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Visiting Kennedy Space Center

Born in 1956, I grew up with the space program. The triumph of technology that can free human beings from the chains of Earth-gravity, the thrill of vicariously exploring whole new galaxies, and the heroism of the men and women who entered space (and of those stayed on the ground to make it possible) have always burned deep into my consciousness.

I read a lot of science fiction, a lot of articles about the space program. At age 12, I was so thrilled that we happened to be at a cousin's house for the first moon landing, because they had a color TV and we only had black-and-white. In my 20s, I sent in an application for the Journalist in Space program (which was cancelled after the death of the Challenger crew). My first click every morning is the NASA Space Photo of the Day. And at age 53, I got to visit the Kennedy Space Center on the beautiful wetlands of Merritt Island and Cape Canaveral, Florida, still home to numerous birds, alligators, and other wildlife (the 140,000 acres not paved over are a wildlife refuge).

The enormity of he undertaking of getting men and women into space and making those trips sustainable is brought home by the enormity of the enterprise. The scale of things is impossible to grasp on TV. Some of the largest buildings in the world are on this site, spread out over 219 square miles so there's no feeling of their immensity relative to the site. But when you're standing near one, or passing close to it on the bus, you feel tiny. The largest is the Vehicle Assembly Building, 525 feet high, 518 feet wide, eight acres inside, and encompassing 129,428,000 cubic feet. Here the two reusable fuel tanks are mated first to each other, than to the huge external fuel tank (which is consumed on reentry), and finally to the orbiter itself. This building makes the Orbiter Processing Facility's big hangars seem tiny; just getting its 456-foot-high doors open takes 45 minutes.

But then you're told that the entire length of the Wright Brothers' first flight at Kitty Hawk was less than the length of the Space Shuttle's external fuel tank! It took only 54 years from that historic but very brief flight in 1903 to get Sputnik up in space, and now, just another five decades later, there are human artifacts on Mars.

Visitors get to explore four sites, with bus service between them; you park your car a the visitors' center. Each leg is long enough to show several short videos, and passengers can stay as long as they like at each stop and then reboard.

The visitors' center complex, with two IMAX theaters (and some cool space-art galleries in the same building including a whole gallery of stunning pictures from the Hubble space telescope), a shuttle replica and nearby, a simulated shuttle ride, the modern-day Stonehenge of the Rocket Garden, galleries of space art, and a huge gift shop, is the first of these—but we were anxious to see the farther-flung exhibits, so we boarded the bus.

First stop: Launch Pad 39 Observation Gantry. A few short flights of stairs (or an elevator ride) brings you high enough up the tower to see an overview of the campus, including the two shuttle launch pads and the crawlerway, a specially reinforced gravel roadway used by the crawler—described by one of the bus drivers as a "six-million-pound SUV" that consumes a gallon of gas every 35 feet and tops out at one mile per hour as it brings the shuttle and its fuel tanks from the VAB to the launch pad. The shuttle achieves speeds above 17,000 miles per hour; it lands, using parachutes the size of a 13-story building, without using its engines, on a runway nearly three miles long. Somehow, we missed the exhibits on the first floor, about the shuttle (but throughout the rest of our visit, we saw quite a bit about the shuttle, much of it repeated).

The second stop was the highlight for me: a vast hangar dedicated to the Apollo moon missions and the gigantic, enormously powerful Saturn V rockets that catapulted them. Standing next to all 363 feet of a full-size multistage Saturn V lying on its side is a humbling experience; it takes quite a while to walk (and gawk) around it. Items like a LEM module and Apollo capsule round out the display, and this area also has a gift shop and café. Be sure to take in the moon landing video shown in the theater here, and realize how close the mission came to being aborted at the last minute, and how Neil Armstrong had to override the computer and NSA in the final seconds to bring the craft down in a safer location.

Stop number three provided an observatory in the cleanroom, where technicians were preparing components of the International Space Station for transportation in the shuttle's cargo bay.

The Space Station is quite a marvel. What engineering has gone into making these diverse, huge, precision components work together, even when built in 14 different countries, to be hauled piece by piece by almost 30 years of Space Shuttles and assembled in space using robot arms and video cameras! Consider how hard it is to buy a car that's free of defects, assembled at a single plant, in thousands of identical units—and then think about engineering a one-off item whose individual pieces can be as big as school buses or as small as coins, manufactured around the world by people speaking different languages—and that has to work perfectly the first time, with no margin of error, under unimaginably harsh temperature extremes, the threat of puncture by space debris, and all sorts of other hazards. That it works at all is astonishing. That it works as stunningly as it has, and has supported extraterrestrial life for decades, is truly one of the greatest engineering accomplishments in human history. We learned about it in one of the two IMAX films back at the visitors' center complex. Tom Cruise narrates, but the footage is taken from the space station itself, by astronauts.

