Sunday, March 9, 2014

The "Right Stuff" in America - Best of the Kennedy Space Center

After five days at Disney World at the beginning of February, we capped our Florida family vacation with a visit to the Kennedy Space Center (KSC). We spent a day; enthusiasts could spend weeks. Normally I write on the universally amusing aspects of areas we visit. I can't focus on absurdity at such a place as the KSC. What's been done there is too profound.

The first thing you notice beyond the ticket counter is the rocket garden, an outdoor display of historic rockets used in the early US space program. Most are standing vertically (a Saturn IB is not) and are in their original state or cobbled from disparate original parts. There are mock-ups of capsules you can get into, and a gantry-style walkway that once extended from the fixed launch tower of LC-39A, and its attached "white room" that moon-bound Apollo astronauts used to make final preparations before accessing their capsule.

Rocket Garden

A unique option at the Visitor Complex is the regular opportunity to interact with experienced astronauts and space program engineers or scientists. A more expensive admission ticket can buy a lunch with an astronaut. We bought the standard admission, but that included a conversational slide show lecture by astronaut Tom Jones, who flew on shuttle missions STS-59, STS-68, STS-80, and STS-98.  My wife recently read the memoirs of Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield, and Jones' advice was similar--joining such a small fraternity requires absolute, single-minded physical and intellectual dedication to the goal from an early age and no acceptance of rejection. There are no reluctant astronauts. After his talk, Jones posed for photographs and politely answered many questions.

The kids met astronaut Tom Jones after his slide show presentation in a KSC theater, and he took the time to answer several questions. My youngest has been hoping to meet an astronaut ever since his school linked up with Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield on the ISS last year. Mr. Jones is apparently a friend of Hadfield and has worked with him.

Space Shuttle Atlantis exhibit housing, fronted by a mock-up of the external fuel tank and solid rocket boosters.

Space Shuttle Atlantis is fully enclosed within its own building. We visited on a quiet Monday, but guests navigate a few corridors designed to manage crowds before entering a darkened standing-room theater for an introductory film. Then the doors open, and the orbiter is revealed all at once.

Awesome is an overused word. The Atlantis display is awesome. Permanently mounted on a tilt for maximum visual display from above and below, well-illuminated as if in the blackened confines of surrounding space, it is just out of arm's reach. And it's easy to imagine the Canadarm is actively working to grasp a satellite. Retired engineers from the Shuttle program are strategically posted at either end of the Atlantis to answer any potential questions about the technical aspects of the machine and its history. I couldn't help but wonder why none of these heroes' names come to the tip of tongues before the modern celebrity flotsam. Even of the astronaut corps, how many people can name but one or two, if any?

The world is full of wonders. The Atlantis display is one of these. Taking the time to speak with an engineer or scientist who worked on the shuttle or other NASA programs is worth the time invested. I met an Apollo program engineer who was familiar with the Grumman facility where my grandfather worked on components of the Apollo Lunar Modules.
The liftoff simulator is a slight disappointment. Current NASA Administrator Charles F. Bolden narrates the introductory show, a video featuring several NASA luminaries who describe the simulator as the closest thing publicly available to a real Shuttle launch experience. But it simply tilts you backwards and shakes vigorously. The centrifugal force applied at Epcot's Mission Space is more likely to stimulate moderate g-force thrills. A combination of the strengths of each attraction might work best and would keep more chiropractors busy. Keep your overturned pockets secure on the KSC ride; a janitor probably sweeps up coins from the back of the experience after each run to fund future missions. 

Other attractions in the Atlantis housing include a "sonic boom" slide and various simulators that keep the kids busy and challenged. Crawling through the narrow confines of a "space station" and then a clear plexiglass tube suspended 30 feet above the ground was a bit discomfiting for me. Maybe it was 20, but it looked like 40. The silver "Astrovan" used to transport Shuttle astronauts the nine miles from crew quarters to Pad 39A on launch day is also on display.

This "Astrovan" transported shuttle astronauts from their quarters to the pad on launch day.

