My family are huge nerds. I know the biggest draw about Florida for most people is usually the theme parks and beaches but if I’m being perfectly honest, the sole reason we had made the nine hour flight was to make it to Kennedy Space Center.
And to just drive home how nerdy we truly are, we went twice in the four days we were in the Cape Canaveral area, at which point it’s cheaper to just go all in and get an annual pass. Y’know, just in case we accidentally find ourselves in the area again…
The excitement was almost palpable over breakfast and was almost enough to distract me from my daily fight for the waffle machine with other hotel guests. Despite staying Cape Canaveral, it was still a fair drive to get to the site. The centre and all the launch pads are actually situated within Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge to protect the local population from damage if a launch goes wrong (protecting the animal population, however, wasn’t mentioned…)
We parked up and got our passes, champing at the bit to get beyond the gates and visit the rocket garden.
Which is exactly what is sounds like. Regardless of anything else on the complex, this area is probably the most impressive. The garden is the final resting place for the Mercury-Redstone, Mercury-Atlas, and Titan II rockets (responsible for getting the first US astronauts into space!) as well as the Juno I, Juno II, Thor-Delta, and Atlas-Agena rockets (satellite launches). The ridiculously huge, horizontal rocket, the Saturn IB, launched the first crew into space and the Apollo Command/Service Modules into orbit for Skylab, the USA’s first space station.
So not only were you walking around the garden going “hoooooly crap that’s big” but you were also thinking about the scientific achievement and the political history of getting all of these metal tubes off the surface of the earth, out of the atmosphere, and into space.
Away from the rocket garden is the centre’s Space Shuttle building, which houses the Atlantis Shuttle. Standing outside it is the fuel tank that the shuttle hugged during its many missions up into space. Most of the time when I say jaw dropping I’m being hyperbolic but this was the real deal.
Inside the building, we watched a video (dizzyingly) projected all around a box-shaped room showing us what Atlantis had been through during its service years. It coupled nicely with the IMAX movies we saw in another building about the shuttle’s crew fixing and replacing bits and pieces of the Hubble Space Telescope.
The box’s front wall lifted like a garage door and we stepped out into the main expanse of the building to see Atlantis in all its space-weathered glory.
Prior to the space shuttle programme, all rockets that NASA used were one-use-only tickets. Once you had used a piece and were finished with it, it was discarded. When the shuttle programme was unveiled, the rockets were designed to be reusable. They would be flown up into space the old fashioned way but would reenter the atmosphere and land just like a plane. The space shuttles were retired in 2011 (this was not,
as it was occasionally reported, the cancelling of the US space programme – the NASA budget was actually increased), allowing for commercial companies like Space X to get rolling.
The massive exhibition hall sparked a recurring conversation about how my stereotypical idea of spaceships are shuttles while my parents’ are the old school cylindrical rockets. Aside from the simulator ride, there are a load of interactive screens and life size things to explore, including a big slide and a segment of cramped tubes designed to be like crawling around the International Space Station.
With our two days at KSC, we had booked on two tours: the Launch Control Center and the Up-Close Explore. These involved piling on to a bus and being driven way out to various different areas around KSC for an in-depth talk.
On the Launch Control Center tour we (obviously) drove out to the Launch Control Center. This is a pretty exclusive building as it still has people working on rockets and guidance systems and all sorts (imagine being able to say you work for NASA!). It’s also right next to the Vehicle Assembly Building which is the largest single story building on the planet. Where else would you build a rocket but in the biggest room in the world?
This photo really doesn’t do it justice.
But we didn’t get a lot of time to gawp because our guide was ushering us into a much smaller white building so he could start the tour which we had all but forgotten we were on in the few seconds we had been off the bus.
Inside the Launch Control Center we were met with a pristine lobby with relics from the past like old computers used in launches and models of the various launch craft.
On one wall was this seriously impressive mural which documents US space flight through the ages, starting with the first few rockets (which had less processing power than today’s smartphones!) right through to where we are now with the ISS. The gap on the far right will one day be filled with the next step in space flight history!
On the opposite wall were 150+ plaques commemorate every launch that has occurred at KSC. For the disasters Challenger and Columbia and other failed launches, there is no second plate commemorating the recovery dates. Instead the wall has been worn away
by years of NASA workers running their fingers over where the dates would have been.
