December 8, 2004
The first thing I thought of when I realized that the Sunset Limited terminates in Orlando was Disney World. Then I looked at a map of Florida and realized that there was a far more important reason for me to go to Florida: the Kennedy Space Center.
The Kennedy Space Center (and Cape Canaveral – they are two different places) is an amazing place. For one thing, it sits within the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge. The refuge (and, by extension, the Space Center) is teeming with wildlife. Birds, turtles, alligators, snakes, armadillos, etc. are everywhere. The alligators especially love the landing strips—there is a group of alligator wranglers who’s job it is to clear the landing strip before the Shuttle can land! Throughout my time here I saw countless alligators, and, as you can see from the photos, turtles. Driving to the Center on the second day, I had to swerve into the opposing lane because a turtle was crossing the highway and was right in the middle of my lane.
Did you catch that? “The second day.” Yes, there is so much to see here that I had to come back for a second day. Fortunately, the entrance tickets are good for two days (with validation). You could probably cram it all into one day, but I took both of the extended tours that they offer, and each are more than two hours long. That, plus exploring the Kennedy Space Center Visitor’s Center (with two IMAX theaters, a large number of other exhibits, and the “worlds largest space shop”) is tough to jam into a single day.
If you visit, plan your time accordingly. At least, arrive promptly when they open so that you maximize your day. And do research in advance so you know exactly what you want to do. I’ll describe the two extended tours in just a minute. But one other thought about planning a trip: learn from my mistakes. This is a WORKING facility. That means that they are actively shooting rockets off all the time. Like an idiot, I didn’t check to see if anything was launching while I was planning my trip. I leave here on Thursday, December 9. On Friday, December 10, they are shooting off a Delta 4 rocket. I’M MISSING IT BY ONE DAY! As Charlie Brown used to say, AAUUGH! Be sure to check out my pictures: you can see the rocket and even the trucks bringing the rocket fuel. (See [deleted] for the Kennedy Space Center photos, and [deleted] for the Cape Canaveral photos, including the pictures of the rocket that goes off on the 10th.) As for how to find out what is launching, just check the web. For instance, https://www.kennedyspacecenter.com/events.aspx lists what is launching in December of 2004; right at the top is the Delta 4 that I’m missing. Sigh. I guess I’m going to plan another trip back here someday…
Back to the Space Center. Basic admission gets you into the Visitor’s Center complex. They have a number of movies, interactive exhibits, and the like. A couple of times each day they have an astronaut give a live talk where you can ask questions. You can wander the rocket garden, explore the full-size Shuttle mockup, and, of course, shop in the “worlds’s largest space shop.” It’s a pretty good shop—they have a ton of space-related stuff, from kid’s toys to shirts and jackets to pins and postcards to books and expensive artwork. Your basic admission also gets you on a bus out to see pad 39A and B (the twin pads used to launch all of the moon missions starting with Apollo 8, and all of the Shuttle missions), and the Apollo/Saturn V Center. The Center is neat: they have one of the three remaining Apollo rockets. The one here at Kennedy was supposed to be Apollo 19, but funding cuts prevented it from ever being launched. They also have a moon rock that you can actually touch.
That’s the basic tour. Pretty much self-guided, plus a couple of videos played while you are on the bus out to the Apollo/Saturn V Center. If you are willing to pony up some extra $$$, however, there are two other tours you can take that give you a more in-depth experience. The first is the “NASA Up Close” tour (see the photos at [deleted]—pretty much all of these are from that tour). I did this one the first day. They take you out on a bus with a real live guide, so you can ask questions. They go all around the Kennedy Space Center, which is where the NASA missions take place: the moon shots and the Shuttle missions, mostly. We first went into the building where the International Space Station modules are processed. This is truly an international effort: there were six or so modules in there, three of them from Italy and one from Japan. The modules are brought here from their countries of origin and then tested prior to launch. As you can guess, with the Shuttle flights temporarily halted, the modules have been stacking up a bit… The Shuttles are scheduled to resume flying in May 2005 (hopefully) so we should get the Space Station project moving again.
The Up Close tour then takes you out to 89A and B (the launch pads used for the Apollo and Space Shuttle missions). You don’t actually get right up to the pads, but you get much closer than the regular tours. You get to go out to where the closest cameras are mounted—automatic cameras, since this point is far closer than humans are allowed to be when the rockets are launched. We walked around there for a bit, and then we went out to the Shuttle landing strip. They say that this is the longest landing strip in the world—three miles long. It’s just a landing strip, not much to look at. But apparently the alligators just love it. They actually have people who’s job it is to go out on the runway prior to a landing and chase the alligators off! Once the Shuttle has landed, they tow it off the runway and right down the middle of an extra-wide street (temporarily blocked off, of course) to the Shuttle’s hangar. We drove down that street, and right by the three hangars where the three flyable Shuttles currently are. Discovery, one of the Shuttles, is there in its hangar, actively being prepped for launching in May.
