Our cruise left on a Sunday and as a safety factor we chose to get into town early so we allowed time on Saturday to visit Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida. Like many Americans I was confused, saddened and understanding at the announcement of the retirement of the shuttle program and I do still have strong feelings about it but that's not what this blog is about. I felt that since the shuttle program was going away the same fate would soon follow for the rest of NASA and we would be left with museums and memories of the golden age of space exploration. In a way I was correct. We'll always have some great exhibits housed in museums to visit with our kids. I was very wrong, however, about NASA fading away and after visiting Kennedy Space Center I left more excited about the space program then I have been at any point in my life.
The KSC complex has enough to see that I won't be able to cover it all in this blog post but when you visit, and I strongly suggest you do so, you will experience every aspect of mankind's history of space exploration.
The Rocket Garden grabs your attention as soon as you walk on site. How can it not? There are massive rockets standing before you in all their glory answering any questions you had about how big these things are. Spoiler, some of them are massive. There are displays that go in depth about the space race, early astronauts, and our love affair with science fiction but the two highlights that I want to mention are the bus tour and Shuttle Atlantis.
I would compare the bus tour to Universal Studios' Back Lot Tour. The bus takes you through the heart of KSC where you have the opportunity to get up close and personal with some of the launch pads where rockets and shuttles began their journey's to space. You pass the assembly building where shuttles were attached to the fuel tank and rocket boosters and where they would be set atop the "crawler" prior to making agonizing slow (1mph) creep to the launch pads. By the way, the crawler is the largest piece of that a man can drive that I've ever seen in my life. Ship's are bigger but ocean dwellers don't count here.
The highlight of the bus tour is the Saturn V rocket hangar. Your visit starts out with a reenactment of what mission control experienced during the Apollo missions which is pretty intense. It's amazing what lights and speakers can do to make you feel like you were really there. Once the theatrics are over the doors are opened to the main hangar where an actual Saturn V rocket is lying on it's side and disassembled so that visitors can see how the rocket sections were tied together during launch. Assembled this thing is 363 ft. long and seeing it in person makes you proud of mankind's accomplishments. Space suites, moon rovers and tools are also on display to tell the story of what it took to get to and work on the moon in visual detail.
Hands down my favorite display in the entire KSC complex was getting to see the shuttle Atlantis. Despite all the signage I honestly had no idea that I was about to walk into a room with Atlantis. It's rare for me to not do some form of research prior to a trip but in this case it was a blessing. I felt like a little kid when the veil was lifted and I was literally just feet away from an orbiter. The display allows you to look inside the cargo bay doors with the Canada arm stretched across the room and you can count each black tile on the the bottom of the shuttle from the floor below if you were so inclined to do so. I really wanted to climb inside and think about floating over Earth but I had to settle for the children's version that sits adjacent to Atlantis but I guess I can deal with that. The kids thought it was cool to see this stuff but I don't think they really grasped the importance of what they were seeing which I can understand considering they didn't live through the peak of the shuttle program but some day I hope they'll get it.
Despite being saddened by the shuttle program ending our visit opened my eyes to the future of American space exploration. Once I realized that this is only a transition phase similar to what took place while moving from rockets to shuttles I got excited about NASA and space travel again. So what if we don't have a replacement shuttle yet, we still have rockets that are launched on a regular basis which anyone can witness if you're lucky enough to be there on a launch day and now there is more of an open market with independent companies building exotic and mind blowing machines that will help pave the way for the future of space travel. Every day we're one day closer to commercial space travel (scary, actually) and I'm convinced that someday man will walk on the surface of Mars, a feat that still seems more like science fiction rather than reality.
The Kennedy Space Center ended up being my favorite part of my cruise vacation and it took place before I even set eyes on the stupid ship. Seriously, I could have jumped right back on a plane bound for Utah and I would have considered it a successful trip. If you would like to learn more about what you can see at KSC check out their web site at https://www.kennedyspacecenter.com/