We Have Liftoff! Space & Rocket Center’s Iconic Space Shuttle Detached from Tank

The U.S. Space & Rocket Center’s Pathfinder Restoration Project moved another step forward with the lifting of the Pathfinder shuttle orbiter off the external tank, where it has been on display for more than 30 years. After weeks of preparation, two cranes lifted the 127,000-pound shuttle test article to the ground in Shuttle Park. 

The Rocket Center received a Save America’s Treasures grant for $500,000 from the National Park Service in August, and matching donations from several sources gave the Center the money to begin the project.

The next step is for NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center to evaluate the interior structure of the orbiter. The full extent and timeline of the project are yet to be determined, but the Rocket Center expects the entire shuttle restoration will be a multi-year, multimillion-dollar project.

The Pathfinder shuttle stack was erected at the Rocket Center in 1988, and it has remained the only full-stack shuttle exhibit in the world.

The property of Marshall Space Flight Center, Pathfinder was originally used as a heavy-lift article to test handling, transportation and other procedures for the Space Transportation System, also known as the space shuttle. Pathfinder is a name NASA gives to articles used to test infrastructure and logistics for its programs.

In the early 1980s, the America-Japan Society paid to modify the structure with plywood and fiberglass to 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 at the Rocket Center.

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

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

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 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 Additional information on Huntsville holiday events including dates, operating hours, etc., can also be found on the Holiday Magic  page.

Huntsville Brings Home Top Peak Awards from Alabama Mountain Lakes Association


GADSDEN — After taking it on the chin for most of 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, North Alabama’s $3 billion tourism industry found plenty of good reasons to celebrate at the Alabama Mountain Lakes Association’s 2020 PEAK Awards.

Judy Ryals, President/CEO of the Huntsville/Madison County Convention & Visitors Bureau (left); and Jennifer Moore, vice president of Tourism for the Convention & Visitors Bureau (right); with award winners Pete Doyle, general manager of the Holiday Inn Research Park; and Marie Bostick, executive director of the Land Trust of North Alabama. (Photo/John Dersham)

Presented as part of the AMLA Annual Meeting in Gadsden, the awards recognized 11 North Alabama hospitality industry professionals and venues for their leadership despite extraordinary challenges that threatened to devastate the North Alabama tourism industry.

Five of the 11 awards went to venues based in Huntsville – including one of three President’s Awards.

Jana Kuner, public relations and customer service manager at Huntsville International Airport, received a President’s Award, presented to any person or organization whose tourism-related project created awareness or presented a positive image for North Alabama in the past year. Kuner’s role in helping stop a human trafficking incident at the airport this year earned her the recognition.

“We were honored to receive the President’s Award from Alabama Mountain Lakes Tourism this year,” said Kuner. “Even more than that, we are pleased to be able to shed more light on human trafficking and to hopefully be able to continue to make a difference by keeping our passengers safe.”

“The Peak Awards showcase the work, service, creativity and contributions of those who are leading the way in the North Alabama tourism industry,” said Alabama Mountain Lakes Tourist Association President/CEO Tami Reist. “With the COVID-19 pandemic still looming, it has been and continues to be a challenging year for the tourism industry. This year’s winners have demonstrated a commitment … to showcase the best of North Alabama during these unprecedented times. It is a well-deserved win for each of the recipients.”

Awarded Organization of the Year, the Land Trust of North Alabama was recognized for opening its eighth nature preserve – Bethel Spring Nature Preserve in February, offering new trails for the community and visitors to explore.

“Land Trust of North Alabama was thrilled to be recognized by Alabama Mountain Lakes Tourist Association as Organization of the Year,” said Marie Bostick, the Land Trust’s Executive Director. “North Alabama has a wealth of natural beauty and throughout this unusual and challenging year we were reminded how beneficial and rejuvenating those spaces can be.”

The Apollo 50th Anniversary Celebration at the U.S. Space & Rocket Center, a multimonth series of events that culminated the week of the Apollo 11 mission was named Event of the Year.

“We are honored the Alabama Mountain Lakes Association selected the Apollo 50th Anniversary Celebration for its event of the year award,” said Pat Ammons, senior director of communications for the center. “Two years of planning went into the events that brought people from all over the world to Huntsville to celebrate Alabama’s role in putting Americans on the moon.

“It was thrilling to be able to share those accomplishments with so many.”

Pete Doyle, general manager of the Holiday Inn Research Park, brought home the Tourism Professional of the Year award. (Photo/John Dersham)

Pete Doyle, general manager of the Holiday Inn Research Park, an anchor in Huntsville’s MidCity development, brought home the Tourism Professional of the Year award. He moved to Huntsville from Nashville in 1990 to manage the former Holiday Inn Space Center on University Drive and took the helm at the larger Research Park property in 2000. He led the 195-room hotel property through a newly completed $4.5 million renovation.

He is past president of the Huntsville Lodging Association and the Huntsville/Madison County Hospitality Association and serves on the City of Huntsville Lodging Recruitment Committee.

“I am quite honored to be recognized in an industry that has been my life is very humbling and appreciated,” Doyle said. “In over 30 years of work here in Huntsville, I have witnessed massive growth to our community that seems at warp speed now. That makes it a very exciting time and it has always been my pleasure to assist and give my input when asked by either our Convention and Visitors Bureau, Von Braun Center, Chamber of Commerce or City Hall to improve our stature.”

Zenovia Stephens, center, of Black Adventure Crew was named Top North Alabama Ambassador of the Year. (Photo/John Dersham)

Zenovia Stephens of Black Adventure Crew was named Top North Alabama Ambassador of the Year. Originally from Chicago, Zenovia and her husband’s love for exploring North Alabama with their sons and finding creative ways to be adventurous at home, have her active in the community. She serves as a board member for Chaffee Elementary School PTA and a volunteer at the Southeast YMCA.