The Shuttle hangars are close to the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB), which most folks have at least seen pictures of. Tourists aren’t allowed inside, unfortunately, but even from the outside this is a pretty impressive building. They claim that by volume it is the largest building in the world. This is where the Shuttle is put together (what most people think of as the Shuttle is just the orbiter; the Shuttle is the orbiter plus the large external fuel tank plus the two solid rocket boosters; see my mockup photos for the various pieces). They start by bringing the launch platform in. Then they place the two solid rocket boosters in their proper positions. Next, they drop the external fuel tank between the two boosters, and fasten them together. Finally, they bring in the orbiter and attach it to the external fuel tank. The whole process takes about two weeks. Finally, when it is all ready, one of the crawlers comes in, slips underneath the plaform, raises up and then trundles off to the launch pad. The crawler moves along at the blazing speed of 9/10 miles per hour. The pad is three miles away, so it takes a while to move the assembly out there.
One of the things I found interesting about the launch pads was the water tower off to the side. I knew that there was a lot of water involved in the launch (I’ve never noticed the tower, though, where the water is stored prior to the launch), but I always thought that they shot it into the space below the platform to keep things cool. They do shoot it into the space below the platform—a lot of water, in a very short time—but it isn’t for cooling. It actually acts as a noise suppressor, and is necessary because the rockets are so loud that at full volume the sound would actually shake tiles off of the Shuttle! It’s amazing some of the solutions they had to come up with make these things fly.
The Up Close tour—and the “Cape Then and Now” tour, too—ends up at the Apollo/Saturn V Center, so if you take either of these tours you don’t need to take the regular tour as well. You aren’t missing anything.
I spent most of my first day on the Up Close tour and exploring the Apollo/Saturn V center. I made it to one of the IMAX movies, but didn’t get to much of the rest of the visitor’s center. While I wouldn’t have come back just for the visitor’s center, I was interested in the “Cape Then and Now” tour, and so decided to come back for another round of space stuff.
The Cape Then and Now tour focuses on Cape Canaveral. Many people confuse Cape Canaveral (for a while named Cape Kennedy, but the name has been changed back) and the Kennedy Space Center. The two are adjacent, but distinct places. Cape Canaveral is the military facility where the early launches took place. Kennedy Space Center was built for the moon launches; this is where all of the Saturn V launches (starting with Apollo 8) took place. Since the first tour only covered Kennedy, I only got half the story.
As you can see from my Cape Canaveral photos ([deleted]), the Cape is an interesting mix of historical (the Apollo 1 launch pad, the old blockhouse used for the smaller rocket launches, etc.) and current activity. They have a number of pads still in use. At this very moment, there are five rockets on launch pads all being prepped for their various missions.
We couldn’t get terribly close to any of the active pads, of course. The inactive ones are a different story. I was very pleased to see that they’ve made the Apollo 1 pad into something of a memorial to the three astronauts who died there during a pre-launch test. There isn’t much in the way of a memorial—just some benches in their memory, and a kiosk describing the event (that isn’t in my photos because the recent hurricanes blew it into the bushes; they have yet to put it back in place). But it doesn’t need much. As they are, the concrete structure upon which the rocket rested, the scorched fire bricks that show the evidence of various launches, and the general air of peace and tranquility seem fitting somehow.
I enjoyed seeing the old computer technology in blockhouse that was used to control and monitor the launches. The blockhouse itself was amazing: two-foot thick walls, and those amazingly-thick windows (forty-five panes of glass, in three groups of 15). It was built this way because at the time, with the technology they had, they had to be physically located within 100 yards of the rocket itself! It must have been something, to be in there and watching a launch from that close. Nowadays, you can’t get any closer than about 3.5 miles…
This second tour also ended up at the Apollo/Saturn V center (they’re proud of it, as they should be); I didn’t spend much time there since I had already explored it. Instead, I headed back to the Visitor’s Center and spent the rest of my afternoon exploring that more thoroughly.
The Kennedy Space Center complex is a 45 minute drive from the center of the Florida Disney universe, so if you are planning a trip to Disney World you should consider spending at least one day out at Kennedy, learning about our space program. I’ve always been a huge fan of the program (can you tell?) and of course I enjoyed it immensely. But if you aren’t all that familiar with the history and current status of our activities in space, do yourself a favor and check it out. I’ve always believed that space exploration is our destiny; it’s something that we really need to do as human beings (well, exploration in general—but we’ve explored just about all of the land on earth, so that only leaves the oceans and outer space). Unless we push on to explore further outside our environs, as humans we’re just marking time. And the huge number of technological advances that have come out of our space program (all paid for at taxpayer’s expense, true, but then all made freely available to the public; NASA by law cannot patent any of their inventions and cannot collect royalties on anything) have, I belive, more than repaid us for what we spent. Continued exploration of space means that we’d be having to face and deal with new challenges. Overcoming those challenges will benefit us all.
Space may well be the “final frontier.” So what are we waiting for? Let’s get out there!