Road Trip: To Space and Beyond!

When I was five I wanted to be an astronaut. My earliest years on Earth were those of the Apollo missions, and though it seems hard to believe I can remember that first manned moon landing in July of 1969 (I’d have been only one at the time), I’m quite sure I do. Seated on the shag carpet with my parents on the couch behind me, all eyes glued to the TV – grainy black and white images on the evening news – a man in a spacesuit descending a metal ladder – that first booted step on the dusty surface of the moon. The awe of the announcer. The awe that filled our livingroom.

Tim & I took our first road trip in Florida last weekend and our first stop was the Kennedy Space Center, where you can’t help but feel that kind of awe again (patriotism too), no matter your age. They say it takes a couple of days to see everything, but we only had a day, so this is by no means a comprehensive guide to the Space Center. It’s what we could cram in.

Entrance to Kennedy Space Center
Rocket Garden

First a bit of history…

National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), is an independent agency of the executive branch of our government, established by President Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1958 with a civilian orientation to encourage peaceful applications in space science.

Generally operating on between 0.5 to 1% of our federal budget (that’s 1/2 a cent to a penny per dollar), though as high as 4% during the Apollo years, it has achieved remarkable scientific and technological advancements in human space flight, aeronautics, space science and space applications that have had widespread impacts on our nation and the world. Here are just a handful…

  • Apollo Program (moon landings)
  • Space Shuttle Program
  • International Space Station
  • Hubble Space Telescope
  • Solar System Probes like Juno for Jupiter, Cassini for Saturn, and New Horizons for Pluto
  • Curiosity Mars Rover
  • Study of our own planet Earth

I won’t go into all the detail but you could easily spend hours (hell, weeks!) probing their website, which is chock full of videos and photos, mission plans and timelines, history and archives, ebooks and podcasts, plus a dazzling array of social media streams. It’s fascinating! I particularly like their Photo of the Day page.

NASA operates numerous facilities around the country, including the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, CA, and the Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center in Houston, TX. But the John F. Kennedy Space Center (KSC) is one of the most famous.

Prior to Kennedy’s 1961 goal of a manned lunar landing by 1970, most space exploration consisted of what are called Low-Earth Orbit (LEO) satellites, meaning they circled the Earth at an altitude between 99 to 1200 miles. It doesn’t require a great deal of energy to propel a rocket to this height, and all of these missions were launched from Cape Canaveral on the coast of Florida. Here’s a shot of the old launch pads on the Cape.

launch pads at cape canaveral

But the Apollo mission was of a different order, requiring enough power to break free of the Earth’s gravitational pull. This meant development of the largest rocket ever built, utilizing the most fuel ever burned. Which meant the launch pads at the Cape were far too small.

We were told anything within a 400 foot radius of the rocket (Saturn series) would be killed by the explosive flames. Anything within 800 feet would be killed by sound alone! Hence the need for larger launch pads, and a great berth between these and any local residential or commercial areas. This prompted the creation of the Kennedy Space Center, just adjacent to Cape Canaveral.

By NASA (NASA) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Here’s a graphic to give you an idea of the scale of these rockets.

The Saturn 1B is visible in the Rocket Garden (first pic below).

The massive Saturn V hangs in stages in the Race to the Moon: Apollo/Saturn V Center (second pic below). This monumental rocket is 33 feet in diameter and 363 feet tall – the height of a 33-story building.

Saturn IB rocket, a predecessor to the Saturn V (which would later launch the Apollo 11)
stages of Saturn V rocket on right-hand side
Five F-1 engines (the most powerful single-nozzle, liquid-fueled rocket engine ever developed)

Generations of Space Exploration

When they talk about the space program at NASA, it’s discussed in generations. The first generation was Apollo, that first manned space flight to break Low-Earth Orbit and land on the moon.

The second generation was the Space Shuttle Program. A system conceived to launch like a rocket, but land like an airplane, enabling the shuttling of astronauts and equipment to and from space. It had never been done and posed enormous engineering challenges. This is the focus of KSC’s Space Shuttle Atlantis zone, which features the actual orbiter Atlantis – not a reproduction, but the real deal.

