Friday, August 09, 2013

The Kennedy Space Center Revisited

  I love the Kennedy Space Center. Pretty much everyone that knows me knows this. I've been there numerous times, and even got to go on some special behind-the-scenes tours thanks to the magnanimity of the mighty Unkk, but I haven't been back there since the baby was born due to, well, taking care of the baby. In the interim the shuttle program shut down, and Unkk was forced to seek employment elesewhere, and I feared that the KSC would be a pale shadow of its former self.

   I was wrong.

   Since last I was in Titusville the orbiter Atlantis was put on display there. My dear friend Ted went there recently and posted pictures of the shuttle that piqued my interest, and so I decided to take this last week before work begins anew and went to, as I thought it would be, pay my respects to the dearly departed...or in this case the dearly decommissioned.

   I left early Thursday morning and managed to avoid the worst of the morning rush hour, arriving at the KSC a little after 10am. As I was driving across the causeway toward the visitors center I could see the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) in the distance, and I grew wistful. Unkk had given me the gift of a lifetime not too long ago and took me into that Mecca of technology back when very few members of the public were allowed within. Now that the shuttle program was scuttled I assumed the building was being turned into a vast museum. That didn't stop me from paying to go inside again, but it didn't have that same spice once it became something anyone with an extra $25 could do. But more on that later.

   As I entered the center I got my first unpleasant shock of the day. I had already paid double what tickets cost on my previous visits for admission, but parking had always been free...but no longer. $10 to park seemed a bit steep, but what are you going to do? I parked, slathered myself with sunscreen, and sallied forth.

The first different thing I saw, though I did see this from the road as well, was a shuttle external fuel tank and two solid rocket boosters towering, sans orbiter, over the park. I correctly guessed this to be the entrance to the Atlantis display. Then I got to the actual entrance which has had a complete revamp, and a gorgeous one at that:

   The new entrance deposits you in the Rocket Garden,

and I wandered there a bit til it was time to catch the bus to the VAB. The guide was personable, and amusing, and rattled off stats that I almost knew by heart about the wildlife around the Space Center and various other bits of trivia. We drove along a road I'd never been on before, and saw some of the unmanned launchpads, including this:
   That, ladies and gentlemen, is Space X's facility. If you don't know, Space X is the leading civilian contractor involved in spaceflight. They've sent two successful unmanned cargo missions to the ISS, and hope to have man-rated ships before too much longer.

   We then drove to the VAB, passing the place where Unkk brought us in 2008 to see Discovery launch.

   Here is an aerial view of the VAB, since I didn't think to take any still shots of the exterior:
   It's the building where all the Apollo rockets were assembled, and all the shuttles were mated to their rockets and fuel tanks. I've seen the outside of it since I was 5, and going inside once was the dream of a lifetime. Going inside again was just unbelievable.

   I won't bore you with a bunch of stats, but if you remember how tall a Saturn V rocket is, the doors to this place are six feet taller. Anyway, as I was ignoring the tour guide in my orgy of photography, I took this picture:

   And as I did so I realized it reminded me of a similar shot I took in Westminster Abbey of a stained glass window, and then it hit me. The emotions I was feeling must be similar to what a devout person feels when visiting a grand cathedral or other such place of significance to them. Science, especially the Space Program, is sort of my religion. It fills me with awe, and wonder, and brings me joy when I can share it with others. Kinda cool, no?  I was also assured by several of the KSC people that the VAB was not being mothballed, and that as the new Space Launch System/Orion project ramped up the VAB would become off-limits to the public again, perhaps as soon as a few weeks from now! (though I don't really believe it's quite that imminent)

   Eventually we moved along. We drove past the remains of launch pad 39A, which has been relatively untouched since Atlantis blasted off from there for the last time in July of 2011:
   I couldn't help but remember the last time I was on that road, in Unkk's car, Atlantis was standing on that pad waiting to take her final journey into space. Now all is silence, and corroding metal. I asked why the pad was left more or less as it was right after the launch and the answer was no funding to tear it down. The tour guides are glad of that, but also said, with no small amount of disdain, that they're sure it will be leased to some company or other eventually, then the last of the shuttle launch equipment there will be swept away. It was a bittersweet part of the tour, and I was actually glad to get away from there.