General KSC admission includes a bus tour of the historic launch pads, a drive past the massive Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) and huge transport crawlers used to slowly convey the Shuttle from the VAB to the launch pad. The VAB is one of the largest buildings in the world by volume, but the entire Space Center facility takes up only a small portion of Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge. Lucky visitors may catch a glimpse of an alligator sunning itself roadside from the bus. All we saw this time was a group of wild pigs grubbing in a muddy bank, oblivious to history. Of particular interest to me was Pad 39A. On that spot on July 16, 1969, the Apollo 11 crew waited until 40 minutes after my birth to depart on their historic rendezvous with magnificent desolation. They missed the rest of my big day, the only three people; tough loss for them.

The Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB). Each of the stars on the American flag is a full six feet tall. Here, the shuttle was lowered on top of the rocket assembly before transport via a giant crawler to the launch pad.

This crawler-transporter is one of two tracked vehicles used to transport spacecraft along the Crawlerway from the VAB to Launch Complex 39.

Launch Pad 39A, ground zero for perhaps the greatest of modern human endeavors. From this spot, all of the manned Apollo missions (except Apollo 10) were launched to the moon atop Saturn V rockets. Perhaps the most famous, Apollo 11 launched at 9:32am (EDT) on July 16, 1969, my birthday.

The bus stops at the Apollo/Saturn V Center, which is detached from the main visitor complex. Recreated there is the Apollo Launch Control center in its late 1960s configuration using original furniture, consoles and equipment. Exhibits in the Apollo/Saturn V Center include astronaut suits (Alan Shepard's is still coated with moon dust), the Apollo 14 command capsule, and a sliver of moon rock you can touch. So have millions of other visitors over the years, some with colds or flu. It could be the most contagious rock outside of Ireland. Who says there's no life on the moon?

Apollo Launch Control Center, recreated using the original equipment.

Alan Shepard's space suit from Apollo 14. There is still moon dust discoloring the shins.

The Apollo 14 Command Module. It was awe inspiring to think this has been to the moon and back. Truth is so much more magnificent than fiction.

But the highlight of the center is a refurbished Saturn V rocket, hanging horizontally in its stages in a cavernous hangar significantly longer than a football field. KSC literature describes the Saturn V as the most complex machine ever built. Computer technology has advanced exponentially in recent years, but I think that claim still rings true. The Saturn V machine was built through empirical trial and error by tens of thousands of the preeminent computer--the human brain--focused on a national endeavor. This was when math and science were words of respect, and those that practiced them were respected. Similar to the Atlantis display, retired space program volunteers are strategically posted to answer questions.

Apollo/Saturn V Center

Third Stage of the Saturn V rocket.

Looking down the length of the three stages of the Saturn V rocket from the Command Module. A Command and Service Module in the foreground.

From the Apollo/Saturn V Center, a bus returns you to the main visitor complex. Other things to do there include two IMAX theaters, where you can watch high-definition films of NASA missions, and a temporary, but seemingly out-of-place "Angry Birds Space Encounter" amusement area that does focus on math and science for younger visitors. Food choices at the main complex and the Apollo/Saturn V Center are the generic fare of theme parks.

I was disappointed to see so few visitors relative to Disney World, though no doubt KSC visitation benefits from proximity to Orlando. Science, engineering, and the greatest technical feat in human history are a tough sell. Kennedy Space Center is not a "magic kingdom," but it is a place where dreams--more fantastic than any fairy tale--came true.

Getting There

Don't expect the official website to work well for planning--the official site was broken when I tried through Google--your tax dollars at work. Standard admission is US$52.95. From Orlando, head east on 528 (Beeline Expressway) and exit left on 407 (Titusville, Kennedy Space Center). Take 407 until its end at 405, turn right and continue east on 405 for approximately eight miles to the visitor center. Bring several dollars for the periodic tolls or rent a transponder with your car.

The United States Astronaut Hall of Fame, with a large collection of astronaut artifacts and memorabilia, is located 6 miles west of the main Visitor Complex on Highway 405, south of Titusville. The Hall is considered part of the Visitor Complex, and admission is included.