April 11th, 1970: the Apollo 11 takes off to land the first man on the moon. The Kennedy Space Center (KSC) on Merritt Island, Florida, is where it all happened and lucky for us, parts of the huge site are open to visitors. Touch a moon rock, stand underneath the largest rocket built so far, climb aboard some of the capsules and have lunch with a real NASA astronaut: this is the closest you will ever get to space!
NASA’s Kennedy Space Center (KSC) launched the very first Americans into space and the very first humans to the moon… How can you NOT be excited when it turns out you can actually visit the place where not only do they assemble the rockets but also launch people into space? From the visitor centre, a bus takes you around on the site for a self-guided tour. For me, the trip has three major highlights.
- One: the Apollo/Saturn V Center where you can touch an actual moon rock, stand underneath the largest rocket ever built so far and climb aboard some of the capsules.
- Two: the International Space Station Center that gives you a fairly realistic idea of what living and working in a laboratory floating in space truly means.
- Three: the rocket launch site (LC-39), used for several missions, including all of the Apollo ones. You only get to see the launch pad from a safe distance, but still, it’s the closest you’ll ever get to a shuttle launch pad!
What else? There’s the rocket garden where you’ll find the very rockets that put NASA astronauts to space, the launch control center (which I someone managed to skip) and a closer look at the vehicle assembly center, a huge and very impressive building where the rockets are assembled. Also a special encounter can be arranged, with a real a…stronaut!
The Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB)
Maybe on the pictures it isn’t that obvious, but the VAB is the largest single-story building in the world. It was originally built in de sixties to vertically assemble the Saturn V rocket for the Apollo program. It’s constructed to withstand hurricanes and tropical storms… Right now, NASA’s largest rocket yet, a vehicle called the Space Launch System (SLS), is being assembled here…
The rocket garden
It includes eight authentic rockets from the past, like the historic rockets of Mercury, Gemini and Apollo.
The International Space Station (ISS) Center
For most part of the walking tour at this center, you are gazing through glass windows to catch a glimpse of the ISS modules – the real deal! In some areas you can also have a look inside the capsules. I’m not quite sure if those capsules are authentic ones or replicas built especially for this exhibit, but either way, it leaves an impression!
The Apollo/Saturn V Center
This is the place to have a look into America’s quest for the moon. The center has a big hangar with one of the largest rockets every built: the massive 363-foot-long Saturn V moon rocket! The different modules are floating right above your head: the command module (with a cabin for the three astronauts), the service module (where electricity, water, oxygen etc was stocked) and the Lunar Module, for landing on the moon.
The Kennedy Space center is the only place on the planet where you can have lunch with a NASA astronaut. In my case, it was Franklin Story Musgrave, a scientist-astronaut in the sixties who took a trip into outer space six times. Amongst other things, he helped design the spacesuits and life support systems that are still used today for space walks. He even was one of the first people to test the suits and make a space walk on a Shuttle mission. Somehow I found myself being nervous (astronauts are, after all, some of the greatest explorers around) and asking ridiculous questions which he probable has had to answer a hundred times before. But I don’t think you can ever grow tired of hearing stories about space. One of the things I remember him saying, is that walking in space may look fun and easy, but it’s actually quite hard and exhausting. He compared it with a ballet performance: with every step you take, you have to know exactly what the next move will be and you have to make sure it’s perfect, otherwise the whole performance will fail. In space though, the conditions you are ‚performing’ in are a lot more extreme: an average space walk lasts about 6 hours and it that time, you have circled around the earth 4 times and seen day change into night 8 times… You just can’t imagine the effect it has on your body and mind!
One of the launch pads
This was so cool to see: the Launch Complex 39 (LC-39), with two actual launch pads , originally built for the massive Apollo/Saturn V rockets that launched American astronauts on their historic journeys to the moon and back. Each LC-39 launch pad covers about 160 acres of land! The area around is either wildlife refuge or part of the Cape Canaveral National Seashore, a stretch of beach left undeveloped. The 3C-39 is where the SLS will be launched for its first test flight in 2017. With this rocket, astronauts will be carried farther into the solar system than ever before…
Since this year, a few other major attractions have been added at the Kennedy Space Center. The Space Shuttle Atlantis, which flew in space 33 times, is now also on display, you can experience the sensation of floating in space, there’s a simulator that puts you through a simulated shuttle launch etc. There’s even an Angry Bird Space Encounter now – I’ll leave it to you to go and explore that one yourself…