   The tour debauched at the Saturn V display building, another area I've chronicled extensively here before, but I do want to share this
   So after lunching 'neath the 'most complex machine ever built' I took the bus back to the visitors center, and my main reason for the visit...Atlantis. As I approached the giant display of fuel tank and SRBs, I was gripped with both excitement and sadness. This was, after all, going to be like going to the grave of an old friend, right? I mean the tombstone imagery is kind of unavoidable:

   But into the building I went. You walk up and in circles til finally you reach a line. Seriously? We have to line up to go into the room with the shuttle? But I chilled, and waited, and looked out the window:
  Then, finally, we were ushered into a room where we watched a short film that, though very cheesily written, depicted the genesis of the shuttle program. The the doors beneath the screens opened, and we were funneled into a smaller, cone shaped room with a smaller, roundish projection screen directly ahead. It was pretty obvious that this screen was the entrance to the actual exhibit, but the launch videos were pretty amazing, and the music appropriately bombastic and inspiring. Then I saw an inner door behind the projection scrim rise up, though the projected star field kept what was beyond obscured. Then, with a final musical flourish, the scrim rose, and we beheld Atlantis!
   Now I will tell you straight up that these pictures do not do this display even the slightest amount of justice. Instead of a dour, dead, static display of a now-defunct spacecraft, this building, which explains the higher ticket and parking prices, spares no expense in celebrating the Atlantis, and the entire shuttle program. I was actually moved to tears at points, and I look forward to the day when I can bring my baby girl here and share this wonderful place with her. But enough blabber, let me post a few thousand words:

   In addition to the Atlantis herself there are numerous interactive displays, mock-ups that you can sit in, games, an "International Space Station" for kids to climb through (including the above-pictured part that's a clear plastic tube 30' off the deck for the truly brave kids to traverse), a giant slide that replicates the angle of the shuttle's landing glide path, and, of course, the Shuttle Launch Simulator, which is one of my all time favorite motion simulator rides. There is a beautiful memorial to the crews of Challenger and Columbia, and the ubiquitous gift shop.

   I find it hard to describe how moving this display is. I've seen spacecraft up close and personal before. Apollo stuff is all over the KSC, and it's never made me this emotional. I think it's because Apollo, and Skylab, while events I dimly remember watching, are artifacts of a time before mine. I watched as the shuttle program was born, I've seen launches with my own eyes. I've cried along with the country when the crews of Challenger and Columbia never came home. Atlantis, Discovery, Endeavour, and Enterprise are not just names in a book to me, and to be almost close enough to touch one of them was a profoundly affecting moment. So rather than feeling like I was visiting the grave of a dead celebrity, I felt like I was finally meeting an old friend. If you ever get a chance to see one of the orbiters on display, I strongly urge you to do so. And if you find yourself heading for the Kennedy Space Center, give me a call. I'm always up for an excuse to go there.

To infinity, and beyond, y'all.

1 comment:

Gordon Hewitson said...

I have been to the KSC 3 times and every time it has been the highlight of my trip to Florida. You can keep your Disney and Universal and Sea World. While I loved those parks and enjoyed everything they had to offer, it was the countdown to our trip to KSC that was always on my mind.

I count myself as incredibly fortunate to have been able to see, hear, and feel the power of a shuttle launch and it is a memory that I will take to the grave and one I wish I could let everyone share in. That launch was the first time in my life that I remember being surrounded with a bunch of strangers and everyone cheering, whooping, and just going crazy as we all united as one to watch this ball of light rocketing upward. There was no malice. There was no hatred towards people of another team like at a sporting event. We were one. We all knew we had just been part of something so awe inspiring we will remember that day almost 25 years later. That’s nowhere near as poetic as it needs to be and maybe some people were sitting there picking their nose and bored to tears but in my mind it was the best moment ever. Don’t tell the wife about that last part :-).

After reading your post I'm tempted to just say "Frak it" and go home, grab the wife and kids, and drive there this weekend. I want to be able to share this with the kids whilst they are still young (and dare I say impressionable) and see what we as a race once did and need to do again.

Everything to do with space and the space program always excites me. As I type this I am grinning from ear to ear at my memories of KSC and the wonders and joy of the space program and I am on the edge of my seat with everything that Space X are trying to achieve now.

Thank you, sir, for sharing your trip and pictures.

Goggs xx