After exploring the lobby, we were taken up in the lifts to a set of four launch rooms. Back in the day they were all filled with (archaic) computers that monitored the various systems of the rocket but since then have been moved about and changed. The room we visited had been mostly preserved but the other rooms are used for commercial companies and software programmers. The hours are apparently long and unforgiving but you get a wheelbarrow of money and eternal bragging rights for literally doing rocket science.
Out of the (extremely protected) window, there was a great view of the track up to the launch pad. Once completed, a rocket is driven the 3.5 miles out from the Vehicle Assembly Building to Launch Complex 39 at the astonishingly high speed of 1mph. From start to finish it takes around 7 hours to get the rocket detached from couplings inside the building to settled in the holders at the launch pad!
Thankfully, we could move much faster than the crawler transporter and our bus sped down the road to the right of the crawlerway. Parked off to the side was one of the crawler transporters and we got a good look at the immense beast of a machine. You can really see the inspiration shows like Thunderbirds took from it!
At the end of the road we reached Launch Complex 39. Our guide explained that it hadn’t been used by NASA in a while and would have just been left to rust were in not for Space X wanting to use the area for their launches. Space X were due to launch the unmanned Falcon 9 when we were at KSC but had to push it back due to delays (but, if you keep up with rocket launches, you’ll see it didn’t go so well…
It was here I learnt that the billowing smoke you see at every launch is in fact water vapour! There are huge reservoirs of water below so attempt to dampen the sound of the launch because it’s so loud it can actually damage the rocket. Launch control is so far away because 3.5 miles is the closest distance everyone can reasonably be without being in any danger, and any public viewings are even further out. Just to be safe.
At the end of each tour, you end up at the Apollo/Saturn V Center. There’s a pre-show and firing room replica experience which takes you back in time to what it was like in the 60s with the space race and the nerve-wracking process of launching Apollo 8, the first manned flight around the moon and the Saturn V’s first mission, given that just one and a half years earlier, three astronauts were killed during the firing of Apollo 1. The windows rattle and your seats rumble, as if there were really a rocket taking off just a few miles away.
In the main room, you meet the Saturn V.
Saturn V was the largest rocket ever flown; it’s 110 metres long and is enormous. I do my best with photos but I feel like you get to a point where scale just can’t be conveyed properly. This thing is huge and stretches the entire length of the building.
Inside the centre are loads of other interesting artefacts from the past. There’s a lunar theatre, which tells the story of the first moon landing, a model of the lunar lander, and a fragment of the moon that can be touched.
Behind a ‘vault’ there’s a collection of treasures including a range of spacesuits so you can see their development, smaller trinkets from launches as well as my particular favourite, Apollo 7 notes written by astronauts running through their mission.
Our second tour on our second day took us around the Vehicle Assembly Building, Launch Control Centre, and the crawler transporter again but unlike the first tour, we were allowed to get out at the launch pad visitor’s complex and look out over the pad.
I’m sure I’ll sound like a broken record by the end of my Florida posts but it was so incredibly hot. I know the phrase ‘mad dogs and Englishmen’ does hold some truth to it but my naive hope that the coast would be cooler didn’t go to plan.
That meant that every time we were invited off of the bus to do something like look back over the launch complex, we were almost dreading it. Of course it was always worth it but it’s hard to focus on that when the heat is so ridiculous and all you can thing about is getting a slushie.
The surprising thing while looking over the launch complex was actually behind us. We were actually right on the edge of Merritt Island and almost able to see a beach! I knew KSC was coastal but for some reason I had never consider the fact that NASA would have a beaches!
After the launch complex, we drove back towards the Vehicle Assembly Building where we were able to get out and explore some of the historical things that had been placed outside, like the tank-like vehicle that drives astronauts out to their rocket,. The more exciting thing was actually the painted concrete on the ground, which finally gives you some idea of scale of the building! My brother is over six foot tall, and the star he’s lying on is to scale for all the stars on the flag of the building.
Another unexpected surprise was back at the Apollo/Saturn V Center in the form of a horde of turkey vultures! They’re quite menacing and ugly birds and when there are over 30 of them looking in at you… well, it’s a little intimidating!
At the visitor complex we hit the gift shop and got some souvenirs but walking between buildings, I was getting a little confused. It was only about four o’clock but the light was getting darker. Then I turned towards the rocket garden and saw this.
Which was followed by an announcement that all visitors should please get indoors and away from the rocket garden because the centre is expecting lightning to strike the area soon! As incredibly atmospheric and exciting as this was, I didn’t think sticking around to get any more photos would be worth standing next to giant metal tubes in a thunderstorm. No thank you!