The last time I visited Kennedy Space Center, the U.S. was months away from launching the space shuttle for the first time. My recent visit came a little more than a year after the spacecraft was retired. Much has changed at Kennedy in the time between.
While there are attempts to hype future projects such as the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle, which is more theoretical at this point than realistic, much of Kennedy Space Center focuses on past glories such as the Apollo program and the Space Shuttle era, which are rapidly slipping into the rear-view mirror of history.
None of that detracts from the attraction. When I visited, I managed to spend an entire day there with my family and we didn't come close to exhausting the activities we could have enjoyed during our visit. And that's on the base ticket which doesn't include upgrades, which allow you to tour special areas such as the Vertical Assembly Building (VAB) or the launch pads.
Visitors are free to explore at their own pace. Armed with a schedule of events, you can customize your visit. The first thing you see as you enter is the rocket garden, a display of rockets from NASA's history, such as a Jupiter-Redstone from the Mercury missions or an Atlas rocket from the Gemini program. It's the perfect place to peruse your guide as you orient yourself and a place that you will return to a few times throughout the day.
We started with one of the day's highlights, the astronaut encounter. People pack an auditorium to hear that day's astronaut describe his experiences. On our visit it was Marcos Pontes, Brazil's first man in space.
He was charming and entertaining. He told lots of interesting anecdotes and showed some home videos and photos of his time in space, which were fascinating. For the inevitable question from kids in the audience about how they could one day become astronauts, he said if they want to attain their dreams, they should study hard and persist no matter what obstacles life throws at them.
Next up, we went on the bus tour which takes about two hours, but can take longer depending on how long you stay at the different sites. The first part of the tour drives by the massive Vertical Assembly Building where the shuttle was coupled to its rocket boosters and external fuel tank. Before that, it was used to assemble the huge Saturn V rockets that were used by the Apollo program that took astronauts to the moon. Hard-core space fans can purchase separate tour tickets that take them inside the building for a close-up tour.
You also get to see the crawler that ferried the shuttle out to the launch pad from the VAB, some other launch equipment and take a drive by the Launch Control Center (LCC). Again, there are separate tours for the LCC for those NASA fans who are devoted enough to have memorized the many acronyms NASA likes to use, like the LCC and VAB.
From there, you drive out to an observation tower that gives you a panoramic view of launch pad 39-A that was originally built for Apollo, but later modified for use the space shuttle. You can also observe other launch pads used for earlier space missions and still in use today. As well, you can see launch pad 39-B, which is now being modified for the Orion program.
With the nearest launch scheduled nearly a month away, the area was quiet, but it was easy enough to imagine what it was like when throngs of people would come to cheer on the astronauts as they rode on rockets roaring into space.
To help you in the imagination department, visitors can hop on the shuttle bus to the next stop on the tour, which is a re-enactment of the Apollo 8 launch, the second manned Apollo mission after the disastrous Apollo I fire that claimed the lives of three astronauts. Apollo 8 also had the distinction of being the first in the program where astronauts flew to the moon and back, although they only flew around it and didn't land.
The climax of the tour is at the next stop, the Apollo exhibit that features an honest-to-goodness Saturn V rocket, still the largest rocket ever built. Close up, it is truly gargantuan. When I was there back in the day, the Saturn V was sitting on its side in front of the visitor center, slowly rusting in the sun. It's now housed in a modern facility that lets you admire it from stem to stern.
Also on display are a lunar lander that was never used, a lunar rover, a command module and even a piece of moon rock that you can touch. There is a movie theatre and several other displays of historical artifacts from the lunar program.
We returned to the visitor centre and had our choice of two IMAX movies to watch. There was one about the Hubble space telescope and another about the International Space Station. We'd seen the latter, so we went for the former. All I can say is that seeing those dazzling space views on the towering IMAX screen in 3D makes them even more awe-inspiring.
The next item on the agenda, and the most popular with my kids, and probably the grown-ups as well, was "The shuttle experience." It's a flight simulator that is supposed to recreate the sensations of a space shuttle launch. After an amusing introductory video, visitors enter the simulator which lets them imagine they are sitting in a module in the shuttle's cargo bay.
There is a lot of shaking and rattling, inversions and rolls worthy of a roller-coaster ride. About the only thing missing are the high G-forces that a real astronaut would encounter, but it's still a lot of fun.
Once that's done, you can take a sneak peek at a real space shuttle, the Atlantis. It was only rolled out to the Kennedy Space Center Visitors Complex on November 2 so it's still not ready for display. The special building that will house it is still under construction, but when it opens this summer, it should be a star attraction at a site that already has its share of star attractions.
-- Postmedia News