I was in Florida for the 2017 meetup of fans of James Cameron’s Avatar. On one day during our meetup, we went to the John F. Kennedy Space Center (KSC), our nation’s port in our adventure towards the stars.
I started the day by hearing a briefing about our nation’s state of affairs in space. We have several programs taking place at the current moment, as well as partnership with several other nations. One of these greatest programs is the International Space Station (ISS), arguably the grandest symbol of international peace and cooperation ever produced by humanity, in which individuals from several nations and materials from several regions of the globe are used to work in unison for the betterment of mankind. We also learned that within a year and a half, Americans will continue launching into space from the Kennedy Space Center. After this briefing, we in the audience got to hear from Mike Foreman, an actual astronaut who had been on two missions. His first mission was as a general-purpose specialist on the Space Shuttle. On his second mission, he helped several others restock and resupply the ISS, and he even did two spacewalks. Resupply missions are vitally important, and maintain our continued presence in space. After giving his talk, people were given the opportunity to meet and have photos taken with Foreman. I met him, and he saw my Ithaca Is Gorges T-shirt, and asked if I had gone to Cornell. I told him I had gone to the State University of New York at Buffalo, but that Ithaca is my hometown. I told him that I do disability rights advocacy, and we each told the other how proud we are of each other’s work.
After this, I had lunch with people from the fan meetup, followed by a tour of the Rocket Garden. The Rocket Garden chronicles our mission to perfect the ideal space going vehicle. In the beginning, we were literally using missiles intended for weapons to shoot people into space. These missiles were relatively small, and also gave a really rough ride, not at all intended for human beings. Our tour guide talked about the first few satellites, and the first manned space programs, Mercury and Gemini. We saw the rockets use to launch each satellite and program. Mercury was meant to see ourselves into space. There were no scientific goals, and no way to actually live in space. There were intended to be seven astronauts, but we wound up with six. The first two were sub-orbital flights launched by the Redstone missile. Unfortunately, the Redstone lacked the thrust to get us into orbit, but thanks to computers like Katherine Johnson, we learned that the Atlas rocket could. The Gemini program was meant to actually test how we could live in space. In Gemini, we ate, slept, spacewalked, did detailed tasks, and even celebrated Christmas. We also learned how to dock with other vehicles, how to manipulate the course and direction of our spacecraft, how to rendezvous with other spacecraft, and achieved other significant goals. The Gemini spacecraft were launched aboard the Titan II missile, which gave an incredibly rough ride. Finally, it was time to launch the Apollo program, and get ourselves to the moon. The first few Apollo launchers took place on the Saturn IB rocket, which launched us to Earth orbit in the Apollo capsules. The Saturn IB was also launched to get us to the Skylab space station. We saw all of these rockets, and more, and also tried out basic versions of the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo space capsules.
After this, I went to the gift shop, of course, and then waited for my friends. You see, we had booked the opportunity of a lifetime. We were going to be shown the headquarters facilities and launch facilities for the American space program. We started out being shown the Industrial Area Facilities of the Kennedy Space Center. It is here where the American space program and its missions are administered. A lot of activity is currently taking place! They are currently demolishing the old computer building, after building a new one. We saw both. Computers have gotten smaller and smaller, and so the space needed to contain them has as well. In addition, it is not a bad idea to have an updated building for such sensitive materials. There are also two headquarters buildings: the old one, which is being phased out, and the new one, which is just being finished. There is another building dedicated specifically to operations on the ISS. There are other buildings dedicated towards the development of outer space missions, as well as a communication center, a gas station, and a fire station.
Next, we got to see the Launch Pad 39 Complex. For the longest time, American rockets and space vehicles have been constructed inside the massive Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB). The VAB is the sixth largest building in the world by volume. The volume of the Empire State Building could fit inside it five times. It is 526 feet in height. The American flag painted on its side is 21 stories tall, and each star is 6 feet across. Rockets and other space vehicles are built inside it on top of mobile launch platforms, and then wheeled out to one of the launch pads in the complex. Because of the massive weight that the mobile launch platforms must transport, they move incredibly slowly. Much more slowly than the walking human being. There is a joke that if someone sees a turtle walking the same direction in front of the mobile launch platform, they should let it be, because it will get to its destination more quickly than the launch platform will! There are also several buildings surrounding the VAB, including buildings formerly used to outfit the Space Shuttle, which are currently used for outfitting other vehicles. The military is also using one of these buildings for a top-secret project. In addition, there is a launch control Center next to the VAB, and the nearby area for the press.
