Kennedy Space Center

If you’ve been reading for a while, you know that I’m a big space nerd. How could I come to Florida without visiting the place where many of these flights were launched? Trisha and I didn’t when we were here two years ago because we were on a mission of our own, and because I made a lot of concessions to her and a new job she was pursuing at the time. I don’t resent or regret any of that, but it did mean that I didn’t get to visit the last time I was here.

I’ve been to Kennedy Space Center before, but not for a long time. My dad sent me this picture he took of my last visit in the early 1980s. I must’ve been around 10 or so. Even back then I was a huge space and science nerd. I think I have more memories from KSC than our other Florida visits like Disney World. I was a strange kid, who grew up to be a strange man who lives in a van. Some things never change.

It’s been about 40 years since my last visit. That’s a long time. A lot has happened in the space program since then. Back then, the Space Shuttle was the latest and greatest thing. It was before the Challenger disaster, so NASA was still full of the hubris that would eventually lead to it. Things have changed, and I was interested to see just how much they’d changed in the visitor experience.

Some things haven’t changed at all, like the Rocket Garden. Each of the most historic rockets in American space history is represented here — Explorer I, Mercury-Redstone, Mercury-Atlas, Gemini… They’re all here, in a little park where you can walk around and appreciate the full scale of them.

Along the back of the Rocket Garden is a Saturn IB, which dwarfs everything else. Despite that, this is the small version of the Apollo rocket! This was used for test flights in Earth orbit, as well as Apollo-Soyuz and the three flights to Skylab. It uses a unique first stage, but is pretty much the same as the Saturn V from its second stage (Saturn V’s third stage) up.

Not to worry — they have a full Saturn V rocket on display, too! When I was a kid, I remember seeing it sitting outside, in an exploded view similar to what we have here. Now there’s a building around it that you have to take a 15-minute bus ride to get to. It contains all kinds of Apollo exhibits, displays, presentations, and experiences.

One of the most surprising exhibits to me was an interactive life-size hologram of astronaut Jim Lovell, who flew on Apollo 8 and 13. This is the stuff of science fiction, but leave it to NASA to turn it into science fact. While he’s one of the few Apollo astronauts still with us at an amazing 95 years old, even after he’s gone he’ll live on here, answering questions about Apollo, the flights he was on, and his own life. In some of the other exhibits and presentations, it was a little strange, yet appropriate, to see astronauts who are no longer with us, like Neil Armstrong, playing a prominent role.

I’d seen the relatively new Apollo building in a Smarter Every Day video, but, as usual, a camera can’t adequately capture the scale of this thing. Even with my iPhone’s decent wide angle lens, I could barely fit the smaller upper stages in the frame, and there’s no way I could capture the first stage.

Here’s another example of how things have changed since my last visit. This is the launch pad walkway that the Apollo 11 astronauts crossed before getting into the capsule for their trip to the moon. I remember walking across it during my last visit when, like the Saturn V rocket, it was sitting outside with little except a plaque around it. Now, 40 years later, it’s integrated into a display, leading from the Apollo 1 memorial to a mockup of the white room and a capsule with three astronauts inside. It’s a far more curated experience, not just looking at historic objects like the Pima Air and Space Museum was.

A prime example of this is the presentation you pass through before entering the main exhibit area. First you watch a short movie showing a bit of history. Then you take a seat in this theater that contains the actual Apollo launch control room, and watch a simulated Saturn V launch. Well, you do more than just watch it. When the rocket goes off, the entire room shakes — not just your seat, but even the simulated window over your head behind you! If anyone can replicate the sensation of what being in that room must’ve been like, it’s NASA.

Still, it’s clear that they’ve given into commercialization in this area, as well as space launches in general. Science and space flight, alone, are not enough to bring in visitors, especially with Disney World nearby. KSC seems to have adopted the “If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em” philosophy, turning what used to be static science exhibits into experiences, still rooted in science and history, but designed to engage visitors who may not be the space nerds that I am.

Still, where else can you have lunch sitting next to a complete Saturn V rocket?

The bus ride back to the main visitor’s center conveniently drops you off next to the Space Shuttle Atlantis exhibit. You literally walk under the external tank and solid rocket boosters to enter its dedicated building. There’s a bit of a walk that twists and turns around, which absorbs the long lines that I suppose can sometimes form when large groups visit. (There were many groups of kids here, all easily identified by their matching shirts.)

Once again, there was a waiting area, then a short movie about the history, and then presentation. This one was in a room where the movie screens surround you, as well as the images. You see a launch as though you were inside the Shuttle. When it rolled to its heads-down position after clearing the tower I actually felt a little bit off balance, the experience was so engulfing. Finally, at the end, the paper airplane that started the whole presentation appears in Earth orbit, a door opens, and there’s Atlantis, with the paper plane and a star field superimposed on it. It may be a bit over the top with the theatrics to compete with Disney, but this is by far the best entry to a Space Shuttle exhibit I’ve seen — and I’ve seen all the surviving Shuttles.

