Journey to the moon and beyond at the Kennedy Space Center
For kids, space travel is merely a fact of life. (Visit Florida photo)
-- John F. Kennedy, May 25, 1961
The 45 rpm record had long gathered dust on a bookshelf of my mother's home. This rendition of Man on the Moon was recorded not by the rock group R.E.M. but by CBS anchorman Walter Cronkite, and it stirs memories of a time of euphoria in the United States, man's first landing on the moon in 1969.
The Apollo 11 mission accomplished President Kennedy's goal, and although Kennedy died before his timetable was met, we all shared in the "space race" victory over the Soviet Union.
Today, the U.S. space program is battling a variety of ignominies, from miscalculated flight paths to substandard equipment. Still, it's uplifting to visit Kennedy Space Center, where the struggle and ultimate glory of man's first forays into space are replayed on their original stage.
The Kennedy Space Center continues as the working headquarters for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. In fact, you can view live preparations for the International Space Station, scheduled to be finished in 2003. But there's no mistaking the emphasis on NASA's successes of the 1960s and 1970s when you visit.
The highlight of the tour is the Apollo/Saturn V Center, which pays the highest tribute to man's initial moon landing. The tour begins in the Firing Room Theater, a mock-up control center. The simulated countdown and liftoff of Apollo 8 on Dec. 21, 1968, are enhanced by realistic effects and actual equipment and videotape from that day.
Huge banners marking each Apollo mission are suspended above the rocket plaza, which is dominated by a restored, 363-foot Saturn V rocket, its five giant boosters suspended above a spellbound audience.
An amazing thought to ponder while gawking: The Saturn V reached speeds of 25,000 miles an hour on its way into orbit. The rocket is one of three in existence; 15 were built, and 12 launched successfully.
As the day went on, we realized our misty recollections weren't translating well to our daughters, ages 9 and 6. They've always known about space travel, not as Jules Verne fiction brought to reality, but as a fact of life. A word of caution: Don't be surprised if the younger set seems a tad underwhelmed.
A $100 million renovation of the KSC Visitor Complex was completed in 1999. The official tour book points out, not once but twice, that sales of food and merchandise -- not tax money -- funded the improvements.
Space center tour buses go in a continuous loop between the visitor complex, the Launch Complex 39 observation gantry, the Apollo/Saturn V Center, and the International Space Station Center.
You take tour buses from venue to venue, with an overhead video guide providing whimsical updates on where you're headed next. A weather note: You can see almost everything on a rainy day. A storm hit for part of our visit, and the buses drop you off under awnings in front of the main buildings.
If you purchase the "Maximum Access Badge" ($38 for adults, $28 for children 3-11), you can go to all major sites and view two IMAX movies at the visitor complex. Three were being screened on our visit, including "L5, First City in Space," a 3-D depiction of an orbiting city 100 years from now, based on NASA studies.
The KSC Web site www.KennedySpaceCenter.com advises to allow six to eight hours for a complete visit, and we concur. Our kids got tired and were content to skip the space station, our final tour stop, to relax and browse the gift shop.
A good starting point at the visitor complex is the Rocket Garden, an array of eight missiles dating from the first U.S. satellites. The mammoth Apollo Saturn B1 sits on its side and runs the length of the garden. It served as an emergency rescue rocket during the Skylab program.
The IMAX theater drew us in for The Dream Is Alive. The 5 1/2-story screen and right-there filming put you into orbit with the Discovery, and most thrillingly, on a ride down from the space shuttle on an escape pulley at the launch complex.
updated February 8, 2006