July 20, 2009

We normally run a pretty tight vacation schedule at Swamp Base Foster. All of our various adventures are planned far in advance, primarily so we can get the best deals from the cruise line. This year, however, one of my ten days off almost slipped through.

A couple of weeks ago my wife realized I still had a day to use before it vanished at the end of the month. I scheduled it quickly for July 17 (with nothing planned). Since our 4-year-old has lately been enthralled by all of the ‘space stuff’ associated with the recent shuttle launch and space walks, we decided it was good timing for a trip over to Kennedy Space Center.

But does he have the Right Stuff?

But does he have the Right Stuff?

A few days out, however, work-folks asked me if I could re-schedule to Monday owing to some scheduling conflicts. No problem, as we hadn’t yet firmed up any plans.

So it was by sheer scheduling accident that we found ourselves at the Space Center on the 40th anniversary of mankind’s first landing on the moon.

Despite the fact that I’ve been a Florida resident for 40-plus years, I had visited the Space Center proper exactly once – back in the early 70s as the moon program unwound due to public ennui. There wasn’t much to show at the time. A sense of history had yet to grip NASA. At the time the agency was also struggling with some serious budget cutbacks – even as the very serious space science program of Skylab began to throttle up.

Things have changed. The modern-day Visitor Center sprawls across a large chunk of former coastal swamp. From my perspective, at least, NASA has managed to turn the place into a bit of Space Science Theme Park. A regular, two-day admission isn’t cheap at $38 – but the $50 annual pass for Florida residents isn’t a bad deal when you live just a couple of hours away.

Juan Carlos had a blast. He spent a lot of time running around the “Rocket Garden”, ogling the collection of boosters and trying on all of the mock-up space capsules for fit. We shelled out a few extra bucks for a Sunday evening “Dinner with an Astronaut”. He enjoyed the NASA video quite a bit – lots of “blast off” footage and people bouncing around in weightlessness – and at least behaved himself through the 45-minute talk given by former shuttle astronaut Bob Springer.

Monday we rode around on air-conditioned tour buses (they didn’t have those when I was a boy…) to take in some of the outlying ‘attractions’.

Shorter than the other guys.

Shorter than the other guys.

The observation gantry at Launch Complex 39 offered a good view of both shuttle launch pads (39A and 39B). We were also treated to the rare site of the 4-million pound Transport Crawler in motion (at a speed of 1 mph) as it lugged the rigging from last Wednesday’s launch of Endeavor back to the Vehicle Assembly Building. The VAB itself was off-limits to visitors as Discovery is currently being assembled for a scheduled mid-August launch.

As it was the 40th Anniversary of the first manned moon landing the main attraction, in my mind, was the Saturn V / Apollo Center. It’s an enormous building which includes, among other things, a complete Saturn V rocket displayed horizontally. Not a mockup, mind you. The complete, real deal. It was the launch assembly intended for one of three Apollo missions cancelled as the nation and Congress lost interest in their new Moon toy and its expense.

In case you were wondering, them suckers were big.

Juan Carlos was particularly interested in repeatedly rubbing the piece of basaltic moon rock on display. To my surprise, he was also impressed by the venue’s two main video presentations. The first was a second-by-second replay of the final minutes of the launch of Apollo 8, which was presented in a theater populated by a number of the monitoring consoles preserved from the original Apollo launch control complex. The second was a 10-minute, narrated presentation detailing Apollo 11′s moon landing.

We also briefly toured the International Space Station Center, where you can traipse through mockups (or perhaps duplicates) of some of the space station’s modules and then visit a glassed-in gallery with a view onto the processing facility where technicians are assembling station modules that are to be lofted aboard the final 7 or 8 scheduled space shuttle missions.

After leaving the Visitor Center, our final stop was the Astronaut Hall of Fame (included with main admission…) a few miles to the west. It’s a very kid-friendly facility, set up after the style of a hands-on science museum. Video presentations reprised all of the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo program launches from video screens built-in to some of the original Gemini program launch consoles. Juan Carlos probably spent 45 minutes monitoring ‘his’ rocket launches from those consoles.

He was also quite thrilled when he managed – with a little help from his old man – to safely land his space shuttle simulator on the first attempt (much to the consternation of the 10-year-old who had hogged the simulator through three successive crashes before us).

If there’s any accuracy to the thing, by the way, the shuttle flies like a dead elephant with a shop fan strapped to its ass.

Not a bad way to spend a nearly-overlooked day of vacation.

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