Kennedy Space Center

On Sunday morning opinion was mixed among the cyclists as to whether it was worth cycling an arbitrary distance towards Orlando before driving to the Kennedy Space Center back on the coast. Our motel for the next few days was to the south of Orlando, so the planned cycle of 20 miles or so to the north of the city would be purely for show. In the end, Alex and Andy set off, while Neil and Leo got their exercise by going for a swim in the sea instead.

Alex and Andy didn’t get very far. After about 9 miles, they called for a pick-up as Alex had had his first three punctures of the trip within half an hour (these things seem to come like buses). The five of us drove directly down the coast towards Cape Canaveral, stopping for lunch at a Taco Bell where, as is the case at every fast food restaurant in the USA, a member of the local law enforcement community was stopping for sustenance.

At the Kennedy Space Center we joined a bus tour of the complex which took in three sites: the Apollo/Saturn 5 Center, the International Space Station Center and a viewing platform over the space shuttle launch pad. At the Apollo/Saturn 5 Center we were treated to a simulation of a rocket launch from a 1960s mission control room, before moving through to a massive hangar containing a full Saturn 5 rocket. The Saturn 5 was used to launch the Apollo missions to the moon and it is absolutely enormous due to its need to transport lunar modules the 239,000 miles to the moon. It is more than 110 metres high and weighs over 3 million kilograms.

The Apollo/Saturn 5 Center also contained display boards about each mission in the Apollo program. The first Apollo launch resulted in the deaths of three astronauts in a launchpad fire, a massive setback for the US space program which led to the development of the Saturn 5 and the next five Apollo missions being unmanned. Finally, Apollo 7 launched three astronauts into space in late 1968 and over the next nine months a further four Apollo missions would launch, culminating in the historic moon landing of Apollo 11 in July 1969. Six more spacecraft headed for the moon in the following few years (all successfully landing apart from the infamous Apollo 13), yet no human has left the Earth’s lower orbit since Apollo 17 landed on the moon 35 years ago.

The International Space Station Center gives visitors the opportunity to observe NASA engineers and technicians as they work on preparing the ISS components for launch. We also got the opportunity to walk through some mock-ups of a few of the modules; they seemed extremely spacious compared to some of the rocket modules we would sit in later in the day, and it was refreshing to see the US and Russia working so closely together on a space project after decades of rivalry. Although the vast majority of the components are being contributed by NASA and the Russians, the European, Japanese, Brazilian and Canadian Space Agencies are all providing parts. The ISS was supposed to be finished a couple of years ago, but the suspension of the shuttle program after the Columbia disaster in 2003 has caused major set-backs, and there is now a race to get it completed before the space shuttles are retired in 2010.

The final stop of our tour took us past the massive shuttle assembly building (there’s a US flag painted on the side of a portion of it; to give you an idea of its size, each of the 50 stars is around 6-feet wide) and the Crawler-Transporter. This is a huge tracked vehicle that was originally built to move the Saturn 5 rockets to the launch pad and is now used for the space shuttle program. It weighs in at almost 2,500 tonnes unloaded and moves the shuttle at a hair-raising top speed of 1 mile per hour along a road constructed especially for the enormous size and weight.

At the viewing platform we were able to see Endeavour primed for launch in just a few days time. It was difficult to see the shuttle itself, as it was attached to its fuel tank and solid rockets and surrounded by scaffolding, though it was interesting to note that if we were standing that close to the shuttle during the launch sequence we would be killed by the heat and noise.

Back at the main visitor center we boarded a brand new simulator called the Shuttle Launch Experience. It is supposed to be an extremely realistic representation of the first few minutes after take-off in a shuttle, though it really just tipped us backwards and shook us a lot. It may have been realistic, but it wasn’t all that exciting; Neil in particular left a little disappointed.

We wandered around a collection of NASA rockets and tried to fit ourselves inside the sardine-can nose cones; 1960s astronauts had a pretty tough time compared to the spacious shuttles and the ISS. The Space Center closed a few moments later at 7pm, so we drove to the nearby Astronaut Hall of Fame which was open for another hour.

The Hall of Fame contained a hands-on area in the mould of the one at London’s Science Museum, including a simulator that claimed to provide the experience of driving a buggy really quickly across the surface of Mars. I’m not sure how they planned to verify these claims, but it was certainly more fun than the shuttle simulator. They also had one of those g-force spinners like in James Bond’s Thunderball and what was essentially a baby bouncer on the end of a boom to simulate a moon walk.

One noticeable thing during the day had been the number of English accents around. Other than in New York, and to a lesser extent Washington, we have heard very few voices from home over the last five weeks. In some places (namely Lumberton), we were the first English accents that the locals had ever heard, yet down in Florida they are everywhere. Mind you, the American South perversely appears to end as you cross the border from Georgia into Florida, and this place really is a cross between a massive retirement home and a giant holiday camp. One question was still lingering, though: why is it that all British tourists abroad are from Sussex.

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