The display, itself, is also the best of them. With the Shuttle at an angle, the payload bay doors open, and a walkway right past it that lets you see inside as you go under the Canadarm, this is the best view I’ve ever gotten of one.

The main engines are huge, but only now do I appreciate that the smaller OMS engines, the pods on either side of the tail, are enormous as well. For most of my life I’ve wondered how such tiny engines could blast it out of orbit to come down and land, but now I realize they’re not tiny at all. Even the maneuvering thrusters, which are tiny dots on all the Shuttle toys I’ve had over the years, are pretty large. You can’t see it well in this picture, but the walkway lets you get close enough the Shuttle to read the numbers printed on each of the tiles. Talk about “up close and personal.”

There are plenty of related displays, such as a full-size replica of the Hubble Space Telescope. There’s a replica of the Shuttle’s upper deck, enlarged to allow people to walk through easily (since we have to contend with gravity), with a zillion switches, dials, and knobs you’re completely allowed to play with. I briefly sat down in the pilot’s seat and took the controls. The view out the windows was far better than I ever thought it was. I imagined large blind spots between the window panes, but it didn’t feel that way when I was sitting there.

There are various “training simulators” for tasks like landing, docking, or using the Canadarm. Unfortunately, each one I tried had a bad joystick that didn’t want to work in one direction, usually left. As a result, I crashed the Shuttle a few times, and even took out the International Space Station once. Whoops.

One simulator that worked great, and I would highly recommend, is the launch simulator. It shakes, rattles, and rolls to replicate the launch experience. You don’t feel 3Gs of acceleration, but it does pitch up to 90º so you feel like you’re on the launch pad, and then shooting into space. It shortens the launch timeline a bit to keep it interesting, but you go through all the phases of launch — Max Q where the engines throttle down a bit, solid rocket booster separation with a loud BANG and then the ride gets smoother, main engine cutoff, external tank separation with another loud bang, and then orbit. I’m a big enough nerd to want the experience to exactly replicate the actual timeline of a real launch, but I understand that this is for entertainment, and kids likely don’t have the attention span to wait six minutes between dropping the boosters and main engine cutoff.

At this point, I’d seen everything on my must-see list. I checked out Gateway, the Deep Space Launch Complex. It had a bunch of the next generation of space capsules on display, from SpaceX, Blue Origin, and Boeing all of whom have flight facilities on-site these days. A SpaceX Falcon first stage stretched across the entire ceiling. It turns out this isn’t just any Falcon first stage, but one of the Falcon Heavy boosters that launched Elon Musk’s Tesla Roadster into space, then returned to KSC for a safe landing. I watched that live, and even wrote an article about it for The Drive!

Only two of the four motion rides were working, Red Planet and Uncharted Worlds. The line for Red Planet was quite long, so I went for Uncharted Worlds. It was about a half hour wait and preparation for a five-minute movie with moving seats. The experience itself was fun, but I didn’t think it was worth the time spent waiting around. This, more than anything, exemplifies what I think is KSC’s attempt to be more of a space theme park than a museum.

I also can’t really blame them. Museums are always struggling for money, while theme parks like Disney are a cash cow. NASA has pushed hard for commercial rather than government-run space flight, so it makes sense that they’d make the same push to run its visitor center the same way. That shows in the whopping $75 admission fee! That doesn’t include parking, either, which is $10 for a car, more for an RV, but I took my motorcycle and got away with $5.

To be fair, you get a lot for your money. Everything I did was included in the basic admission fee, simulators and all. Those are usually an expensive extra cost option. Even the bus ride to and from the Apollo building was included. What I didn’t realize was that this bus ride wasn’t the same tour I remember taking when I was a kid, which took us to all kinds of behind-the-scenes places, like the actual launch pads, or letting us off the bus to walk on the runway where the Shuttle landed. That in-depth tour is available for an extra $25, but by the time I realized it was extra, it was too late for me to take it.

Still, if you’re a space nut like me, Kennedy Space Center is absolutely worth a visit — once. It was a long trip there from Lakeland. The absolute disaster of gridlocked traffic though 10-minute long red lights every quarter mile across Kissimmee made me never want to cross it again. That was still a better alternative than blasting straight through Orlando. Despite my pain at the end of the day — particularly my clutch hand — I’m glad I did the out-and-back trip on the bike. Gas and parking were cheaper, but this also means that when it’s time to leave Florida, which will be soon, I can head up the quieter west coast instead of fighting traffic up the east coast.

That said, I did have fun. It was a great reward for devoting the past month or so of my life to building my new home on wheels. Now that it’s done (for now), I can start taking excursions like this again. I’ve missed doing that, and it’s one of the main reasons I enjoy life on the road. Now that I can start doing that again, Kennedy Space Center was a great place to begin.

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