[Vacay.ca occasionally publishes articles on destinations outside of Canada. As our readers begin to plan their winter getaways to Florida and other southern destinations, Rod Charles spotlights one of America’s most fascinating attractions.]
Story by Rod Charles
Vacay.ca Deputy Editor
KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, FLORIDA — Standing beside the giant space shuttle Atlantis display at Kennedy Space Center, I am mesmerized by the technology in front of me.
One of the first things I think about is the courageous men and women who flew the shuttles. The second thing that jumps into my mind — especially as I check out the prominently displayed Canadarm — is Canadian space pioneers like Dr. Roberta Bondar, Marc Garneau and most recently Chris Hadfield, who was a passenger aboard this very shuttle.
[box_light]Read: Chris Hadfield Is the Ultimate Traveller[/box_light]
Like it or not, though, the third thing that crosses my mind are these words: Those guys must have been nuts.
The spirit of those risk-taking men and women looms large in this place. Kennedy Space Center is located on Merritt Island, north-northwest of Cape Canaveral on the Atlantic Ocean, an area dubbed Florida’s Space Coast.
The image that slowly becomes visible on the horizon as you make the drive east past the Astronaut Hall of Fame & Museum and over the NASA Causeway is the gigantic Vehicle Assembly Building, standing like a monolith against the sky. Built with more than 98,590 tons of steel and opened in the 1960s, the Vehicle Assembly Building and attached launch control center were first used during the Apollo program in 1966. Fourteen Saturn V rockets were processed for Apollo and the Skylab space station, and was used to prepare 135 space shuttle missions. Standing at more than 465 feet, the high bay doors on this building are the largest in the world and take 45 minutes to completely open and close.
A fully functioning facility that is launching rockets, researching the universe and inventing innovative creations every day, Kennedy Space Center is also a living, breathing museum that tells the fascinating story of America’s wild ride into space. To walk here is to walk in the footsteps of legendary astronauts like Neil Armstrong, Sally Ride, Jim Lovell and John Glenn.
You just can’t look at these rockets, space ships and capsules without reminding yourself that people — very courageous people — had to risk everything to fly them. When you see the size of the rockets in the Rocket Garden — including the actual, tiny, cramped cockpit that Armstrong, Michael Collins and Buzz Aldrin had to fit into during their historic Apollo 11 Mission launch to the moon, those words again came crashing back into my head: Those guys must have been nuts.
As I stood beside Atlantis, or walked underneath a gigantic Saturn Rocket that was designed to carry human beings to the moon, or saw the launch pads that have successfully launched space shuttle and Apollo missions, those words crept into my head again and again and again.
‘Like Bolting A Butterfly To A Bullet’
As we queued to enter the Atlantis display, one of the most poignant sentences on the wall was a quote from one of the engineers who helped build the shuttle: “It was like bolting a butterfly to a bullet.” He’s not kidding. According to NASA: “The three Space Shuttle Main Engines, in conjunction with the Solid Rocket Boosters, provide the thrust to lift the Orbiter off the ground for the initial ascent. The main engines continue to operate for 8.5 minutes after launch, the duration of the Shuttle’s powered flight. After the solid rockets are jettisoned, the main engines provide thrust which accelerates the Shuttle from 4,828 kilometers per hour (3,000 mph) to over 27,358 kilometers per hour (17,000 mph) in just six minutes to reach orbit. They create a combined maximum thrust of more than 1.2 million pounds.”
While it is true new advances are being made all the time, space travel basically requires astronauts to buckle up next to a bomb and pray that everything goes smoothly. And as we all know, it hasn’t always gone smoothly. One of the first things our guide pointed out during our tour was the launching site of ill-fated Apollo 1, where Edward H. White II, Virgil I. “Gus” Grissom and Roger B. Chaffee were lost in a fire. Columbia broke apart over the skies of Texas on February 1, 2003, with all hands lost. Challenger shared the same, sad fate, disintegrating seconds after takeoff from Kennedy Space Center on January 28, 1986.
