The Kennedy Space Center.
So much history in this place.
This was an interesting trip for my husband and I – Matt loves the science of… anything… and I like the stories behind it that are imprinted into our history as humans. The Kennedy Space Center provided both, and it was a cool place to go once in your life… if you find yourself in the area.
Our tour started with the famous countdown clock from the press pit. Now retired, this clock stands at the entrance of the Kennedy Space Center with a plaque proclaiming that it is the second most viewed timepiece in the world, after Big Ben in London. The press pit, located about four miles from the actual launch pad, housed television crews and newspaper reporters and photographers… but it wasn’t the only place spectators could view the launch. There’s seating that was once reserved for VIP guests and the astronauts’ families, that is now also available to the public on a first-come-first-serve basis. All seating is about four miles from the launch pad, as that is the minimum safe distance to view a launch.
Once inside the space center, we stopped briefly at the Missile Garden. Displayed here are various unused missiles from through the years. It’s funny, I guess I expected everything to be a bit grander? But it was more about the science than the aesthetics… which, of course, makes sense. Still a very cool sight.
Our journey was supposed to start with a bus tour, but while we waited for the bus to reach the depot, our tour guide took us inside to view the actual capsules. Guys, this is another thing that science fiction just gets… so wrong. Everything you see with people who have arm room and what not? That is definitely 100% the space station and/or some figment of imagination, because the capsules are small and tight. Even the newer ones cropping up don’t have a lot of leg room. Such kudos to the astronauts? I know there are many, many other reasons to give them props, but honestly? My legs cramp up in the car after sitting still for about an hour. I would be so claustrophobic in these capsules.
Once on the bus, we were taken around the complex. The Saturn V and Apollo mission building is a good distance away from the main visitor complex, so we got to see the famous assembly building. This building is the largest single story building in the world. The American flag painted on the front? That is about 80’ tall. Each red stripe is wide enough for a car to comfortably drive on.
Of course, the build has to be this big, because that’s how the rockets and shuttles are constructed. The interior needs to be big enough to build them, and the doors need to be big enough to get them out.
As a single story building, that’s an architectural feat in and of itself.
Once everything is built, it is transported to the launch pad by one of two crawlers. I didn’t get a picture, but these things are HUGE. They only go 1mph, so it’s a slow trek over to the launch pads.
As I’m sure you all know, the United States government is no longer funding new space expeditions. These launch pads are not really in active use for missions to Mars or anything like that. While Launch Pad 39A has an illustrious history as the pad used for the Mercury, Gemini, Apollo, and Atlantis missions, it is currently rented out to a private company for use.
This company is called SpaceX, and if you’re not familiar with SpaceX itself, you are most likely familiar with its owner, Elon Musk. Science and technology is a big thing for Musk and all his child companies (still stuck? He’s the Tesla guy), and SpaceX is doing some cool things for the future of space travel. The company has developed self-landing rockets.
Why is this cool?
Going into space, while awesome, is a very expensive and environmentally unkind venture. These self-landing rockets are a game changer because they are reusable. So much of what goes into a launch becomes waste and scrap after everything is up and away. Instead if jettisoning these rockets, they come back to the launch pad or another designated space and are ready for the next launch.
Elon Musk isn’t the only billionaire with an interest in space. While SpaceX is developing fundamentals for improved efficiency in space travel, a company called Blue Origin has recently leased space in the complex with a future toward recreational space travel. That would be something out of science fiction! Blue Origin, owned by Amazon’s Jeff Bezos (because who else?) is really just getting going, but there could be some petty cool science coming out of there someday.
While Launch Pad 39A has an illustrious past, it is more or less retired and being leased out at this stage. NASA and the Kennedy Space Center are focused future-forward with sister pad Launch Pad 39B. Also, these launch pads need better names. The center is working toward launching their new, in production SLS rocket from 39B. The long term goal here is Artemis.
Artemis, twin sister of Apollo and my PERSONAL favorite Greek goddess, is the perfect name for the future string of missions that are not just looking to go to the moon, but to return to the moon, and go past it and forward on to Mars. The Artemis missions will look into researching expansions and sustainability in space, supported already by some of the research going on at the International Space Station. We’ve still got a few years ahead if us before the SLS rocket is ready for launch, and even more time until Artemis is go, but that’s a cool thing to look forward to in the future of space travel.
We entered the Saturn complex with a video and simulation of the launch control room and the launch of the first American in space, Alan Shepard, on his Mercury mission. There were a LOT of videos throughout our tours which is really not my cup of tea when it comes to experiencing a museum. But the simulation was very cool and immersive, right down to the noise and lights of an actual launch. Unfortunately there were no launches in the day we visited, so this was as close as we got.
