When I was in grade school I was completely captivated by the exploits of the astronauts of NASA in the heyday of manned space exploration in the sixties and seventies. I wrote to all the NASA facilities for whatever information they could share. Each of the major space flight facilities had a different info package based on their area of expertise and I amassed a pretty big pile of detailed info on all the space happenings. I even remember sitting in school and wondering whether some maneuver which I knew was coming up had gone successfully (ie. Translunar insertion burn at mission elapsed time of xx hours) . Yep, I was a total geek.
So it has always been a thrill for me to visit the Kennedy Space Center, the site of most launch activities for these great and dangerous adventures. I started going as a kid with my dad during the Gemini program and have been back many times since. Although repetitive, each time revealed some new thing or change in the tour. Once with Brenda we even saw a shuttle night launch. AWESOME.
KSC has a nice museum area with displays on the various programs over the years. The early days, where the Soviets were basically first time and again (Sputnick, Gagarin’s first orbit, etc). Which led to the space race and President Kennedy’s amazing challenge to go the moon by the end of the sixties. Most folks may not remember that when he made that challenge, the US had only a few minutes of manned space experience. It was a bold challenge indeed.
The Mercury program was fairly rudimentary to learn basic manned space flight. The Gemini program with (tiny) two manned capsules was designed to master more complex tasks. And of course Apollo was for the actual moon landing.
One fact I always thought was cool is that each mission in sequence was designed to add one more critical skill needed for landing on the moon. Each constituted a first, each first a feat of engineering and daring. Space navigation, spacewalks, in orbit rendevous, communications, medical understanding of the effects of space etc. were all addressed. Tang anyone?
All this was done with slide rules, electromechanical devices and early computers. There is a launch control room for each of the programs preserved and on display where you can appreciate the state of technology of the day.
For the Apollo launch control room, the last and most advanced of the three programs, the total computing power in all the consoles combined is less than what we have in a smartphone. Amazing that without computers as we know them more recently that 12 men walked on the moon by the end of the Apollo program.
The Space Transportation System aka Space Shuttle program followed. And 135 missions were flown starting in 1981 with Columbia. Including many flights to build the International Space Station since the shuttle was the only thing big enough to carry the parts. Unfortunately two of the orbiters were lost. The Challenger and Columbia tragedies were reminders of how dangerous a pursuit space exploration can be.
Kennedy Space Center (which sits completely within the boundaries of the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge) is in a bit of transition now that the shuttle fleet has been retired and the Space Station is completed. But as always, the tour includes some new options as a result.
One is to visit the inside of the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) where they prepared for launch before going to the launch pad. The VAB has been closed to public tours for over 30 years, but I had visited way back when it was still on the tour. When it was built it was the largest building in the world by volume.
I opted for the second tour which is an up close visit to pad 39B, site of most of the Apollo moon missions and Space Shuttle launches. This is closer access than ever before allowed now that the pad is dormant.
It is a massive thing, with a giant blast trench underneath to route the exhaust away. The water tower is basically opened up to dump a zillion gallons of water under the launch tower. I used to think this was for cooling, but interestingly, it is for sound suppression. The water reduces the decibel level just enough to keep the sound vibrations from the roar of the rocket engines from destroying the spacecraft.
You get the sense around here that things can explode, easily! The view underneath the launch pad from inside the blast trench was very cool. It was pretty impressive to be so close to where so many daring space adventures began. It really gives one a sense of scale and complexity of it.
Shuttle Atlantis is scheduled to be displayed at KSC and they are building a new facility to house her (not open until this summer, rats, guess I’ll have to go again someday). The KSC Visitor Complex definitely has a more Disneyesque feel, with 3D IMAX movies and motion simulator rides and such.
KSC remains a working spaceport. Satellites are still launched from the smaller pads. Including importantly, the Space X rockets built and run by private enterprise. There are other companies seeking to also launch their own rockets.
Pad 39A, the twin of 39B, has been cleared of all the shuttle specific towers and is being prepared for the launch of the next generation heavy lift launch vehicle currently under development and which will carry the next generation Orion crew vehicle into space. Whenever that might be.