Touring Kennedy Space Center
Iíve been all over Kennedy Space Center (KSC) and even worked on the Center. Yet, Iíd moved away to Denver for two years, and on my return felt I had to take the bus tour of KSC again just to remind me of why we were in Central Florida. Having just moved back to Cape Canaveral - heaven, in my mind - and gotten settled in, my husband was hard at work on the Space Shuttle program at KSC and I had a bit of free time since I hadnít begun finding a job yet.
Itís a nice hot, sunny day and I head out to the Center. The KSC Visitorsí Center is located on NASA Causeway on northern Merritt Island. It can be reached from US 1 or I-95 easily, or as in my case, I take the Beeline (SR 528) from the beach and connect with SR 3, turning north. Passing through miles of orange groves, I connect with NASA Causeway after entering Space Center property. This route is not always available because of launch security or national security issues but on this day the road is open to visitors. If you are visiting the area, call ahead to learn if SR 3 is an option for reaching the Visitorsí Center.
After parking in the Viitors Center's more
than ample parking lot, I stroll into the large complex and locate the ticket booth to schedule my bus tour of KSC. Tickets are not expensive, and I book my tour a couple of hours in advance so that I can tour the Visitorís Center. While Iím buying tickets, I purchase my ticket to the IMAX theater show. The IMAX movie changes from time to time but it is always impressive.
Tickets in hand, I stroll around the outdoor ďrocket gardenĒ and see real rockets used in the early space program, prior to the Saturn and Apollo projects. Those rockets are too large for this space but I know I will see one on the bus tour. Wandering through the indoor section of the Visitorsí Center, I see some beautiful art displays, informational exhibits and interactive displays explaining the space program, both current and historic. In front of the Visitorsí Center stands the Challenger Memorial, a moving mirror with the names of the astronauts engraved in a special way so that they appear to hover in space above the mirror. Itís quite an impressive sight, yet commemorates a tragic event.
Itís time to go to the IMAX Theater. The shows in the IMAX are so neat, almost like 3-D but without the glasses. The huge wide screen and surround sound makes it even more realistic. The 15-minute presentation is so intense that it seems much longer. The sounds of the Shuttle launch rock the room with sound waves and some of the space shots make you feel that you are floating or moving in space. I understand that some people get a bit sea sick from the realistic motion but Iím not that type. All too soon the presentation is over and I have time for some refreshment before taking the bus tour.
The snack bar / cafeteria at the Visitorís Center is unique. Food passes on a turntable in front of you as you stand in line with your tray, and you select what you want from the turntable. I just want a soft drink and a place to sit for a few minutes before boarding the bus. I know from past trips that drinks will not be allowed on the tour bus, so I take advantage of my chance.
The very best seats in the tour bus are the very front, upstairs seats. I arrive at the bus terminal a bit early because I want to get a good seat. I soon realize there are lots of tourists here who may never have another chance to see KSC, so I decide I wonít be greedy. I have many chances to see the route covered by the tour and any seat provides good viewing. Once we are allowed to board our bus, I decide on an upper deck seat near the middle, leaving those front seats to tourists. People from all over the world are represented on the tour. Anyone visiting the Central Florida area wants to see the Space Center and who can blame them; itís a once in a lifetime chance for many.
The air conditioned bus pulls out and heads toward the east. The bus driver tells us what to expect, the rules, and to always stay with our group. As we approach State Road 3, he begins to tell us about the building just ahead. The Central Instrumentation Facility (CIF) is on our right, now used as an office building. Next we see the NASA Headquarters building, the Operations and Checkout (O&C), and Space Station Processing Facility (SSPF). The SSPF is our first stop. We go into the building from the rear, following a route not used by employees and reach a viewing window into the High-Bays of the SSPF where actual Space Station equipment is being processed for flight. After everyone has a chance to see into the SSPF High-Bay, we board the bus again.
Nearby, our next stop is a simulation of an early space launch. The control room has been moved intact just as it appeared during Apollo to this location and a simulation with count down and launch is demonstrated using the archaic equipment. No LED readouts, no computer screens; this room has light bulbs covered with red, yellow and green plastic covers for the status readouts, and toggle switches control all the functions. It amazes me that man actually achieved earth orbit with such archaic equipment - but we did it many times!