The Space Shuttle Program is retired, and Atlantis is only one of three surviving shuttles that you can visit; the other two are located at California Science Center (Endeavour) and the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum (Discovery).
4 Cool Things To Do At Kennedy Space Center
1. Walk the Grounds
Park your car and spend time exploring the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex. Here you will find several interesting activities, and many of them will appeal to kids. Start at the Rocket Garden, where you can see many of the rockets that launched the first astronauts. Several museums are in the area, providing a glimpse into some of the earliest missions, and how future missions to the stars may look. Be sure and see the Shuttle Launch Experience. Also, there’s the Angry Birds Space Encounter. It’s cheesy but small kids will enjoy it.
Other popular activities at the Kennedy Space Center are the Astronaut Encounter and Lunch with an Astronaut, which allow star-struck little (and big) kids an opportunity to interact with an astronaut who shares first-hand stories of space travel. It began to rain at the end of my visit so I was unable to visit the Astronaut Memorial, but I would encourage you to check it out during your visit and pay respects to those who gave it all to make space travel a reality.
You’ll also find cool things in the gift shop, but don’t go overboard — Kennedy Space Center also has a gift shop at the airport and many items (mission patches, for example) were cheaper there.
2. Take the Bus Tour
You can’t just drive where you want. The Visitor Complex has tour buses that take visitors to locations on the grounds. This is the way you get to go behind the scenes and to get up close to the machines that make the launches possible.
The Kennedy Space Center Up-Close Tour & Visitor Complex Admission Ticket will cost you $79.50 (all dollar figures are U.S.) and includes admission, Shuttle Atlantis and the KSC Up-Close tour. The All-Access Pass for $111.29 also includes Lunch with an Astronaut and admission to the Astronaut Hall of Fame. Do everything in one day, or split your visit over two days within a seven-day period.
The tour includes getting up close to the gigantic Assembly Building, where all the rockets are put together. You’ll also get to see the launch pads and the carriers that haul the rockets to their launch position.
3. Apollo / Saturn V Center
The Saturn Rocket is what carried the first astronauts to the moon. There were multiple rockets. The one on display was never used — funding was cut before it could go into space — but it is a perfectly preserved rocket. You’ll be blown away by the sheer size of this thing. One Rocketdyne F-1 engine at the base of the rocket alone is big enough to hold a small car. A stop at the Apollo/Saturn V Center is part of the All-Access bus tour.
4. Space Shuttle Atlantis Exhibit
This is the newest and most popular attraction. You can see Space Shuttle Atlantis as she was meant to be displayed — doors open, Canadarm extended, ready for action. The shuttle is rotated fittingly at an angle that is also a countdown: 43.21 degrees.
Before entering, visitors are shown a video presentation, which tells the story of the development of the space shuttle. Great place for pictures, and lots of interesting and educational activities for the kids. They can walk through plastic tunnels and see how a space toilet works. But the star of the show is without question Atlantis.
Jack Selman worked 30 years on the Shuttle Program and now volunteers a couple of times a month at the Kennedy Space Center, educating tourists about the space program. He says the space shuttle is something everyone should check out, especially Canadians.
“One of the reasons why I think Canadians should come down here is the Atlantis Orbiter, the actual vehicle that flew millions of miles around the earth is now housed in a beautiful $100-million building and it has stayed in the manner that it flew. And on that vehicle there is the Canadarm,” says Selman. “This is the articulating arm that actually retrieved and also released any number of components to support both the International Space Station and Hubble Telescope. [Canadians] should be proud of that, we Americans are grateful. We’re awful proud that you were part of this program, we couldn’t have done what we did without you.”
MORE ABOUT KENNEDY SPACE CENTER
Address: FL 32899, United States
Phone: 1-866-737-5235 (toll free)
Hours: 9 am-5 pm daily
Admission: Prices begin at $50 (adults), $40 (children). You can purchase tickets here. For more tour information, click here. To shop for items, click here.