I’ll start my first post about the States with this: In my opinion, there is no other nation in this world more polarising than the USA. Love them or hate them, for good or for bad, Americans have had a profound impact on this world. For many of us in Australia, we grow up watching American TV shows, movies from Hollywood and are exposed to the political happenings in Washington DC every four years, for two years at a time… The American accent is so familiar, yet foreign, their mannerisms are so recognisable yet not easily and authentically imitated and the contrasting nature of their society means that caricatures of famous American figures, be they celebrities or politicians are actually closer to reality rather than exaggerations of their character.
Anyway, apart from a trip to LA back in 1995/1996, I’ve yet to visit the States. So with 5 weeks free in February/March, I’ve packed my bags for an epic trans-continental journey which will bring me to Cocoa Beach/Cape Canaveral, New York, Philadelphia, Washington DC, Chicago, Denver, Colorado Springs, Yosemite, San Francisco, Waco and finally Houston.
First stop: Cocoa Beach/Cape Canaveral, Florida.
To me, making the trip to Cocoa Beach/Cape Canaveral/Titusville in Florida to visit the Kennedy Space Centre is a pilgrimage for all engineers. In the early days of the Space Race, Cocoa Beach and Titusville were towns which hosted America’s first astronauts before and after their journey into the unknown; the first Space Port if you will. From Port Canaveral and Cocoa Beach, you can see Cape Canaveral and the Kennedy Space Centre, with the many launch pads and buildings lining the coast and of course the massive Vehicle Assembly Building. The A1A which runs down the coast was the setting for numerous ticker-tape parades upon the return of these heroes from space. If you’ve seen the movie The Right Stuff, Apollo 13, Space Cowboys or even Armageddon, this area is their genesis. Ok, maybe not Armageddon, but parts of it was filmed here.
Looking at what’s on offer at the Kennedy Space Centre and the United States Astronaut Hall of Fame, I decided to schedule 3 days to cover pretty much everything and I’m glad I did. Even if you’re not technically inclined, you’d definitely need at least two days to do it justice.
If you do decide to spend two days there, it is cheaper to purchase an Annual Pass than two adult tickets. For me, I was all in with the “VIP Explorers Annual Pass”, which also allowed me to have Lunch with an Astronaut, a Close Up tour for free as well as a heap of other discounts, including that of the Astronaut Training Experience at the Hall of Fame.
So was it worth it? I’ll let you decide…
To get to the Kennedy Space Centre, I hired a car from Orlando Airport and drove approximately 45min to my accommodation at Cocoa Beach. From there, it’s a 20minute drive to the Kennedy Space Centre. If for some reason you never knew of NASA or the Space Centre, driving to Cocoa Beach would give you a pretty quick education. The names of many local businesses feature the words “Space Coast” or Apollo” or “Rocket”… etc. Cheesy I know but if there is anywhere in the world where you could do this it would be here… and possibly Houston.
Upon arriving at the Kennedy Space Centre, you’re greeted with Apollo 13-esque music with a massive fountain, NASA logo and the face of John F Kennedy etched into a black granite wall. Every On Fridays at 9am they play the national anthem over the PA and if you haven’t realised you’re in the USA yet, you will realise it pretty quickly when the bumbling noise of the crowd is immediately silenced as they all turn to face the Star Spangled Banner waving at the entrance, hats off and either hand on heart or frozen in military salute, but definitely not by their sides. Upon the conclusion came the applause – it wasn’t some half-hearted, awkward applause but stadium worthy applause and cheering. But as soon as that was over, it was back to business as usual. Coming from Australia where there has been much conjecture over the worthiness of our current national anthem (although admittedly, it has become less of an issue these days), this great to see and I couldn’t help but again think – I’m living in a movie…
This brings me to my first ‘observation’ of American culture. It just seems that they give a damn. They have a cause, a purpose, a mission if you will and they will do all in their power to achieve it. It’s this kind of dedication that allowed them to pull off the unimaginable with their space program (just in case some of you want to argue that the Germans, in particular Von Braun and his team, were the reasons behind the success of the US space program, I will acknowledge here that the Germans are the foundation of the US space program, but that it takes that American X factor to convert those theories into reality in the time frame that they did. As Admiral Yamamoto said of the USA – “their industrial might and power is awesome”).
Anyways, back to the Kennedy Space Centre… Littered throughout the site are space suits on loan from astronauts, used space capsules from the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo programs, a lunar module, a rocket ‘garden’ featuring either real of full scale models of the rockets used in the early space programs, the Space Shuttle Atlantis in its own special exhibit building (a pretty epic experience), actual control rooms where early rockets were launched and a real life, spare Saturn V rocket laid on its side – all 133m of it.
There are many bus tours which take you around the Kennedy Space Centre complex. In my two days there, I was able to do the Launch Pad and Launch Control Centre Mega Tours as well as the Kennedy Space Centre Complex tour.
