"I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon. ... In a very real sense, it will not be one man going to the moon ... it will be an entire nation. For all of us must work to put him there."
-- 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 euphoric time 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. It has also been criticized for its participation in the International Space Station project, a partnership of 16 nations, Russia among them, laboring to build a working, manned research laboratory in space.
Through it all, the space program continues to fly, and later this month, in the early-morning hours of Jan. 21, the next space station mission will launch from Kennedy Space Center in Florida with three of the five astronauts onboard having Baltimore ties.
Watching a launch is exciting, but even if you can't make it to Florida for the Balti-nauts' date with space, a visit to Kennedy Space Center any time is an uplifting experience.
The center is the working headquarters for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, and visitors are able to view preparations for the space station, scheduled to be finished in 2006 or 2007.
Baltimoreans Tom Jones and Robert Curbeam Jr., and Marsha Ivins, who was born in Charm City and raised in Pennsylvania, will be part of STS-98, as the coming 10-day mission is dubbed. Jones and Curbeam will make up the first all-Baltimore space walk. Maybe afterward, they'll dine on the freeze-dried crab soup they are planning to bring along.
The space station is a major focus these days at the space center, but visitors will also see NASA's successes of the 1960s and 1970s.
A 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 control center mock-up. 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 were launched successfully.
The KSC, as locals refer to it, is about 50 miles from Orlando, making it a comfortable day trip between visits to Walt Disney World or Universal Studios.
As our space center tour continued, 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.
The space center is on Merritt Island, and you cross the Intracoastal Waterway to reach the 140,000-acre complex (that's one-fifth the size of Rhode Island). The space center itself takes up just 6,000 of those acres. The remainder makes up the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge, which provides a haven for more endangered and threatened species than any other U.S. refuge.
We saw a few alligators as we drove in, their outlines barely visible above the surface of the creek running parallel to the causeway. And we spotted a small, motionless gator in the lagoon near the gift shop. A wall kept us at a polite distance.
A $120 million renovation of the KSC Visitor Complex was completed in late 1999. The official tour book points out, not once but twice, that sales of food and merchandise -- not tax money -- funded the improvements.
Buses constantly going
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.
If you buy the "maximum access badge" ($24 for adults, $15 for children 3 to 11), you can go to all major sites and view two IMAX movies at the visitor complex. Three films 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 allowing 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 at 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.
A favorite fact from the film: A solar array that could power a space station in the future is constructed with panels so thin that their 100-foot span can be folded into a seven-inch storage space.
Astronauts Judy Resnick and Dick Scobee from the ill-fated 1986 Challenger mission appear in the film. All 17 astronauts lost in space or in training for a space flight are memorialized on the Space Mirror, part of a six-acre park at the visitor complex.
A place to play
If your kids want to clamber, a full-sized replica of a space shuttle orbiter is ready for boarding, and the Play Dome provides a venue for smaller children. A sign at Play Station Alpha there warns, "Only smaller cadets qualify for this mission."
The bus tour passes the Vehicle Assembly Building, the third-largest building in the world. The 525-foot-tall, eight-acre structure can be seen from space (NASA ought to know). It was designed to accommodate four Saturn V moon rockets stacked together. Now it provides ample room to assemble the space shuttle on a mobile platform.
The crawler transporter scoops up the platform, shuttle and all, and hauls it to the launch pad about four miles away at a top speed of 1 mph. The crawler, which is about half the size of a football field, doubles its speed to 2 mph with nothing on its back.
The observation gantry is 60 feet tall, and affords the closest view of a launch pad that anyone but an astronaut or NASA technician will get. You can see the two main shuttle launch pads, which provided the starting point for Apollo missions, from about a mile away.
Among new exhibits since our visit: Astronaut Encounter, where you can talk with a former astronaut like Wally Schirra or Gene Cernan; Robot Scouts, which highlights the capabilities of NASA's "trailblazers for human exploration"; and the Mercury Spacecraft Liberty Bell 7, salvaged after 38 years at the bottom of the ocean. The capsule sank when the hatch opened too soon; astronaut Gus Grissom escaped. The capsule leaves the space center for a national museum tour Sept. 17.
