This was the big day for me, I’m a huge space buff and the NASA tour meant a lot.
The trip to Kennedy took 90 minutes and the tour guide kept us entertained with cheesy jokes and videos of the Center and it’s history. I was feeling pretty rough on the ride out, the cold had started to hit me hard, but as soon as we got near I was too excited let it have an effect on me. As we pulled into the parking lot the guide let us know that the Airboat ride group would need to meet back at the bus a little earlier than I had thought and he gave us tips what order to see the important parts so that we would make the most out of our time.
The first stop was another bus that would take us on a tour of the launch pads before arriving at the Saturn V building. The driver made sure we understood not to take any pictures of the security posts and guards; apparently they take that pretty seriously. The bus portion was interesting but due to security they couldn’t let us off to take a look at any of the stops. All the photos were shot through windows and I wasn’t happy enough with them to bother posting.
There is a Disney-esque feel to the way NASA has displayed both the Saturn V and Atlantis, they realize that making it a show is just as important as putting it on display. As we entered the foyer we were treated to a series of videos showing the history from Kennedy’s speech right up to the launch of Apollo 11. I was expecting it to be all about the engineering and dull but they have done a good job keeping it flowing and emotional. Each video would merge into the next, telling the story in about 10 minutes. As it finished the doors for the next section opened up.
This room was a mock-up of the launch control room with us in the media gallery above the banks of consoles and a bank of windows behind. The clock started at T-3 minutes and did the full countdown to launch including final checks while TV’s on either side of the room would break into news footage. As we got close to launch there was a background rumble that built up to a roar right as the timer hit zero. It was so well done, the windows behind us glowed orange and shook in their frames to simulate the launch itself.
Ok, this is emo Dave time. The next set of doors opened and the group made their way down the stairs. I hesitated here. This had been built up in my mind and I wasn’t sure I wanted to walk down there and end up disappointed. Iris headed down right away before she realized I was lagging beside her. She looked back and understood, letting me take my time. I can understand why people might be confused by my reaction. Why would a 44 year old piece of cold war technology have any emotional meaning to someone who wasn’t even born when it was first launched?
Growing up I was fascinated by space and sci-fi. I would watch The Right Stuff over and over again and when Apollo 13 came out I was instantly in love with it (hell, it brings tears to my eyes). Being there, having the Saturn V just through those doors; it was a lot to take in. I took my time heading down the stairs and at first I could just make out the bottom of an engine bell followed by the base of the rocket. Each step brought more into view and I suddenly needed to see it all, rushing down the last stairs only to stop at the door as it was revealed.
It’s then that the scale of it crashed down on me. I always knew it was big, but coming through that door and the only thing you can see is the base with its five giant engine bells, the rest of the machine disappearing into this massive building, it was awe inspiring. Iris was on the ball and snapped a bunch of pictures of me taking it in. I spent a while just looking at it, I wanted to take it all in before I pulled out the camera and started taking (way too many) pictures.
We explored all the rocket stages, and I chattered away to Iris about all the bits, how it worked on launch, in orbit, at the moon, and basically bored her to death. At the top there was another theater off to the side explaining the moon landing itself and I got all emotional again as the animatronic lander came down and the triumphant music built up.
Next up was the bus ride back to the main center so we could see the Atlantis exhibit that was also broken up into two sections. One explained the how and why and the other showed off the first launch. This second one was shown in a room with a domed roof and the movie displayed all around, with a flat main screen in front that showed the launch and entry into orbit. I could just make out something behind the screen raising up as they switched to an image of the Earth at the bottom with Atlantis up above it. Then the main screen raised up and I realized that it was the shuttle behind the now opaque screen.
We were on an elevated walkway that wrapped around the shuttle which was suspended from the roof at an angle so the cargo bay was visible and the nose was level with us as we came out of the theater. I immediately went picture crazy while Iris walked around, looking at the various information kiosks that explained what she was looking at.
I was approached by the docent on duty as I made my way along the cargo bay taking pictures. He apologized for interrupting me and asked if he could take a picture of my t-shirt, Shark in a Space Suit. It had seemed appropriate for a NASA tour. Naturally I said yes. He pulled out his phone, snapped the picture, and explained why he wanted it.
When the shuttle was in service he worked for NASA as a Closeout Specialist. When the astronauts enter the shuttle they pass through a room at the top of the launch tower that has a few people in it who ensure the astronauts are suited up correctly. They then close the shuttle for launch. I would watch every launch that I could on NASA-TV and without knowing it I was watching a person who would eventually want to take a picture of my t-shirt.
Curious, I asked why he wanted it. His wife of 30 years is an EVA (Extra-Vehicular Activity) Specialist, the people who take care of the space suits that they use outside the shuttle or ISS. He knew that she would want to see this whimsically silly shark in a space suit. We chatted for a few more minutes (and Iris snapped a shot of us) and he explained how he moved into a role as a docent after the shuttle program ended. When we parted we shook hands and he gave me a little commemorative coin of the Atlantis Museum. I’m not sure if its rare, but I don’t really care. This little conversation, this interaction with someone I unknowingly watched is going to be an amazing memory for me.