Once in orbit, the space station maintains that orbit, about 250 miles above the earth and making a full circuit every 92 minutes (seeing lots of sunrises and sunsets as it travels), largely through the earth's own gravity; it's designed to "fall" around the earth. So, despite the tremendous power and fuel needed to get it up there, once in orbit, it needs very little fuel to keep in orbit, and much of the rest of its power needs are met through its own solar panels. NASA's consciousness about sustainability has evolved a lot since the 1960s and '70s when space litter was standard procedure, and this thinking is reflected in the exhibits about future space programs. In fact, there's a nice array of solar collectors on the launch control building.

The other IMAX during our visit, narrated by Tom Hanks, followed the 12 men who've walked on the moon.

Between the two films, we had just enough time to ride the five-minute space Shuttle simulator, whose bumpy, noisy ascent was actually a lot smoother than the hype led us to believe—which was just fine with us. You do shake around quite a bit, but nothing the average person can't handle.

By the time we finished the second film, the park was closing. Five and a half hours after our arrival, we weren't anywhere near done. Fortunately, if you know that you can get your ticket validated on the way out, you can return one extra day within seven days.

So we came back the next day, skipped the bus this time, and explored the Visitors' Center. Although we still didn't see absolutely everything, we did make it to:

  • The Space Shuttle replica just outside the simulator ride: you see a very close replica of the cockpit, but it's behind glass. You also get a good look at the cargo bay, and a brief talk at the nearby Launch Status Center.
  • "Wanted: Space Explorers": A brand new exhibit on what it's like to work in space, what kinds of jobs are needed, and what it'll be like to train and go (quite interesting, especially the extensive exhibit on the Orion/Constellation program, which will be the next generation space exploration that could take us back to the moon to establish a permanent base, and eventually to Mars and beyond). One of the films started by interviewing today's school children on whether they'd like to go to the moon, then reprised the Apollo moon adventures, and continued to an imagined mission assisting a full-fledged lunar colony, led by one of the girls interviewed at the beginning, grown to womanhood.
  • Early space exploration: Mercury, Gemini, some Apollo, and a very small amount on the Russian space program—including the actual (and very primitive looking) Mission Control room used for the Mercury and very early Gemini launches, before the Houston campus was opened.
  • The Rocket Garden, an outdoor exhibit of eight vintage rockets in vertical position, plus replicas of the capsules, some of which allow visitors to crawl in and lie in position.
  • A small exhibit on the nature and ecosystems in the wildlife preserve (which felt very out of place after two days of looking at space stuff, but offers some very nice displays on bird and plan life).

And still we didn't see it all. We never got to the exhibit on space-probe robotics, the teacher/homeschool education resource center, the constellation sphere, or the memorial to the 24 astronauts who died on the job three in a plane crash, three on the Apollo 1 launch pad, and the rest on the two Space Shuttles that broke up in flight).

With some advance planning (and supplementary tickets), the Space Center also has a number of special features and events: Q&A or lunch with an astronaut, guided tours, and even an overnight training camp experience.

The Space Center ticket is also good for the Astronaut Hall of Fame, located just a few feet west of the KSC boundary on Route 440. This museum focuses less on the technology, more on the human side of space exploration, and is well worth an hour or two. You learn a bit about the astronauts' lives before the space program, including childhood artifacts and photos, as well as slices of life from earlier in their careers (many were either fighter pilots or test pilots, and several had seen combat in World War II or Korea.

Also, a timeline wraps around several of the exhibit, giving developments both in space and on earth, year by year. This, more than anything else, brought home the seriousness of the US-USSR space race, and showed how many firsts were on the Russian side, well after Sputnik. The Soviets got the first man into space, the first woman, and the first astronaut to step outside in space, among others. They almost beat the US with a manned spaceflight to the moon.

There are also some cool exhibits on the technology, much of it similar to exhibits we'd seen at KSC, and plenty of artifacts from various space missions. A piece of the lunar rover that was part of President Obama's inaugural parade, a futuristic spaceship-style rover prototype, and plaques for every astronaut, listing their missions, and one more memorial to those who have died in the Apollo 1, Challenger, and Colombia tragedies (they are also honored at KSC).

So...the next time your kids beg you for a trip to Disney World...only agree if you can also explore the wonders of Kennedy Space Center.

Open daily except Christmas and certain launch days, from 9 a.m. Admission: adults, $38, children $28, plus tax. Annual passes are $50/$40, and the price of a day ticket can be applied to the membership.

Shel Horowitz is the editor of Global Travel Review and author of eight books, most recently Guerrilla Marketing Goes Green (with Jay Conrad Levinson).


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