These tours allow you to see many of the functional NASA buildings such as the Vehicle Assembly Building (as seen in Apollo 13 as the Saturn V rocket is assembled whilst Jim Lovell (aka Tom Hanks) is running a tour of the facility and is asked when he’ll be next going into space, to which he replies he’s hopeful of commanding the crew of the Apollo 14 mission), the aforementioned Launch complex, walking in the footsteps of Clint Eastwood in the movie Space Cowboys and the change to walk around Launch Pad 39-A and B where all of the Apollo and Space Shuttle missions were launched.
All bus tours conclude at the Saturn V building, which has a view which I still can’t get over.
There is simply so much to take in and the quality of all the exhibits up to this point is first class. However, I haven’t even mentioned the latest exhibition to open up – the Space Shuttle Atlantis building.
With the retirement of the Space Shuttles in 2011, the Kennedy Space Centre is one of only 3 places where you can see a real shuttle (not counting the Enterprise test orbiter or the Independence mock-up). Getting to see Atlantis is particularly significant as it was the last space shuttle to fly, ever.
Visitors to the Kennedy Space Centre can also pay a $24.95 to have ‘lunch with an astronaut’. The lunch is held in one the function rooms where a pretty decent buffet lunch is served for around 200 people. The astronaut of the day comes in (in my case, Skylab 4 commander, Gerald ‘Gerry’ P Carr) and gives a presentation on his career, how he became an astronaut and what he did after his mission to space. Afterwards, guests have the opportunity to talk and have their photo taken. As the price of food at the Kennedy Space Centre kiosks can be pretty cut-throat (and ordinary…), the $24.95 was well spent in my opinion!
On the Thursday night, I was lucky to witness an actual rocket launch from Cape Canaveral. United Launch Alliance launched a new GPS IIF-5 satellite using a Delta IV medium rocket and I was able to get a line-of-sight view from Port Canaveral, 6 miles away from the launch site. Choosing the location to watch the launch was made with the help of http://www.launchphotography.com. Advice from the people at the Space Centre was less helpful as pretty much everyone gave the response, “I’m gonna be watching it from my house with a beer in my hand…” or “Anywhere in a 10 mile radius is a good place.”
Anyway, arriving at the location around 45min before launch, I was confronted with hundreds of vehicles parked on both road shoulders, lined for a couple of hundred metres. Luckily, I was able to squeeze between two already parked vehicles, a space which could only fit the Volkswagen Jetta I was driving and definitely not a pickup truck or suburban SUV.
Whilst 6 miles may sound far, I had a direct line of sight view of the launch pad and as soon as the candle was lit, the sky glowed orange and continued to glow until it faded into the sky.
At approximately 60 seconds in, the sonic boom from the rocket still set off car alarms in the car park behind me.
After the rocket was out of sight, the local Police were kind enough to set up road crossings every 50 metres to help people get back to their cars without getting run over – seems like they’ve done this before… Even with the hundreds of cars, awesome traffic control made it a breeze to get out. If you ever make the trip to Florida, make sure you check out the launch schedule!
My final day in Florida was spent at the Astronaut Hall of Fame as a participant in the ATX- Astronaut Training Experience.
The ATX program is a half day program which allows participants to meet a former astronaut (I actually got to meet Frederick Gregory – a veteran of 3 shuttle missions and former Deputy Administrator of NASA as appointed by George W Bush from 2002-2005) and use the shuttle simulator to practice landing the shuttle and manipulating the Canada arm to release a satellite from the orbiter cargo bay.
The second half of the day had us taking on roles in a simulated shuttle launch such as Flight Director (me), Science officer, EECOM (and all those abbreviations you hear on Apollo 13) or as the actual crew of the orbiter (commander, pilot, mission specialists etc).
Finally, you also have the opportunity to experience the multi-axis gyro similar to what was used by the Mercury 7 astronauts (as seen in The Right Stuff).
It was an awesome half day and even though Frederick had to run of early to host a lunch at the Kennedy Space Centre, he was kind enough to drive back in the afternoon to have his photo taken with the participants.
Unfortunately, this pretty much concluded the end of my NASA Cape Canaveral experience. So with rain settling in, it was time to refuel and drive back to the airport. A tip to travellers with foreign credit cards in the States – you can’t pay at the bowser. Instead, you have to go in and pre-pay a fixed amount at the servo’s, go back out, fill your car up then head back in to either pay some more or get a refund on the remaining credit that you did not use. “How much fuel do you want?” has got to be one of the most stupid questions I’ve heard if you’re trying to fill up a tank… Does anyone know exactly how much fuel they need in a dollar amount?
Anyway, nothing to really complain about if this was the worst part of the trip back to the airport for my flight to New York. Not even the TSA line to get into the departure lounge was that bad – as soon as the TSA officer saw my Australian passport, she went from a shouting and somewhat frustrated officer trying to herd people along to kindly saying “Australian? Oh well you take care and have a good time now okay?” Seriously, what’s not to love about the USA?