Friday, December 17, 2010

Kennedy Space Center

One of my earliest childhood memories is of watching astronaut Alan Shepard blast-off from Cape Canaveral to take the first U.S. trip into space. The event was so historically significant that my 1st-grade teacher brought a TV to class so we could all watch. I was immediately hooked on space travel.

Oddly enough, it never occurred to me that Orlando is only an hour away from the Kennedy Space Center—that is, until Tim’s boss mentioned we might need a break from Disney while there (thanks Mike!). Boy, was he right! On Tuesday, we rented a car and drove to the Kennedy Space Center, home to NASA and my childhood dreams of space exploration. Hands down, it was the highlight of our vacation.

Much like Walt Disney World, the Space Center is spread out over many miles, most of which are accessible only by tour bus. The visitor center features a rocket garden of early spacecraft, exhibits about the U.S. vs USSR "space race," an IMAX theater, and an open space shuttle. There’s also an astronaut hall of fame, located a couple of miles away, and a fabulous offsite Apollo/Saturn V Center, which houses an example of the monstrous Saturn rockets that carried the Apollo moon missions into space. To get the real flavor of the place, however, you have to pay extra to take a tour of either Cape Canaveral (”Then and Now”) or the shuttle assembly building, launch pad and landing strip. We opted to revisit our youth and so toured the Cape.

Some of the launch pads are still active; but the most impressive ones were those where Shepard, John Glenn, et al., lifted off in the 1960s. We toured the “blockhouse” where Shepard’s first flight was counted down

and took pictures of what remains of launch pad 14, where Glenn’s historic Friendship 7 flight originated.

The most emotional site, though, was launch pad 34 where the crew of Apollo 1 burned to death during an on-ground test run. Although it was a horrible time for the space program, NASA eventually recovered and launched Apollo 7 from this same site.

The dramatic concrete pad base

and huge flame diverters remain on the site, as does a memorial to the three Apollo astronauts who lost their lives.

Tickets to the Kennedy Space Center are good for two days. “That’s strange,” I thought when we paid our entrance fee. But now I know why. Spending only one day at the Space Center is not nearly enough. The next time we’re in Florida, I hope to schedule at least two days on Cape Canaveral as this was truly one of the most amazing places we’ve ever visited.

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