Now before we begin, let’s make one thing clear: I am not a space geek. Space geeks are the sort of people who can tell you all the little details about the Apollo missions to the moon like where they landed and what the goals were of each, how the next generation NASA space launcher is shaping up, and all sorts of minutiae about which rocket is used to launch where. The space geeks and I often hang out in very similar circles so I know a lot more about this stuff than the average person, but I am an astronomy geek at heart who spends her time thinking and talking about what is out there rather than the details of going there. Put it this way: space geeks are engineers and astronomy geeks are scientists. You can tell which is which when faced with a telescope- astronomy geeks will obsess with looking through it, and space geeks will obsess with setting the tracking and gears correctly.
That said, let us make another thing clear: just because the two terms do not overlap as much as you’d assume doesn’t mean space geeks and astronomy geeks don’t get along well, and we do love to see what the other side is up to. So with my brother now living in Florida, and some old physics friends scattered in Florida who I hadn’t seen in years up the coast,
Cape Kennedy Kennedy Space Center on the island of Cape Canaveral was the perfect meeting spot for us to meet a day, catch up with each other, and see some big rockets!
Jingle bells, jingle bells, jingle all the way,
Christmastime in Florida on a hot, hot winters’ day- hey!
Anyway, when it comes to anything space-related I think Douglas Adams had it right when he wrote “Space is big. Really big. You just won’t imagine how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it’s a long way down the road to the chemist’s, but that’s just peanuts to space…”
I mention this because if there was a recurring theme to our visit to the Cape, it was one of “I didn’t realize it was that big/ that far/ that wide!” To see the place properly you first get on a bus, which seems annoying to wait for until you realize you need to do it because it’s several miles between places. After all it’s several miles from the Vehicle Assembly Building, the largest building in the world when it was constructed for Saturn V rocket building…
Past the old crawler-transporters which used to carry the rockets and space shuttles from the VAB to the launch-pad- the biggest self-powered vehicles in the world at the time, with about 40 feet to the gallon fuel efficiency…
Until you finally reach the famous launchpad itself, four miles away and still set up with the old space shuttle configuration (though SpaceX has just been granted the right to lease the launch pad, so this will be changing very soon)-
In between all these things, by the way, there is pretty much nothing except the Florida wilderness, containing mangroves and crocodiles and sea birds. If you think about it all this distance makes sense- in the early days of the space program, when rockets were exploding right and left, one did not exactly want to launch rockets with anything remotely nearby. Even today when there’s a more reasonable chance of things going well you still wouldn’t want to be too close- if you were standing at the fence about a thousand feet away from the launch pad during a space shuttle launch, the sound alone would kill you.
(Also a bit odd: the assurance from the bus driver/ guide that there was an armored car always on hand in the event of an emergency so the astronauts could evacuate, but luckily it was never used. Not to sound macabre, but the reason for that is if something goes wrong it goes really wrong, and you won’t have time to escape. No mention on the tour of Apollo 1/ Challenger/ Columbia.)
But anyway, after seeing where the magic happened, it was time to see some big rockets in the flesh!
First the Saturn V rocket, which carried the Apollo astronauts to the moon and is so phenomenally huge (longer than a football field) you cannot begin to get a picture of all of it. It should be noted this one never went into space- the Saturn V rockets were multi-stage ones, meaning you jettisoned pieces as you went further up, and were disposed of in the ocean and not reusable. The thing is, however, when the Apollo missions were cancelled there were some rockets already constructed at the time, so they ended up being used for things like Skylab and being put into museums like this one.
Besides Apollo there was also another big rocket on display, but not on its side so it was more impressive-
(Yes, that’s us on the left for scale!)
This one was in front of the new home of the Atlantis space shuttle- and trust me, it is impressive as anything to realize this thing used to float around in space!
Now perhaps I’m more of a space geek than I have admitted (is there a Space Geeks Anonymous where I can go and confess I am one?) because after seeing Atlantis I have seen all but one of the space shuttles still in existence, as both Discover and Enterprise have been on display in the Udvar-Hazy wing of the Air and Space Museum. (I just need to visit
Endeavor Endeavour in Los Angeles!) I will say though I think the display here is much better- you only see the space shuttle from the ground level at air and space, but here they’ve done it so you can look inside the cargo doors and see it from below and just about any angle to your heart’s content. If I may say so, they really put the old girl out to pasture in a great location.
So overall it was a great experience to visit Kennedy Space Center, though at some points it was a pretty heavy reminder that it is in the state of Florida and Disney tourism is king. (There is, I kid you not, an Angry Birds Space display where you can hurl stuffed animal birds at pigs with giant slingshots. If you decide to just throw them by hand, however, you get yelled at by the bored attendants.) There was a bit more of an optimistic note detected than I’ve heard in recent years too: private space industries are really moving in to the Cape, and there was a decent amount of modernization going on. After a few years of stumbling around, this astronomy (and likely closet space geek) likes to hope that the American space program is getting on its feet again. Fingers crossed!
Edits above to add in changes to little details I got wrong pointed out by the space geeks in the comments. I told you I wasn’t really one…