When most people take their vacation for the year they tend to do their best to completely take their mind of their work and as I boarded the long flight to Orlando Florida and I did my very best to do just that! And while I had many exciting things planned for the vacation, I wouldn’t help but worry about my trip to the Kennedy Space Centre! This was not my first trip to the ‘Sunshine State’ and not my first attempt to visit the world famous Kennedy Space Center, as the year previous, some overzealous tanning attempts for fair skin and lack of any sunscreen resulted in a missed trip and a painful few days that followed. So nothing was getting my way this year to visit the much anticipated attraction. Did I mention we were due to visit the Kennedy Space Center on 5October, right at the beginning of the United States Government shutdown, which saw the temporary closer of many government run attractions and museums!
I was right to worry as the Kennedy Space centre was affected but unlike many other places it did not close down entirely and the tour I had booked us on was still to go on ahead. It was not to be a fully-fledged visit getting to see all I had wanted but they made sure to keep as much opened as possible to make the trip a memorable one, for the right reasons obviously!
Waking early at the daunting time of 7am (extremely early for a holiday period!) we made our way sleepily onto the perfectly ventilated bus and napped for the whole journey to the eagerly anticipated Space Centre. Even the journey across the NASA Causeway was aw- inspiring, and a little scary for someone afraid of water. Arriving at the space centre was exciting, I am a big child when it comes to new places that I have never been so was very excited to get started, nearly pushing past our guide who was giving us the routine ‘best things to see’ talk but also the timid ‘what’s not on’ due to the government shutdown. I had resigned to the fact that the Bus tours that took people to the Apollo/Saturn V Centre was not in operation but they had everything else up and running, albeit a little slower than normal but I was not going to complain considering they could have just closed the place down entirely! I saw on arrival the impressive Rocket Garden in the distance but adhered to the advice of our tour guide to leave it to later in the day when we wanted to have a relaxing stroll around the area. So, ever the explorer, I bee lined to the new exhibition of the Space Shuttle Atlantis with the new feature I had been eager to try out, the Shuttle Launch experience! (I have never been one for the ‘save the best until last motto’!)
Even on arrival at the Kennedy Space Center the impressive Shuttle Solid Rocket Booster and External Tanks that have been salvaged and reconditioned to give a realistic humbling idea of how big they really are and how tiny we are compared to them! I am a massive fan of being fully immersed in an experience and with the Atlantis they did not disappoint! Just to gain entrance we had to wait 10 minutes and it really left us guessing about what to expect! They created an exhibition that made people feel like they were at an event rather than an exhibit! We had the digital count down and once the dials chimed zero, we were ushered into a space aged grey room with a large cinematic screen to begin our journey to develop a true understanding of where the concept of the shuttle began! It revealed to us the challenge that faced NASA to make a rocket that was more cost efficient and gave us an idea of how crazy the request for a rocket to become reusable and land like a plane really was! We were introduced to the concept dreamed up by Maxime Faget of the proposed DC-3 shuttle design, a fully reusable shuttle design unlike the shuttle that came to be.
Once the cinematic movie had heightened everyone’s curiosity we were moved into the next room but much bigger and futuristic than before. Here, with the trickery of the angles of screens and walls in the moon we were right in the middle of a shuttle launch, at first experiencing the nail-biting countdown and then came the engulfing fire and smoke and we were traveling with a shuttle into space, and once there it felt like a magical movie with the glittering stars turning into a glittering curtain, lifting to reveal the actual Space Shuttle Atlantis! They definitely got the build-up perfect and the sheer size of the 122-foot giant and immediately it was lit up by the flashes from other tourists who were undoubtedly in awe of the craft as well! It felt inspiring looking upon something that had safely taken so many astronauts on many missions to space! The display around the Atlantis was very impressive with replica compartments including the flight deck that really captured your imagination (and inner child with some people getting a bit carried away pretending to be an astronaut!)
To my pleasant surprise this large exhibition was just the top level of the Atlantis exhibition and when you follow, what I believed was the exit of the building; you are actually wandering into a whole new area that had an initial awe factor and felt like walking into a top secret room! Here we were treated to the many impressive shuttle memorabilia and history including Maxime Faget’s original shuttle DC-3 model and even the bus used to transport them to the shuttle launch pad! It had areas that allowed us mere mortals to attempt the difficult task of landing a shuttle and dock equipment which was dizzyingly difficult for anyone who has never attempted such a task before.
