Living near the Space Coast, you’d think I would visit Cape Canaveral more often. Alas, the last time I visited KSC was winter 2009 with a colleague of mine. I was excited to finally get myself in the car and zip down I-95 to spend the day meeting an icon. Previously, I had the pleasure of seeing Atlantis atop a Boeing 747 parked in a special hangar at New York City’s John F. Kennedy International Airport, but the shuttle driver never slowed down enough for me to snap a decent photo. I was thrilled to be invited to check out the latest exhibit at KSC, which opened June 29, 2013.
Location: Kennedy Space Center, Cape Canaveral, FL
Upon entering the Visitors’ Center, I was surprised by how much the complex had grown since I last visited. Either that, it I was too exhausted from making the four hour drive up to remember what it looked like. After clearing security, we made a beeline for the Space Shuttle Atlantis exhibit. As it was the Wednesday after Labor Day, the complex was quite empty, giving it an exclusive feeling. Although the exhibit opened during the summer, I can guarantee you that after hectic stints of flying, going anywhere packed with tourists would the be the last place you’d find me. Standing outside at the mockup of the original shuttle fuel tank and boosters, I suddenly felt like a child again, staring at it with wide-eyed wonder. The birds I fly can’t compare to the elegance of the space shuttles, perhaps it’s the rarity of house breed that makes them so breathtaking.
Prior to entering the exhibition hall, a spectacular video presentation welcomes visitors. I can’t begin to describe it, as I know I couldn’t possibly do it justice. I’ll say this much, it left me with goosebumps before I even stepped into the massive hall. No sooner do we clear the threshold, we find ourselves staring at the star of the show. Might I say, she is stunning. Of course, everyone immediately stops and the cameras come out. Even with a small handful of people, everyone starts jockeying for the best photo angles. I spend half of every month nose to nose with flying contraptions, but I stood there slack-jawed, mooning over Atlantis. It’s the tangible accessibility of the history that left me utterly moonstruck. Reaching over the railing, you can almost touch it, but it still maintains that just-out-of-reach dreaminess.
The presentation of Atlantis is fantastic. She’s tilted to the side with her payload bay doors open and her robotic arm extended, giving visitors a prime view of her inner workings. (I just re-read that in George Takei’s voice, and it concluded with a hearty “Oh Myyy!” finish. My apologies.) It requires little imagination to picture astronauts floating freely around her, hard at work in space. Seeing the individual tiles, scorch marks, and paint chips made me wish I could jump aboard without either getting arrested or dropped the thirty feet down to the lower level. Surrounding the viewing area were several smaller exhibits, breaking down the different parts of the shuttle. Naturally, sitting in the model cockpit had to be done, though I’ll never pilot an aircraft let alone a space shuttle. I look good in the Commander’s Chair.
The viewing route spirals down to the lower level, ending with the chance to walk underneath the space shuttle! Seeing the portraits of the Challenger Shuttle Crew made me mist up a little. I was a six when the Challenger Disaster occurred, but I still remember what stood out to me most: Christa McAuliffe, who was to make history as the first Teacher in Space. At the time, I didn’t understand what the disaster meant as it looked like something out of a science fiction film. During flight attendant training, we spent several days analyzing aircraft crashes, so looking back at events like this, it chilled me to the bone. Also, it makes me wish this part of American history and science was covered in greater context.
On the lower level, there are more interactive games, including a landing simulator. We will not speak of my humiliating defeat at the controls of the landing simulator. It was validating to know that I am still human and there are some things I simply cannot do– like fly a multi-billion dollar space craft. I’m okay with it, honest. Plus, the fifty shop was brimming over with neat stuff.
No trip to KSC is complete without the bus tour out to the Apollo/Saturn V Center, including a view of the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) and Launch Pads. By far, we were the youngest folks to enjoy the bus tour. Sitting in the theater, I had forgotten about the energy and impact of that room in 1969: the launch that lead to the first walk on the Moon. The simulation floods the senses with the excitement and precision of launch day, culminating with the countdown that made history. KSC is a significant part NASA and American history, but it’s also a mainstay of Floridian history that I feel many neglect to recognize. I swear ninth grade Earth-Space Science class would have been way more interesting had we gone on a field trip.
One of the new installments for the kiddos was the Angry Birds Space Encounter, better known as “yet another game Karen is terrible at.” The obstacle course looked like good fun, until we learned that there was lots of climbing involved. Instead, we opted for the mirror maze which reminded me of a carnival House of Mirrors. Naturally, I was really smooth when I scared myself with my own reflection as I walked into a mirror. The other activities looked like fun, but definitely designed with the younger generations in mind. Afterward, we grabbed a light lunch at the Orbit Cafe, checked out one of the two IMAX features, joining the ranks in Exploration Space, and enjoyed Astronaut Encounter. The afternoon wound down with a stroll through The Rocket Garden, and checking out the Early Space Exploration exhibit.
Overall, I had a fantastic time learning stuff, and re-experiencing a part of Florida I love. Though the space shuttles are now blissfully retired, I’ll never forget watching the launches from Cocoa Beach as a child. I hope I will have the opportunity to watch a rocket launch in the near future. I am considering making mini-trips to visit the other shuttles: Discovery (Chantilly, VA), Enterprise (New York City, NY), and Endeavour (Los Angeles, CA). Perhaps, it will be a travel goal for 2014.
Visiting KSC made me wish I had signed up in time for the Space Coast Half Marathon. It would figure that it would not only only sell out, but I would manage to actually get that race weekend off! Next year, I won’t second guess myself and register anyway!