Returning to the bus, we head back to State Road 3, but this time, we turn north and see the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) in the near distance. On the trip to the VAB, the tour bus driver shares with us where to look to locate the American Bald Eagle nest on the left and provides statistics of the prolific nest. The VAB is the building used for stacking all the manned space flight rockets during Apollo, and is now used for stacking the Space Shuttle vehicle and connecting it to the External Tank and Solid Rocket Boosters on the Mobile Launch Platform for movement to the launch pad. We are not allowed into the VAB since it is a hazardous operations building. Nor are we allowed into the Orbiter Processing Facility (OPF) located nearby. However, we do have the opportunity to take pictures and view the Saturn rocket booster displayed in front of the VAB which was used in the Apollo program. Itís an unbelievably huge rocket. Painted on the front of the VAB is an American flag. To place the building in proper perspective for us, the tour guide informs us that the stars on that flag are over 6 feet in height. This is the biggest building in open volume in the world. The doors are large enough to allow the Saturn rockets mounted on the Mobile Launch Platform to roll in and out of the building - thatís really big!
Back on the bus, the Launch Control Center (LCC) used to control launches today is pointedut. It is connected to the VAB and has blast windows on the east side which faces the launch pads. To our right is the VIP and Press Viewing Site - just bleachers covered with a slanted aluminum awning and capable of holding a few hundred people. This is the closest point anyone can go to the launch pad during a launch and this is still over 3 miles away from the nearest in-use pad.
Back on the bus, we view the gravel road running beside a set of railroad tracks. The tracks were used for moving rocket parts into the VAB in the Apollo days, but are out of use today. The twin gravel tracks, each of which is as wide or wider than the two lane road we are traveling is
the path followed by the Mobile Launch Pad - or Crawler - which has tank-like treads, but much bigger, on the way to placing the vehicle and Mobile Launch Pad on the actual launch pad. Each launch, the gravel on these tread paths is crushed to sand by the immense weight of the stacked vehicle about the Crawler and has to be re-graveled each time. The Crawler moves at a speed of 1 mile per hour, and each tread has its own steering system. Certain employees walk along beside the Crawler, monitoring the trip and measuring certain information on each trip to the Pad.
We see the launch pad ahead of us as we near. Itís not as big as you might expect, but itís still big. If you happen to be lucky, you will tour while there is a vehicle stacked and on the pad. Today we are lucky. The Space Shuttle sits atop the Crawler high on the launch pad hill (man made hill, of course, Florida coastlines have no natural hills) with the Rotating Service Structure (RSS) covering a large part of the vehicle. Employees use the RSS to access the vehicle during preparation for flight. We clearly see the tail fin and the External Tank / Solid Rocket Booster stack peeking out through the RSS. The bus continues past the pad and at the dune line of the Atlantic Ocean, we pull into a viewing spot and everyone is allowed to get out for better launch pad viewing and to take photos. This is also a port-o-let stop and some people line up for use of the facilities. Turning in a full circle, I see the magnificent Atlantic Ocean to the east with a pristine beach not used by man; to the south I can see toward Port Canaveral and spot ships about 25 miles away. To the north is nothing but virgin beach, and of course, to the west are the twin Space Shuttle launch pads.
Back in the bus, we travel by the other launch pad, and circle around to complete our tour. Returning to the Visitorsí Center, everyone is tired by happy, having seen sights not readily available to the public except in newspapers and having learned many new facts about the manned space program. Once we reach the Visitorsí Center, I get in my car, tired by happy and head for my little home on the beach.
If you are visiting anywhere in Central Florida, you have the opportunity of taking this same tour. During Shuttle launches, Crawler operations, and some other significant security issues or hazardous events, the tours are not available, but the Visitorsí Center is open for touring even then. If you want to be sure to get a bus tour, which is a donít-miss activity in my opinion, call ahead to learn of any events scheduled to impact the bus tours. The kids will love this tour and learn many things to tell other students at school; adults learn a great deal they probably didnít know. Donít fail to stop in the gift shop before you leave for t-shirts and novelties. You can even buy ďastronaut foodĒ; freeze dried ice cream and fruits which are really quite good to eat. These would be a perfect ďshow and tellĒ for the school student. If you are really lucky, maybe you will be able to stay in the area long enough to experience an actual Space Shuttle launch, but if not, you have seen the primary parts of making those Space Shuttle missions successful.