Many people think only of the winged glider when using the term “space shuttle,” but this is incorrect. The Shuttle System actually includes the launch components as well. (see full-scale replica below)

The two white tanks are Solid Rocket Boosters (SRBs). These provided most of the thrust needed for launch, burning for just over 2 minutes before splitting off and falling back to earth to be recovered and recycled for future launches.

The orange tank in the center is the External Tank (ET) which comprises two internal tanks of liquid oxygen & liquid nitrogen. These burned for 8.5 minutes, until the tank released at an altitude too high not to burn up on re-entry. It was the only part of space shuttle that was disposable.

When it jettisons, the orbiter is traveling at 17,000 miles per hour! Needless to say, we were pretty excited to do the launch simulation. (And it was pretty cool, though the wait to get in required enormous patience, mostly due to the gang of over-sugared boys in line next to us.)

The winged glider comprised the “orbiter” component of the shuttle. This is the vehicle in which astronauts and cargo were carried. There were five orbiters: Enterprise, Endeavor, Columbia, Challenger, and Atlantis.

Here hangs the real-life Atlantis orbiter that serviced 33 separate missions, displayed with payload doors open and Canadarm extended, as if just undocked from the International Space Station. By the end of its final run in 2011, Atlantis had orbited the Earth a total of 4,848 times, traveling nearly 126,000,000 miles, or more than 525 times the distance from the Earth to the Moon. That’s amazing.

Of course the Shuttle System was not without its disasters. For those of us of age, we can’t help but remember that first Challenger disaster in 1986 when the shuttle disintegrated one minute and 13 seconds after liftoff. It was particularly devastating because there was a teacher on board, selected from over 11,000 applicants to be the first teacher in space.

The program was put on a 3-year hiatus while an independent commission investigated (under direction of President Ronald Reagan). Recommendations were made, safety measures improved, and the shuttle program continued. But, as with space flight in general, safety is not guaranteed. Rockets do explode. And vehicles flying faster than the speed of sound do crash. It’s a risk that goes with the job.

And it’s what makes you feel so goddamned proud of these astronauts. Ignoring the risks they were well aware of in service of something greater than themselves. In service of their country. In service of knowledge itself.

For the next 17 years operations remained accident-free, until February 2003 when Columbia broke up on re-entry, killing all seven crew members. The accident was caused by a chunk of foam shed from the ET during launch; it struck and damaged the wing of the orbiter such that it was structurally compromised and could not land successfully.

Another hiatus ensued after this accident, this time for 2 years, and more safety protocols were put in place. Though NASA continued to work on the engineering problem of shedding foam, they never solved it, and aside from one mission to repair the Hubble Space Telescope, all subsequent missions flew only to the International Space Station (ISS) where the crew could find haven and arrange alternate transport in case of damage to the orbiter.

“The future doesn’t belong to the fainthearted, it belongs to the brave.” ~ President Ronald Reagan

The fourteen astronauts lost during these missions are memorialized in the permanent exhibit Forever Remembered.

Their contributions were integral to the greatest legacies of the Shuttle Program, the International Space Station and Hubble Telescope, incredible achievements that still provide us now with greater understanding of the universe and our place within it. 

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The next stop on our tour was the Launch Control Center and VAB. This was an add-on we paid extra for, but I have to say, it was pretty cool, allowing access to restricted areas and the ability to experience the scale of these huge structures. The crawlers (massive tank-like platforms used to move the rockets) were particularly impressive at close range.

The building above and below is the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB). This is where they build the rockets, and they build them standing up. It’s hard to tell from these pictures, but this is a 52-story tall building! The interesting thing is it’s only one story. In fact, it’s the tallest single-story building in the world. It’s separated into four vertical bays so multiple rockets can be built simultaneously.

The lobby of the launch center features the mural below, depicting two generations of NASA’s work – the Apollo project on the left (technically accurate), and the Space Shuttle program on the right (only approximately accurate since the mural was painted before the shuttle design was finalized).

