Once we were giants

We took the kid off to Kennedy Space Center for the weekend and it reminded me of something: I really have a love-hate relationship with Florida’s Space Coast.

I love visiting KSC and environs because I grew up during the Great Space Race and it reminds me of all the amazing things our country did when I was a youngster. I hate visiting KSC and environs because it hits me in the face with the fact that we’re not doing those amazing things anymore.

One of the places my wife wanted us to visit was Space View Park in downtown Titusville. She stumbled onto the place by accident on the morning of the last Atlantis launch when she took Juan Carlos over to see the thing go up. Even devoid of the thousands of people who jammed the place on launch day it’s an interesting little slice of history.

I’d never been to the park before. It’s a lot smaller than I thought from watching the video she shot during the launch. It’s a long, thin strip of land that runs from the north side of town out to the coast. Viewed from the town side, it points directly at the distant Launch Complex 39 and the VAB. The neatly-kept walkway is populated with various memorials to America’s astronauts and space missions, including a very nice memorial to the Gemini program just yards from the sea shore.

On the day of Atlantis’ launch, it was packed with thousands of people who had come down to the coast to watch one of America’s final shuttle launches. Last Saturday, there were six people at the park: Four members of my family and two drunks trying to bum lights for their smokes from the shade of a picnic shelter. Three more drunks were fishing from the far end of the pier at nearby Veterans Park (which includes the Project Mercury memorial) until one of them toppled into the ocean.

That sort of sums up America’s interest in space exploration and science very neatly, doesn’t it? When something ‘big’ is happening, tens of thousands turn up. The rest of the time it’s a neatly-kept facade that looks a little run down but still gets a lot of respect from a few Average Joes who remember better days — even though the people really in charge are basically a bunch of drunks lolling around cussing and falling into the smelly, mucky coastal flats.

Of course, we are the Nation of Short Attention Spans. Hundreds of millions watched Apollo 11. Hundreds of thousands watched Apollo 12. The TV networks cancelled the prime-time broadcast from Apollo 13.

If you paid attention to the Great Space Race back in the 60s and 70s, then you remember the vision promoted by all of the Big Corporate Space Vendors. There were books, fliers, pamphlets, film shorts and major motion pictures stuffed with space stations, moon shuttles, hydroponic domes and moon bases. Thousands of Average Joes living and working in space and on the moon, using science and technology to build a better world.

‘They’ promised us moonbases and what we got instead was a flock of dithering political hacks who can’t even pronouce “ineptitude”, let alone spell it.

But I digress.

Even when it wasn’t beat to crap by major road construction, downtown Titusville was getting a bit dusty and seedy. Saturday afternoon downtown was very quiet — no foot traffic, only a few optimistic businesses open and most of the place looking like it had just received a fresh blast from the sugar sand cannon. So much for Spaceport America.

Across the bridge and on into the space center, things are only a little better. The Visitors Center has some great ‘content’ — don’t get me wrong — but a bunch of it isn’t quite up on current events. There’s a lot of ‘flying Constellation back to the moon” action going on. Understandable, to an extent, but even that’s a bit aggravating because I was never a big fan of the space program reaching for something it’s already grasped.

The Astronaut Hall of Fame is an interesting mix of Space Memorial and Science Museum. Or at least it used to be. On this visit I couldn’t help but notice that more than half the ‘simulators’ had fallen into disrepair and no longer worked and that one of the main theaters was suffering an air conditioning failure. Most of the visitors in the place were foreign tourists, so I  wondered what they thought about the current state of America’s space program.

It also didn’t escape my notice that the indoor gun range at the Police Hall of Fame across the street had about three times as many ‘customers’ as the Astronaut Hall of Fame. It has a cool armored car parked out front, though.

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