at huntsville.org and at the Huntsville/Madison County Visitor Center.  The Visitor Center is at 500 Church Street in downtown Huntsville and is open seven days a week. The Huntsville Holiday Magic Coupon Sheet is available to visitors and residents of Madison County.

“Although COVID-19 has affected travel and the way people are able to gather this year, Christmas is not cancelled in the Rocket City,” said Judy Ryals, president/CEO of the CVB. “Our partners are working hard to ensure guest experiences remain as safe as possible, while still keeping the magic of the season alive.

“We’re especially encouraging our locals – many of whom will be staying in town for the holidays – to get out and support these events happening right in their own backyard.”

The Huntsville Holiday Magic Pass features the following discounts:

  • $2 off admission to the Huntsville Museum of Art’s Skating in the Park
  • $2 off admission to Skate with Santa or a Winter Wonderland Skate at the Benton H. Wilcoxon Municipal Ice Complex
  • 25 percent off general admission to see Burritt on the Mountain decked out for the holidays
  • $3 off any show at the Intuitive Planetarium or general admission to the U.S. Space & Rocket Center
  • 10 percent off one store item at Harrison Brothers Hardware (excluding sale and consignment), plus free tour
  • 10 percent off the drive-through light show at the Rocket City Christmas Spectacular at Toyota Field

 To redeem the coupons, guests can either present the coupon or show the digital version on their mobile device, available online at huntsville.org/hsvmagic. Additional information on Huntsville holiday events including dates, operating hours, etc., can also be found on the Holiday Magic  page.