These interactive and informative displays where impressive on their lonesome but the Kennedy Space centre was determined to make its visitors really experience what astronauts experience during their launch. So step up the recently opened Shuttle Launch Experience! A real life feel shuttle launch simulator that recreates the 8 and a half minute launch into orbit! We were once again ushered into a large room and this time we were guided by the veteran space shuttle commander and Administrator of NASA itself, Charlie Boden leading us through the process and what we would be experiencing. Then the moment arrived and we were seated secured in the payload bay and thus commenced the launch sequence and ultimate journey into orbit. It is a hard experience to describe with general awe at how I personally felt as if I where vertically flying at an immense rate and the uneasiness with the initial turbulent shaking that sparked my empathy for many astronauts who must have had that very real fear of things that may go wrong in these scary minutes. But I could see why they put themselves through those months of training and hardship and to take such a risk as to travel into space. Once in virtual orbit, the payload bay opened to reveal a first person view that not many have experienced. Yes this obviously was computerised but it still provided a view that made almost everyone on the simulator green with envy of how astronauts see our beautiful jewel of a planet! The Atlantis exhibition with the Shuttle Launch Experience alone was enough make me feel that the long bus journey was worth it but after the thrill of Atlantis, we still had much of what was open in the space centre to see.
The Atlantis exhibition was a hard act to follow but I like to remember that everything is what you make of it and although the rest of our trip around the space centre was much milder in comparison it was still extremely enjoyable. We ventured into the more light hearted entertainment of Angry Birds: Space Encounter where we may have indulged the inner child once more trying to launch cuddly toy angry birds via huge slingshots and hit digital screens of those mischievous pigs. The area was filled with IPad and entertaining things to do, including a strange angry bird mirror maze which, I am ashamed to state, I did manage to get lost in!
From the light-hearted fun we roamed across to the very interesting Robot Scouts and the Exploration Space exhibitions. Here we were guided by various robots who spoke in the first person and ushered us into different areas to learn more about the robotic exploration of our solar system, with particular focus on the exploration of Mars, both past and present and even finished off with a look to the future and how robots have paved the way for humans to set foot on the rusty red planet. The exhibition ended with a room that was vastly impressive, not for size but for the revelation of the likely living quarters for humans on Mars and what they would be like for those who will go, including patches to grow vegetation for food and air as well as sleeping quarters and communications areas. Essentially we were inside a future modern home!
From here, much else was closed and we had limited time to board the bus to take us to the Astronaut Hall of Fame before we left Cape Canaveral and we still had the Rocket Garden to wonder through, so we decided to eat before we did in the Orbit Café which was beyond nice and reasonable, and then take a turn through the Space Shop! The space shop was definitely a favourite for me, not just because I am a self-confessed shopaholic but because it really was filled with so many unique things, from Christmas decorations, mouse pads, clothing, games and even wall art! It was a hard place to pull myself away from but by far my favourite purchase was the cute Christmas decoration of Private Ham, the first space chimp in space!
After this we had some time left to make our way around the rocket garden and it was extremely impressive and very humbling experiencing the size of some of the rockets and modules astronauts would have used, not just the large rockets but the small scale of some of the capsules such as the Gemini, Mercury and Apollo capsules! We even got to walk in the footsteps of Apollo 11 across the very service arm that led them onto the Apollo 11 command Module!
From here we boarded our bus with one final stop, at the Astronaut Hall of Fame! Here we were treated to a real personal touch of space travel. It was filled with information and memorabilia from the earliest to some modern astronauts including Space suits actually worn by many influential space travellers, like the impressive Alan Shepard, who was the first American in space but also walked on the Moon as part of the Apollo 14 mission. It revealed many things about an astronaut’s life in space in the early days of space travel as well as modern day methods, from what female astronauts used to brush their hair and the earliest computers used in space travel. We even had to the chance to pretend to be an astronaut, without the fear of actually going into space!
I could go on about many other things that I experienced and I have almost definitely missed lots of things experienced and done that where none the less fun, but I would end up writing a book about the place. All in all the Kennedy Space Center was well worth the visit, even with some of the features and parts of the place closed due to unfortunate timing, it still was a fantastic day. The fact I did not get to experience all it had to offer has just gave me a reason to return in the not so distant future! It definitely sends out the inspirational message to reach for the stars!
(Article by Kerry Scullion, Education Support Officer)