Lobby Mural in Launch Control Center

A display of embroidered patches hangs on one wall, commemorating each launch with a unique graphic design that includes crew member names.

space shuttle launch patches
Shuttle Launch Patches
Kennedy Space Center
Commemorating the Closing of the Shuttle Program

We got to hear the audio of the final Atlantis launch from the control room, just as the ground support team would have heard it on the day of that final mission (July 8, 2011) to deliver a stockpile of supplies and parts to the space station. I may be a softie, but I got a little verklempt. Here’s a portion of the transcript…

“The shuttle’s always going to be a reflection of what a great nation can do when it dares to be bold and commits to follow through. We’re not ending the journey today, we’re completing the chapter of a journey that will never end… let’s light this fire one more time and witness this great nation at its best.” – Christopher Ferguson, STS-135 Commander

As the shuttle achieved orbit, Ascent Commentator Rob Navias added, “For the last time, the space shuttle’s main engines have fallen silent as the shuttle slips into the final chapter of a storied 30-year adventure.”

Don’t you just love the poetry of scientists? I do. If you aren’t familiar with Carl Sagan’s Pale Blue Dot speech, do check it out. It’s particularly inspiring during these days of increasingly partisan and corrupt politics.

Portions of this launch control room remain unchanged from the day of that final launch, looking a tad dated, like a historical exhibit, but the building itself is a real working facility of current NASA operations where staff are actively working. And they’re working on Mars!

Mars and deep space exploration will comprise the 3rd generation of NASA’s work.

The poster above depicts the new Space Launch System (SLS) – the most powerful rocket in the world – being currently developed by NASA for the next generation of deep space travel. Orion (the white module at the top) will fly farther than any spacecraft built for humans has ever flown, and stay in space longer than any ship for astronauts has done without docking to a space station. These are some ambitious goals and the first test is coming soon…

In November of 2018, the first mission to test the latest capabilities for deep space will take place. The target is once again the moon, but this time we’re doing it like never before, propelling the Orion spacecraft into orbit around the moon for several days before returning home. This mission will allow NASA to use the lunar vicinity as a proving ground to test technologies that ultimately will be used farther from Earth (i.e. Mars). They are shooting for manned space flight to Mars in the 2030’s.

Another mission integral to testing capabilities for Mars is the Asteroid Redirect Mission. It’s all astonishingly cool.

It’s also important to note NASA’s current focus on utilizing private companies as partners. This initiative began under President Obama as the Commercial Crew & Cargo Program, designed to stimulate the commercial private space industry. It seems to be working! Commercial Crew contracts are currently in place with SpaceX and Boeing, while commercial cargo contracts were awarded to Orbital ATK and SpaceX.

SpaceX at KSC

What else can I tell you?

We saw a 750 pound bald eagle’s nest (!!), plus lots of big alligators on the bus rides to and from the VAB. There’s actually an enormous amount of land preserved thanks to NASA’s spatial requirements for these launches. They’ve acquired 140,000 acres but only 10% is actively used for the space program. The rest is coastal habitat and wildlife refuge.

We saw an iMax movie. Had soft serve ice cream too. It was just an awesome day.

But even so, we barely scratched the surface. There’s so much information and interactivity, it’s really impossible to convey it all in one blogpost. I feel I’ve already droned on too long.

So here’s our final shot of the rocket garden as the sun prepared to set… and we began our drive further north to the ancient city of St. Augustine, stop #2 on our road trip. Stay tuned…

2 Comments

  1. Really excellent summary and pictures of one of my favorite places ever! Isn’t it amazing? And you toured the launch control center too – excellent! I’m sure you’ll go back sometime. If so, try and see if the Old Cape Canaveral tour is available to the old bunkers – it’s really cool. I think it is so exciting to visit, and I’ve been many times. Everybody gets excited about space after touring the Space Center. Thank you for sharing!

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  2. Thanks Pam. We’ll have to go back to check out the Old Cape tour… that sounds cool. I also wanted to spend a bit more time exploring Cocoa Beach… there were lots of funky things I wanted to take photos of, but we were on a tight timeline! 😉

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