On the bright sunny Florida morning of Earth Day 2016 (22nd April) we set out on our maiden drive on the “other side” to the Kennedy Space Center. A few navigational hiccups and acclimatisation with the “other side” later, we were comfortably cruising down FL-528 E (state road/highway 528 heading East) towards our destination.
As we entered the NASA Causeway, it was a breathtaking view of shimmering water of the lagoon Indian River on both sides of the road. We crossed over to the NASA Parkway and were delighted by our first sighting of an American alligator in the adjoining stream! We later were told by our guides that the Space Center prides itself for being a haven for the resident fauna comprising alligators, bald eagles and many others, including some endangered species.
We started with the bus tour that took us around the massive facility to see some of the massive equipment used to move the rockets and shuttles for launch and the rocket assembly building, before taking us to one of the major highlights – the Apollo/Saturn V Center.
Here we were invited into the actual Command Center that was used for the launch of the Apollo 8 to view a film on the history of the NASA space program from its start until Neil Armstrong’s small step that was a giant leap for mankind.
It was so overwhelming to sit there and watch history unfold, we were close to tears. The insecurity of the US at Russia’s launch of Sputnik 1 in 1957 (which triggered the establishment of NASA) followed by the successful space mission of Yuri Gagarin in 1961 at the height of the cold war, the challenge of “We choose to go the moon” set by President John F Kennedy, the tragedy of Apollo 1 and the perseverance of so many people in the years that followed leading to the success of multiple Apollo missions until Apollo 11 landed on the moon on 20th July 1969.
As we stepped out of the command center, we came face to face with the massive 363-foot Saturn V rocket, the largest ever made, used to launch the Apollo vehicles and others over a 20-year period. Simply awesome!
We then walked around admiring all the memorabilia from the Apollo missions that are exhibited here – lunar rock samples (one of which can be touched), a moon buggy, space suits of various astronauts including Alan Shepard (the second human & first American in space), Kitty Hawk (the shuttle/command module) of the Apollo 14 mission
We learnt that the shuttles were named by the commanders of the mission, so Kitty Hawk was Alan Shepard’s choice for the Apollo 14 command module and Neil Armstrong had christened the Apollo 11 command module as Columbia. The lunar modules which detached from the command module and actually landed on the moon had their own names too – “Eagle” was the first one. We watched a simulation of the tense moments preceding the landing of the Eagle on the moon when communication was lost with the Houston Mission Control (which takes over from the Kennedy Center after launch and manages NASA missions until reentry back into the Earth’s atmosphere when Kennedy takes over again) and Eagle had to change course and choose a different landing spot from the originally planned one. Eagle ran into a low-fuel situation and all mission controllers could do was hold their breath and cross their fingers until they heard Neil Armstrong say “the Eagle has landed“! Heart-stopping!
After all this excitement, we headed back to the bus to get back to the main visitor’s complex to see the next highlight for the day – the Space Shuttle Atlantis exhibit. On the way our lady guide (& driver) pointed out the huge nest of a bald eagle that has been an inhabitant of many years. A huge fuel tank (a real one) with solid rocket booster replicas make for a dramatic entrance to the exhibit that covers 30 years of space shuttle missions from 1981 – 2011.
We were introduced to how the concept of a space shuttle orbiter that can take-off and land back like a plane evolved with many iterations on feasible design and years of hard work of multiple teams of engineers. Reuse was also a major consideration and so came the reusable solid rocket boosters that were separate from the fuel tank and retrieved after each launch for reuse. We learnt that the space shuttle does not take off vertically, rather it launches into a trajectory and reaches a velocity that lets it escape being pulled down by gravity but then orbit the Earth, much like the moon. After the introduction, its curtains-up and we gasped at the real space shuttle Atlantis that was suspended right in front of us!
All around it are the facts and figures as well as some simulators to help us get a feel for what the controls of a shuttle look like and what it could be like for astronauts to work in space.
But the best of all was the chance to actually experience the Space Shuttle Launch Simulator to get a feel for what it would be like to be inside a space shuttle during its launch! We got to experience being vertical in the shuttle for launch position and then “zero G” in just a few moments as the shuttle accelerates from 0 to 17,500 mph (28,175 kmph) in 8 minutes!! Definitely a once-in-a-lifetime experience for me, could be more than once for my daughter though!
We were fortunate to have the opportunity to hear from and meet an astronaut, Bob Cenker, about his actual experience of being in space. He spoke about the physical challenges and his own experience of “space adaptation” and “re-adaptation” which is often termed as “space sickness” by the media. His most beautiful memories he said are of “going through a rainbow” every sunrise and sunset, which happen once every 90 minutes while they orbit the earth!
Mihika had been asking us if astronauts got paid a lot and soon enough she had her answer when the question was posed to Bob who answered in the negative and explained how there were a huge number of applicants for the position of astronauts making it very competitive. Manish asked what disciplines should aspiring youngsters pursue if they wished to one day make it to space and happily for us his answer reinforced the importance of STEM (science, technology, engineering & medicine).
In very interesting 3D features, we learnt of the Hubble telescope repairs, the beautiful and intriguing images it has been sending, the discovery of galaxies, the setup of the International Space Station and the latest mission of NASA called “Orion” to send humans to Mars. That will be one lonesome mission for those who go – three years away from Earth, family, friends …..
Wondering if space travel will indeed become a reality in our lifetime, we wandered into the Rocket Garden to see the impressive display there before calling it a day. And what a day!!
Thanks for reading!
Next up will be a most wonderful experience of nature’s wonders at the Everglades National Park in South Florida.