Monday, January 29, 2007

The Marvel of Space Flight! A Visit to the Kennedy Space Center

By Gordon Ficke

SUMMARY: A visit to Florida would not be complete without visiting the Kennedy Space Center. This is where the North American space program began and continues today. Visitors will be amazed at the history made here and wowed at the development of the technology that put man into space, to the moon and learn more about our vast universe. This is a must see attraction!

Amid the turmoil of the turbulent 1960's, one of the most exciting and positive events I fondly remember was watching the live early morning rocket launches from Cape Canaveral. Huddled around our livingroom, our family's eyes were glued to the black and white Philco television set, in breathtaking silence as the rocket boosters spewed copious clouds of white smoke that engulfed the launch pad, before the Saturn V rocket finally lifted off the pad and into space. Those early years of the space race were heady ones, filled with exuberance and a hope for a bright tomorrow. The future of the NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration) space program promised to free mankind from the confines of our troubled planet earth, once and for all.

A visit to Florida wouldn't be complete if it didn't include a visit to to Merritt Island and the home of the John F. Kennedy Space Center. This historical island, about six times the size of Manhattan, encompasses 140,000 acres, bordered by the Intra-Coastal Waterway on the west and the Atlantic Ocean on the east. It is home to NASA, where space technology integrates with the surrounding wildlife habitat.

Parking is free at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex, and I chose the standard ticket (currently $38.00 for adults and $28.00 for children 3 - 11 years old) that included the bus tour that runs throughout the day.

I first checked out the Rocket Garden with examples of early Redstone rockets, propulsion systems, guidance systems and technology as new discoveries advanced NASA's scientists to develop tools and equipment to enable astronauts to probe further and for longer periods of time into the new frontier of space.

After that I boarded one of the sleek tour buses and watched a video monitor as the tour guide gave us instructions as to when to watch and when to look out the bus window. The retired gentleman at the wheel also pointed out interesting things to us as we traveled through the natural reserve. We passed by a lazy alligator languishing in a drainage ditch.

Once our bus neared the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB), which is the second largest building in the world per volume, the driver pointed out the enormous specialty crawler that transports the space shuttle and rocket to the launch pad. At one mile per hour, it creeps along on a unique gravel road bed designed to bear the combined earth crunching weight of the crawler and orbiter.

"I wonder what's going on here," remarked the bus driver as we observed employees gathered in groups sitting along the roadway. "I've never seen this before," he remarked with a note of concern in his voice. "Something must have happened." We discovered later that there had been a small fire inside the VAB and everyone was evacuated.

Our first stop was in front of the LC-39 Observation Gantry. The second floor vantage point allowed us panoramic views of the two space shuttle pads 39A and 39B. They were still quite a distance away, for safety's sake, separated by indigenous forest. The gantry also offered a bird's eye view of the VAB and Crawlerway. Once on the main floor, I joined others for a historical video about the Kennedy Space Center.

I hopped on another bus that took me along with a group of young students to the Apollo/Saturn V Center. It was here that the 'wow factor' came into play. Seeing the awesomely huge Saturn V rocket, even measured by today's advanced technology, is still the most complex device made by man! It dwarfed anything man made that I had ever encountered. Simply amazing! This completely restored example was first shown to the public in 1995. A model of the Lunar Rover is also on display here.

The doors opened to the adjacent room and there before us was the actual Apollo 11 Control Center, with details like tee shirts and jackets draped over the chairs, from the various contractors and suppliers like Boeing, IBM, etc. right to the same white ceramic tiles on the floor. Everyone was in reverent silence as the soundtrack played synchronizing with a colored light display that lit the affected command center areas, realistically depicting the events that took place that July day in 1969 when that historic launch that propelled Apollo 11 to the moon. That world landmark event that would result in the first men to walk on the surface of the moon. It was the fulfillment of the daunting promise of President John Kennedy to land a man on the moon by the end of the decade. The vivid memory of that hot July day when Neil Armstrong stepped off the ladder of the lunar module onto the soft blanket of fine dust of the moon's surface is permanently etched in the memory banks of my mind.

Snapping back to reality, our tour group shuffled our way to the theater. In the comfort of those cozy seats we saw historical footage and heard comments from the key players during that exciting era. We heard first hand about the challenges NASA had to overcome in order to land the drifting lunar module safely onto the surface of the moon. A landing spot they hadn't planned on touching down. Now that was a landing by the seat of your pants!

After the educational show I checked out the various displays such as the Lunar Rover, space capsule, astronaut suit, etc., before catching the bus back to the Visitor Complex. Little time remained before the center would close, so I rushed to the mock up Explorer space shuttle. I examined the huge cargo bay tht could easily hold a greyhound bus. The ubiquitous Canadarm, Canada's valuable contribution to the space program was prominently attached to the side of the cargo bay. The storage area and pilot's cockpit were a huge leap forward from the cramped quarters of the capsules of the '60's.

The sun was beginning to set below the Floridian horizon and I made a few purchases of souvenirs and trinkets before leaving.

Unfortunately, there wasn't enough time to see the I-Max movies or some of the other interesting exhibits. That will have to be left for another visit, hopefully in the not too distant future. My experience at the Kennedy Space Center was amazing. I had accomplished my childhood goal and really helped me appreciate those pioneers who contributed to the North American space program, as well as give me an insight for those dedicated individuals who work here today. They are at the forefront of the next exciting era of space travel and exploration.

The Kennedy Space Center is located 45 minutes east of Orlando and is open every day, except Christmas and certain launch days. For the true space enthusiast there is an interactive full-day experience that puts your skills to the test to see if you have 'the right stuff' to be an astronaut.

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