“I’m honored that my work in promoting the adventure and beauty of Alabama, and the need to diversify the great outdoors has been recognized,” Stephens said. “I’m looking forward to continuing to showcase all our state and lead in helping to change the outdoors narrative.”

AMLA is dedicated to the promotion and development of the travel industry in the 16 counties that make up the North Alabama tourism region. The membership consists of chambers of commerce, convention and visitors bureaus, attractions, campgrounds, festivals, communities, counties, golf courses, restaurants, tour operators, accommodations, vendors, financial institutions, and individuals.

Other winners were Decatur’s Cook Museum of Natural Science chosen as Attraction of the Year; Philip Formby, operations director for the Sand Mountain Park and Amphitheatre, won the Good Neighbor Award; and Haley Newton, facilities operator for Joe Wheeler State Park, won the Northern Star Award.

Maryanne Floyd, communications director for Decatur Morgan County Tourism, was named Young Professional of the Year; the Lasting Impression Award went to Scotty Kennedy, curator of the Red Bay Museum; and the Chairman’s Cup went to Fred Hunter of Absolutely Alabama.

There were two additional President’s Award winners: Hilda Smith, director of sales and events for the Hampton Inn by Hilton in Winfield, and Mindy Hanan, president/CEO of the Alabama Restaurant and Hospitality Association.

(Top photo: Jana Kuner, public relations and customer service manager at Huntsville International Airport, receives a President’s Award from the Alabama Mountain Lakes Association. Photo by John Dersham)

Failure Not an Option: Space & Rocket Center Launches ‘Save Space Camp’ Campaign

The U.S. Space & Rocket Center and Space Camp are in jeopardy of permanent closure due to devastating economic challenges caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

In an effort to remain open for future generations of visitors and campers, the U.S. Space & Rocket Center and Space Camp are launching a “Save Space Camp” campaign. The campaign is seeking donations from Space Camp alumni, residents of Alabama and fans and visitors to continue Space Camp’s mission of education and inspiration.  

In a news release, the center said it must raise a minimum of $1.5 million to keep the U.S. Space & Rocket Center museum open past October and to reopen Space Camp in April 2021.

The Space & Rocket Center closed in March due to the surge in coronavirus cases in the U.S. The museum reopened in late May, but with far fewer than normal visitors.

Space Camp did not reopen until June 28, and then with only 20 percent of its usual attendance. With limited admission from international students and school groups this fall and winter, Space Camp will again close for weeklong camp programs in September. 

Facing a nearly 67 percent loss of revenue, the Rocket Center laid off one third of its full-time employees in May and was unable to employ an additional 700 part-time employees who typically work in all areas of Space Camp and the museum. The majority of the remaining full-time employees have been furloughed since April. 

At this time, local, state and federal agencies have not been able to help the Rocket Center though these difficult times.

“However, we firmly believe that failure is not an option, and we are turning to the public for support,” the center said in the news release.

As an educational facility, the center has helped launch thousands of successful careers in aerospace, engineering, science, education and other fields.

According to the most recent economic impact studies, the Space & Rocket Center generates $120 million in annual revenue for the state of Alabama and serves as a magnet for visitors to Huntsville. The Rocket Center has been the top paid tourist attraction in the state for seven straight years. 


‘Career Signing Day’ Helps Aim Students Toward Building Sciences

National Signing Day is a big event in the lives of high school student-athletes and their families.

The kids announce where they plan to continue their education and take their athletic talents to the next level.

Well, in Huntsville, there is another kind of “signing day.”

For the second time, Huntsville City Schools is hosting a “Career Signing Day,” when students are recognized for continuing their career paths within the fields of building science.

Just look around and you’ll see the demand for builders and tradesmen.

Construction zones and caution tape continue to speckle the city, as developers race to keep up with the demands required to complete projects.

Developments designed to enhance the growing infrastructure of Madison County seem to be popping up everywhere, and with no signs of a slow-down, the need for skilled workers and tradesmen is greater than ever.

“We are partnering with people to create more opportunity for internships and practical experience,” said Todd Watkins, director of Career Tech Education for Huntsville City Schools. “We are going to have interviews prior to the event. We are really excited because it gives our students a chance to do interview sessions.

“Then they can actually graduate high school and go straight to work.”

Turner Construction’s Director of Business Development Tyce Hudson said his company is working closely with area schools to ensure that upcoming graduates are aware of their options, whether they choose to pursue a four-year degree or opt for going directly into the workforce from high school.

“We are trying to get the message out that there are very bright careers in the trade industry right now,” he said. “We see shortages in mechanical, electrical, and plumbing so the demand for those is probably the highest.”

Through the efforts of companies such as Turner Construction, Huntsville City Schools students enrolled in the Career Tech Education Department are able to get practical work experience outside of the classroom by working on actual workplace projects.

Watkins also lauds the district’s newest career tech center at the U.S. Space & Rocket Center.

The initial program will allow students to work in the hospitality and culinary industries shadowing staff, giving them the opportunity to leave the school campus and report directly to Space & Rocket Center CEO Dr. Deborah Barnhart.

Watkins said the increased employment opportunities coupled with the area’s demand for progress equals many more options in the building science arena, whether individuals choose to seek a 4 year degree or not.

“What kids are seeing,” he said, “is that they can be employable right out of school or they can also go to (a four-year college) or a junior college.

“Kids are starting to realize that career tech is not a one-way path.”