We ate lunch at the Apollo / Saturn V Center's Moon Rock Cafe. We were a bit nervous going in, because a Web site with tips for visiting the KSC invariably panned the food. One person said, "They can get a man to the moon, but they can't seem to cook a cheeseburger."
We're happy to report that the food offerings were not freeze-dried, but were quite good.
AN IDEAL DAY
9 a.m.: Enjoy a morning meal at Dickens Inn Bed & Breakfast. If you're lucky enough to be in town for a shuttle lunch, you will have a great view from the B&B;'s front porch.
10 a.m.: Start your Kennedy Space Center tour at the visitor's complex. Tour buses go in a continuous loop between the visitor complex, the launch complex, the Apollo / Saturn V Center and the International Space Station Center.
Noon: Spend extra time at the Apollo / Saturn V Center, which pays tribute to man's first moon landing.
2 p.m.: On your way out of the space center, check out the adjoining Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge. Be on the lookout for alligators.
4 p.m.: With its flight and zero-gravity simulators, hands-on exhibits and the world's largest collection of astronaut artifacts, the Astronaut Hall of Fame in Titusville is guaranteed to impress.
WHEN YOU GO ...
Getting there: From Orlando International Airport, take Route 528 (KSC Highway) east to Route 405. Turn right and follow the signs to Kennedy Space Center. If you're driving, take I-95 south all the way into Florida. Take Exit 79 and turn left onto Route 50 east. At the intersection, turn right onto Route 405 and follow the signs to the center.
Kennedy Space Center Visitor's Complex, Kennedy Space Center, Fla. 32815
Online: www. kennedyspacecenter.com
Hours: 9 a.m. to dusk daily
Lodging: A number of hotel chains have branches in the Kennedy Space Center area, including Ramada, Holiday Inn, Best Western and Days Inn. For something a little different, check out these options:
Dickens Inn Bed & Breakfast, 2398 North Singleton Ave., Mims, Fla.
Online: www. dickens-inn.com
Rates: $85 to $115
Built circa 1860, the inn was originally the manor house on a working citrus plantation, and today is still surrounded by orange and grapefruit trees. The inn offers five guest rooms, (four with private baths) and a great view of the shuttle launches from its front porch.
Par Four Townhouses and Apartments, Titusville, Fla.
Online: www.titusvillefl. com / gmm / forrent / index.html
Available by the week or month, the furnished spaces offer all the amenities of home away from home and, even better, back up to the Royal Oak Resort & Golf Club, which features an 18-hole championship golf course.
Other area attractions:
Astronaut Hall of Fame, 6225 Vectorspace Blvd., Titusville, Fla.
Online: www.astronauts. org
Hours: Daily 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. (ticket sales close at 4 p.m.)
Admission: $9.95 to $13.95 (coupons are available on the Web site)
Flight and zero-gravity simulators, hands-on exhibits and the world's largest collection of astronaut artifacts.
Grasshopper Airboat Ecotours, 3530 Canaveral Groves Blvd., Cocoa, Fla.
Online: www. airboatecotours.com
Prices: One-hour rides cost $25 for adults and $15 for kids
Search for alligators, herons and osprey while shooting through the marshy St. John's River aboard an airboat (airboats have the big fans in the back).
Valiant Air Command Warbird Museum & Airshow, 6600 Tico Road, Titusville, Fla.
Online: www. vacwarbirds.org
Hours: Daily 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.
Admission: $5 to $9
The museum, on the Space Center Executive Airport grounds, displays, maintains and restores military aircraft dating from before World War I.
www.spacecityflusa.com -- The official visitors' site of Titusville, Fla. Attraction, dining, lodging and service information is available here. For a free brochure, call the Titus-ville Area Chamber of Commerce, 321-267-3036.
www.ksc.nasa.gov -- NASA's Kennedy Space Center site
www.spaceflight.nasa.gov / station / assembly -- NASA site describing the International Space Station
www.mdsci.org -- Maryland Science Center Web site. The science center is planning a live interview with the Balti-nauts late into the space station mission Jan. 28. For information, call 410-685-5225.
Tricia Bishop contributed to this article.