THE BLOG
04/26/2013 02:56 pm ET Updated Jun 26, 2013

Space Travel: Explore the Heavens on Earth

Fifty-one years ago today, Ranger IV crash-landed into the moon after losing power and aborting its mission. Ranger IV may not be as well-known as Apollo XI, Sputnik or Saturn V, but it is just as important in man's determined journey into space - especially considering that its predecessor Ranger III missed the moon by just over 22,000 miles. As the first American rocket to make contact with the moon, this highly sophisticated machine laid the groundwork for what followed.

Five decades later, our fascination with the cosmos hasn't waned. Why not commemorate the anniversary with a trip to some of the museums and monuments that bear witness to our obsession with the final frontier? If you want to see the heavens but don't have the bank account, these seven destinations we've put together will give you a more grounded taste of space, from Washington, DC to Florida and Hawaii.

Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum: Washington, DC

The Smithsonian is home to the biggest collection of space and aviation artefacts in the world, preserved in the heart of the nation's capital. From the Wright brothers' famous aircraft to the Apollo XI command module and SpaceShipOne, the Smithsonian has the best of the best. Add hands-on exhibits, lectures, special displays and even an observatory, and you have one of the most interesting space destinations on Earth.

Kennedy Space Center: Cape Canaveral, FL

Few spots have borne witness to such important human milestones as the Kennedy Space Center, including the Apollo missions, the Viking and Voyager interplanetary rockets, Space Shuttle launches and the Challenger tragedy. While the Space Shuttle is no longer in operation, there are still rocket launches and the world-class visitor complex welcomes well over a million visitors a year.

Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center: Houston, TX

"Houston, we have a problem." It is hard to forget Apollo 13's fateful words when visiting the Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center, home to NASA's iconic mission control centre. The visitor area was designed with input from Disney's famous Imagineers, and visitors can enjoy a restored Saturn V rocket and tram tours around the Center's collections, training facilities and mission control rooms.

Spaceport America: near Truth or Consequences, NM

Can't spare $200,000 for a Virgin Galactic flight? Don't give up hope - visitors can still take a look at Richard Branson's Spaceport America. The site is under construction, but for $59 curious fans can book a 3.5 hour preview tour that takes in Norman Foster Architects' futuristic hangar as well as other attractions in the area. Lucky visitors might even get to chat to aerospace engineers on site.

Meteor Crater: near Winslow, AZ

Meteor Crater inspires curiosity about the cosmos in a way that no Space Shuttle can; just 45 minutes from Flagstaff, this is the best-preserved meteorite impact crater on Earth. At 550 feet deep and almost a mile across, this wild spot in the northern Arizona desert feels like it could almost be on Mars. The tacky but charming visitor center is the cherry on top.

California Science Center: Los Angeles, CA

After a whirlwind tour of the US in 2012, the Space Shuttle Endeavour has settled in nicely to its retirement home at the California Science Center in Los Angeles. It's the largest interactive science museum on the west coast and boasts a lovely rose garden, so feel free to geek out while other family members enjoy the beauty outside. If you have time, head to nearby Griffiths Observatory for incredible views of both heaven and Earth.

Mauna Kea Observatory: Mauna Kea State Park, HI

If you've made it this far, don't hesitate to drive a few hours through the stark moonscape of the Mauna Kea volcano to reach one of the world's best observatories. Altitude sickness is a real problem meaning casual visitors are advised to travel to the nearby Visitor Information Station instead, which hosts a free stargazing program every night of the year.