Then? Into the Saturn V room itself.
Holy smokes this was cool. The Saturn V on display here was intended for the Apollo XVIII mission, which unfortunately was cancelled in 1970 due to budgetary problems.
The Saturn V is separated into its individual launch stages to give an idea of how that works, with the capsule off to the side and available for visitors to walk into. Much if the Saturn V complex is devoted to the Apollo missions and in particular to Apollo I (there’s a nice memorial to the astronauts lost in that disaster) and of course…Apollo XI.
We must have heard the Apollo XI story twenty times during the tour, including and IMAX film about the actual mission. Which was cool in itself, but I think I would have appreciated it a bit more if I hadn’t already heard the story so many times. There are so many astronauts and so many missions into space to learn about various different things that I feel like the laser focus on just Apollo XI (with the occasional nod to Mercury and Alan Shepard) was not the whole picture.
Admittedly, I was on a tour, so this may have been because of the tour design. Our tour guide was very knowledgeable, but I do want to take this moment to suggest that, if you decide to visit the Kennedy Space Center, do a self-guided tour instead. Give yourself the day and make sure to get a ticket for the bus tour while you’re there (it gets you to the Saturn V complex, which is quite a distance from the main complex). It will let you see other things, and gives you plenty of time to spend as much time in each of the exhibits as works for you personally.
Unfortunately, our tour did not allow time for any of the Mars exhibits. There was a long stretch in the Saturn V complex to explore, but our tour took us through everything we could see (we missed the Lunar Theatre presentation, but the time slot would have meant we missed group departure) so Matt and I used that time to grab a quick lunch and while everyone else was eating lunch later, we went and looked around the main complex. I’m glad we did, because we got to poke around the missile garden a bit more and look into the other exhibits. We wanted to go into the “Mission of Mars” exhibit, but a large group had just entered – boo.
The last super cool thing we got to see was the Atlantis complex.
It’s so funny, and it’s so much the difference between my husband and I. There’s a grand entry into the Atlantis shuttle room, and while I was breath-taken by the shuttle itself, my husband pulled me quickly to the backside to excitedly show me the silica tiles on the underside that allowed it to successfully glide and re-enter without the tiles falling off, becoming damaged, or burning up. “Why aren’t you taking pictures of THIS side?!” he demanded, positively flabbergasted that I wasn’t more excited about the bottom of the space shuttle.
I love my husband. He makes me chuckle.
We had a little time in the Atlantis complex, about forty-five minutes. We tried to get in line to try the liftoff experience, but after about a twenty minute wait, it became quickly clear we didn’t have the time. Again – recommendation! Tour yourself, so you have as much time as you want.
With less than ten minutes remaining, we were shown into the Astronaut Hall Of Fame. There was a quick humorous story about ownership of one of the spacesuits displayed there, and then we were given five minutes to explore, definitely not enough time to look at all the men and women who have gone to space and learn their story.
I snapped a quick picture of Sally Ride’s digital plaque, because there really wasn’t any conversation the entire day about the women who have helped contribute to expansion in space (tucked in the back of the gift shop, I found a couple copies of Hidden Figures for sale). While many women have helped in the space program from all angles, Sally Ride is one of the better known female names.
Also, the first all-woman space walk happened earlier this year! Once they acquired all the right size space suits…. Not part of the tour or the conversation, but I do follow some space news, so if you didn’t know, now you know! Jessica Meir and Christina Koch were a part of this important milestone back in October this year. 🙂
That concluded our day at the Kennedy Space Center! It’s a super interesting place to visit and I really recommend it if that is something you’re interested in. The retired spacecraft is super cool and the technology used to help man get into space is utterly fascinating. The complex is so close to Disney and Universal (about a two hour drive on the worst day) so it’s worth driving down if you’re in the general area – it’s remarkable for adults and enchanting for children.
Next week, I’ll be sharing our experience at the Bahamas’ hotel Atlantis and the Aquaventure water park. While we were only there for a day on a cruise and didn’t stay in the hotel, we were able to experience and explore. It is architecturally a really interesting hotel, and Paradise Island was lucky to escape the throes of Hurricane Dorian earlier this year. We were fortunate to be able to visit, and I’m excited to share next week.
Are you interested in space expansion? It has always fascinated me, but I only follow it casually, usually reading headlines. Holler in the comment if you’re a fan of the technology and science that goes into outer space research and expansion!