Over my spring break vacation this past week, I was in the Merritt Island, Florida, area, so I took a day to visit the John F. Kennedy Space Center. Newsflash: this place is awesome. Kennedy is to rocket scientists what the proverbial candy shop is to kids.
The day began early so as to maximize the amount of time spent at the space center as we pulled into one of the parking lots named after the Mercury Seven (Shepard, Grissom, Glenn, Carpenter, Schirra, Cooper, and Slayton). We were a bit on the early side and the rockets rising up behind the fence from the rocket garden tantalized me with their present seclusion. In that time, I became amused with the ticketing pavilion, whose roof looked like the International Space Station, complete with two astronauts (not to scale) performing an EVA.
Once inside, the first thing we did was go to the Shuttle Simulator amusement. It turns out it’s not quite as exciting as it’s claimed to be, but still pretty cool. In this simulation, passengers are strapped into a seat that is supposed to simulate the motions and accelerations of the space shuttle during launch. The next stop on the itinerary was the Astronaut Memorial. The Astronaut Memorial is a black wall with the names of all the astronauts who lost their lives in the space program. It is a simple, yet beautiful monument to those who have risked everything for the exploration of the unknown.
Just across the way was the rocket garden, home of most of the rockets used by NASA. There were a Mercury-Redstone, Mercury-Atlas, Gemini-Titan, Atlas-Aegena, Jupiter C, and Saturn IB rocket all in the garden, as well as models of the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo capsules. The only thing that seemed to be missing from the exhibition was the legendary Saturn V, but more on that one later. Also sitting in the rocket garden was one of my favorite pieces of machinery of all time–the Rocketdyne F-1 engine. The F-1 also happens to be one of the most powerful pieces of equipment to ever be made. Five F-1’s powered the first stage of the Saturn V, which may be part of my fascination with the F-1 (or, perhaps, the Saturn V).
After the rocket garden came lunch with an astronaut. That day happened to belong to astronaut John Blaha, a Space Shuttle astronaut. There’s not a lot of notable things to say about Astronaut Blaha, but an astronaut is an astronaut, and it was still a tremendous experience.
The best part of the day came on the Kennedy Up Close tour, a special bus tour that took us to see some of the real jewels of Kennedy Space Center. The first major stop came at the Vehicle Assembly Building. I knew that saying the VAB was massive was a bit of an understatement, but I could not appreciate how huge it is until standing at the front door. With the hiatus in the American manned space program, there were no vehicles being manipulated in the bays, but that didn’t preclude us from a real treat. Off on a side floor was Space Shuttle Discovery (my favorite, for the record) in its final preparations for departing to the Smithsonian in Washington. After the VAB came pads LC-39A and LC-39B, the two launch complexes that were actually on the Kennedy Space Center property and the sites of all of the Moon launches and Space Shuttle launches. Really, we got no closer than a mile to the pads, which was disappointing, yet understandable.
The final stop along the Kennedy Up Close tour was the building housing the Saturn V rocket. The Saturn V is a truly marvelous vehicle, and words can hardly pay it tribute, so I will leave this post with just a photograph.
The last time I had been in the Space Coast area, it was for a Shuttle launch that got scrubbed minutes after my arrival in Titusville. This trip to Kennedy was definitely much more worth it, and was quite a vacation for the rocket scientist.