Last year, while touring the southeastern USA I finally managed to visit the Kennedy Space Center. I have been to Florida before, I even lived for a while in Orlando, barely an hour away, but somehow I have never managed to tick this point off my bucket list. The closest I have ever come to that was in 2001 when, during my summer job in Disney World, we were organizing a group visit. Unfortunately due to confusion between the teams in three different cars I was literally left behind. Everyone thought I was in another car. And at that time I didn’t have a mobile phone (I know, it is nowadays hard to believe there was ever a time without them) to get in touch with anyone. So I got stranded and never got to Cape Canaveral.
Anyway, back to last year.
After a night spent in the outskirts of Orlando I arrived to Kennedy Space Center early in the morning. I chose a midweek day to avoid the worst crowds and a quick glance at the vast parking lots assured me that it had been a good idea. I quickly got my (rather expensive) tickets and entered the complex. Close to the entrance there is an area called the Rocket Garden where you can see some of the historic rockets. There is also the bridge used by the crew of the Apollo 11 mission to enter their craft before the launch. That means you can actually walk in the footsteps of Neil Armstrong! Of course the bridge is nowadays only a foot or so above the ground rather than hundreds of feet as it was back then. Still it is a cool experience.
The first big highlight of my trip was the bus tour of the complex. During the tour you can see how big the Space Center is. A lot of the area is actually protected and it is managed as Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge and Canaveral National Seashore. Because of that it is possible to see a lot of wildlife, including alligators on the side of the road (one was pointed out to us by our driver). During the tour the bus passes close to the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB), where the rockets and the space shuttles were once prepared for launches (and which is one of the world’s largest buildings by volume). After VAB we were driven close to several launching pads. On some of them it is possible to see preparations for commercial launches as NASA is renting facilities to private space companies. We could also see the huge transporters used to move ready rockets to the pads.
Eventually we reached the exhibition designated to the Apollo program. Here, in a vast building, is located one of the two surviving Saturn V rockets (out of 13 built). I had already seen the other one (2 were never used) in Houston but it is always an impressive sight and worth admiring. But what I found the most fascinating here was the lunar vault. Among other exhibits one can see is the moon dust covered spacesuit of Alan Shepard from the Apollo 14 mission as well as the Apollo 14 module itself. You can clearly see the scorch marks from re-entering the earth’s atmosphere. There are several training mock-ups of various landing craft and samples of lunar rock. There is even the little van used to transport the astronauts to the launch pad, parked in the corner.
After that I took the bus back to the main part of the complex where it was time to see the Space Shuttle Atlantis. This was actually the main reason for my visit to Cape Canaveral as I had already seen a lot of Apollo related stuff in the Johnson Space Center in Houston
To enter the shuttle exhibition building one has to come through a queuing system and not one but two cinematic experience rooms. In the first one there is a video explaining the origins of the space shuttle program and its development. It is quite short and informative. But the real fun begins in the next room which is yet another movie experience. But this time you can watch amazing shots of the shuttle which were taken in space. They are displayed on the screen in front as well as on the ceiling and the walls of the room. In typical American fashion It is all very inspirational. And I really mean it in a positive sense. Eventually there is a shot of the shuttle facing the audience with its loading bay door wide open. Suddenly I noticed that it actually wasn’t a movie shot any more. Just towards the end of the movie the screen changed to transparent so what we were looking at was the actual shuttle in front of us. In this moment the screen lifted and the public could enter the main viewing gallery. It was all very well done, I have to admit that my jaw literally dropped. Americans definitely know how to put on a show.
The viewing gallery allows a really close look of the shuttle which is suspended in the massive room at an angle, as if floating in space. It is so close that one could almost (but not quite) touch it. All the scorch marks and any signs of wear and tear are clearly visible, one can be sure that it is not yet another model but the “real thing”. After getting down from the galley it s possible to walk directly underneath the shuttle. You can have a close look at all the tiles lining the underbelly of it and protecting the craft during the re-entry to earth’s atmosphere. Apart from the shuttle the building is filled with all sorts of displays explaining the science behind it as well as other aspects of space exploration (like the International Space Station). Real heaven for anyone who is even partly as geeky as I am.
Another shuttle related attraction was the IMAX cinema showing a movie shot in space in 3D. It was filmed during an actual shuttle mission, the one when astronauts were fixing the Hubble telescope, and it offered some truly amazing footage. There are two screens at the cinema, the other one was showing another good movie, this time about space exploration in general, which was narrated by my favourite Star Trek captain, Jean-Luc Picard (aka Patrick Stewart). IMAX cinema is a good option for the late afternoon when it gets really hot and most of visitors (including myself) are already tired after their intensive exploration of the space center. Just check what is showing as the films do change regularly.
I’m from the generation which grew up watching news of the shuttle missions. From the sad day of the Challenger disaster (I was then 9 years old) through fixing the Hubble telescope, all the years of building the ISS to the last flights of the surviving shuttles. For me the space shuttle rather than the Apollo program was the symbol of space exploration. That’s why I have to admit that the Space Shuttle Atlantis is one of the absolute highlights of any of my many trips to the US. On par with the likes of the Grand Canyon, Golden Gate Bridge or Yellowstone. And I can wholeheartedly recommend a visit to anyone, young or old and from any background.
I had spent a whole day in the Kennedy Space Center and I could have easily stay longer but I had to move as the place was closing for the day. After a quick bite I joined the I-95 and settled in for a great evening drive all the way to Miami. Cruising along the wide interstate in the light of the setting sun is one of the best uses one can get out of an V8 powered Ford Mustang. But let’s finish for now as Miami deserve its own chapter.