A major motivation for choosing Florida as our holiday destination was to visit Cape Canaveral, home of NASA’s Kennedy Space Center. I’ve wanted to go for many a year, and I felt a great sense of a dream being fulfilled as we drove across the large causeway to Cape Canaveral and the Shuttle’s huge orange fuel tank loomed into view. This is a replica that stands outside the new Atlantis exhibition, which opened last year – but more on that later. The first thing virtually everyone was doing after purchasing their ticket was getting a photo of themselves next to the giant NASA logo, with the fuel tank and rocket boosters in the background. A bloke offered to take ours for us, but his efforts were so hopeless that we got the GoPro out and took one of ourselves!
It was a hot and humid day despite the initial cloud cover, and we were glad to find that virtually everything was indoors, in air conditioned comfort. The Center was remarkably well thought out in how the visitor is guided through different parts of the extensive complex. The first thing one does is to board a bus for a guided tour of the wider complex. We could see from the barriers set up that the Center experiences a huge volume of visitors during peak season, so we were very glad we visited in October, as it was so quiet that we were able to get straight onto a bus.
The bus – with a lively guide who told us all kinds of interesting facts about NASA’s work – took us right round the complex, showing us much more than I was expecting to be able to see. The highlight was Launch Complex 39, which was built to accommodate rockets capable of manned space missions, starting with the Saturn V rockets. This is one of the launch pads used for sending rockets into space. This is the launchpad from which man was sent to the Moon. All those photos you’ve seen of the Space Shuttle preparing for take-off were also taken here. That water tower is part of the sound suppression system: the launch generates so much noise that if it were not dampened down with water, the sound waves would rip the Space Shuttle to pieces! Most of the billowing white stuff you see during launch is not smoke, but evaporating water from this system.
This, I believe, was the other launchpad, which was a backup. This whole area is built on Merritt Island, which is also a noted nature reserve. On our tour, we saw a bald eagle’s nest, various other birds, and were told to keep a look out for alligators!
These things are flame deflectors used during launches. Just casually lying around waiting for the next launch!
That building in the background is the Vehicle Assembly Building, which I’ll come onto in a minute. In the foreground, the grey square thing is the Crawler Transporter, which is used for moving rockets such as the Shuttle from the Vehicle Assembly Building to the launch pad (rather a painstaking process). The gravelled track is specially built to take the transporter around the site.
This is a closer view of the transporter, but the photo doesn’t do justice to how massive it is. It moves at just 1mph!
This is the aforementioned Vehicle Assembly Building up close. This is where the rockets are assembled prior to launch. Those strips of grey on the side are in fact doors – the world’s largest – from which assembled rockets would emerge. Our guide was at pains to tell us that the American flag on the side is the world’s largest. You can’t really appreciate the size of this building from the photograph, but it was the biggest building in the world when it was built in 1965 (it’s now the 8th biggest, if I recall correctly). Something worth noting is that this is very much a working facility; there were tonnes of cars parked around it, which, we were told, were those of NASA employees, of which there are about 6,000 on this site.
After this illuminating tour of the launch facilities, we were dropped off at the Apollo/Saturn V Center, which is some way from the main visitor complex. Alongside its entrance was a large area of staggered empty seating looking across to the launch pads: the viewing area for launches. We were shown various introductory films about the Space Race, and in one area we saw the actual desks from Mission Control used when Apollo 11 was launched.
After the short film was over, you entered this vast space occupied by an actual Saturn V rocket (the largest rocket ever made). This one didn’t actually go to the Moon, but it is real and not a replica. It was MASSIVE!
With Lee for scale, you can start to appreciate its size.
You can’t see all of it in this picture. Note the banners from the ceiling, commemorating each of the Apollo missions.
Apollo 11 – the Eagle has landed!
There was a museum in a room to the side, which included among its many fascinating exhibits a capsule that brought the astronauts back down to Earth.
Two interesting things here. On the left, a series of hand casts of astronauts’ hands, as each astronaut has space gloves made to match their hand size and shape exactly. On the right, part of a logbook used on one of the Moon landings – with actual Moon dust still in situ!
This is one of the space suits used by an astronaut on the Moon. It still has grey Moon dust on it too.
The gift shop was entertaining. I found this brilliant cuddly toy Space Shuttle, though I resisted the temptation to buy it!
From there, after a bite to eat in the shadow of the Saturn V, we hopped back on a bus to the main visitor complex. We were deposited outside the new Atlantis exhibition, which was the part I’d been most looking forward to. This photo gives you a sense of how massive the Space Shuttle’s rocket boosters and external fuel tank are.
This was what we’d come to see, so it was with a great sense of anticipation that we entered the building and made our way eagerly up a long, winding ramp, from which this was the view. In my head, I’d imagined that it would just be a straightforward hangar with Atlantis in it, but it was so much more impressively done than that!
The moment you first see Atlantis is amazing. The Americans don’t do anything by halves; you go into a room fitted with cinema screens ahead of you and above you, and there’s a short film about the Shuttle that makes you feel as though you’re actually flying through space (complete with impressive music). Then a back screen lifts and you can make out the outline of Atlantis behind it, and then the music swells and the front screen lifts up and there she is. It’s a surprisingly emotional moment; in fact I’m getting a little tear in my eye just watching this video back! Click below to watch the video and you’ll probably see why.
Here she is in all her glory. She’s suspended from the ceiling at an angle designed to show what she looks like flying through space. You can see that this has very much been a workhorse – there are lots of scorch marks on it from all the times it’s re-entered the Earth’s atmosphere (I believe she’s done 33 missions).
Obligatory pic of us with Atlantis! We spent absolutely ages walking around looking at it in great detail. It was so close you could almost reach out and touch it.
Here’s the underside, where you can see the heat-protecting tiles. We learned that this part – which looks like an aeroplane (in fact it’s a glider) – is called the Orbiter, while the ‘Shuttle’ is what it’s called when the orange fuel tank and white rocket boosters are fitted.
As you can see, the cargo bay doors are open, with the arm coming out of it that the astronauts used for manoeuvering bits of the International Space Station into position and things like that. The cargo bay was used for transporting bits of Space Station, Hubble Space Telescope and satellites into space, as well as supplies for the International Space Station.
There was also a mock-up of the cockpit nearby so that you could see what it was like to fly the Space Shuttle. It’s a bit more complicated than Wilhelm!
I also took this little video:
These are all six iconic Space Shuttles. They all have such brilliant, evocative names. The Columbia and Challenger were, of course, tragically lost (we saw a bit about these throughout the day, but not much). The others are on display in other museums in the US now that the Space Shuttle has sadly been retired. We learned a bit about plans for future space craft; the plan is apparently to return to the Saturn V style of rocket, i.e. a non-reusable one. Which seems to me a big step backwards from the Space Shuttle, the beauty of which was that its Orbiter could be reused like an aeroplane (not to mention its exceptional elegance).
After we’d finished marvelling at Atlantis, we went on a “Space Shuttle Launch Experience”, which involved stowing our possessions in a locker and going into a very accurate simulator that shows you what it’s like to be an astronaut during a Space Shuttle launch. Your seat actually reclines back almost to horizontal, and you feel some of the G force, which was rather exciting.
We ended the day by viewing a 3D IMAX movie about life on the International Space Station, which was fascinating. There was loads more to see that we didn’t have time for, so we could easily have got another day’s worth of activities from it. It was a truly memorable day, and well worth going all the way to Florida for. I leave you with a GoPro pic of us outside the Atlantis exhibition!