We next went to see Launch Pad 39A. Over half of the Space Shuttle missions launched from this launch pad. More importantly, every single mission that humanity launched to the moon launched from here as well. The fact that we have gone to the moon is the realization of an incredible dream, the journey of mankind. At the next stop, we got to see that journey up close and personal.
As you enter the Apollo/Saturn V Center, you learn about the absolute failures of the early American space program, and how achieving any real progress in space seemed like a pipe dream at the beginning. You are shown the failure of rocket after rocket, failures so horrible that they look like a bad blooper reel. Then you learn about the launch of the Mercury program, and the challenge a few days later by President John F. Kennedy to land a man on the moon and get him safely home by the end of the decade. That was a truly Herculean task to live up to. They talk about the progress of the early Apollo program, and the tragic loss of the crew of Apollo 1. Then, you are led into the Firing Room. The Firing Room is the exact same launch control room that was used during Apollo 8, the first manned launch of a Saturn V rocket. This is the biggest and most complex machine ever produced by mankind. In the Firing Room, you are on pins and needles as you witness the successful launch of Apollo 8. Then, as if in a dream, you are led to see the stunning achievement of humanity.
Here, laid on its side before you, is the massive Saturn V rocket. It is the biggest, most complicated machine ever created by man. There is only one that has been maintained intact into the current day, and it stretches out before you, seemingly endlessly. Alongside it are the mission patches of the various Apollo missions, hanging from the ceiling. There are also various artifacts, including a bona fide Command and Service Module (CSM), as well as a Lunar Module (LM). There is also a mockup of the cockpit of the LM so that you feel like you’re actually there on the moon.
There are other artifacts as well. There is the command module of the Apollo 14 mission, which was given the callsign Kitty Hawk, after the location of the first heavier than air flight. There is a moon rock for you to touch, and an equipment wagon and a lunar Rover made for lunar operation.
There are space suits, various lunar artifacts, and Snoopy… Wait a second… Did I just say Snoopy!? Well, you see, several the Apollo program engineers started informally drawing Snoopy, so they asked peanuts cartoonist Charles Schultz whether they would be allowed to make the famous beagle’s likeness. He said no, absolutely not, but that he would make it for them. As such, Snoopy became sort of the mascot of the Apollo program, and there is a statue of him in a spacesuit. However, try as they might, NASA physicists cannot figure out how his nose would have fit into the helmet. An intractable problem for the ages!
There is also a monument and a gallery dedicated to memorializing the astronauts lost in the Apollo 1 mission. At the time, American spacecraft used a pure oxygen atmosphere. If one remembers the Hindenburg disaster, they will recall that hydrogen is combustible. Oxygen is not combustible, but it is incredibly flammable. Some electric equipment sparked while the Apollo 1 crew was having a test on the launchpad. The triple-layer door was too difficult to open, and they all completely cooked in the capsule. Those doors are on display in the gallery. Because of this terrible accident, over 38,000 changes were made to the engineering of American space technology, many of which still last to this day. These changes have saved many, many lives. The door now takes a fraction of the time to open, and the atmosphere aboard all American spacecraft now has mixed content just like Earth’s atmosphere instead of being pure oxygen. Some people will die in our quest for space, that is a given. The quest for the stars is too great a dream, though, and we should never lose sight of our goal.
Finally, you head into the Lunar Theater, where the landing of the Apollo 11 Lunar Module, Eagle, is actually reenacted on stage in front of you. You see video of astronauts both playing and studying on the moon. The American flag is planted, and there is more video of those same astronauts talking about the terrific wonders that we have achieved. The ascent module then lifts off to join the command module Columbia and head home. There is then video of the dreams of children, many of whom wish to go into space. Finally, the late Neil Armstrong appears on video. He talks about how, when he was born, we had just managed to cross the Atlantic by airplane. He says that when he was a kid, he thought that landing on the moon would take place centuries into the future, and certainly had no clue that he would be the first person to do so. He states that we came not from one country, but in peace for all mankind. He says that you should never be afraid to dream. The vision of Mars appears on stage. Our guide at the Kennedy Space Center confirmed to us that NASA plans to get us to Mars and back safely by 2035. That is within my lifetime. What once was considered impossible is now attainable.
Now for a personal story. When I was in early elementary school, the authorities behind the school tried to have me locked up for the rest of my life. They said that I would never amount to anything, and that there was no use in trying. My loving family fought tooth and nail, and parents and professionals, as well as friends, raised me into who I am today. I have since made endless friends, graduated from college with a master’s degree, gotten an excellent job, and helped change the lives of millions, especially those of us with disabilities. Never, ever be afraid to dream. Dreams are attainable. The impossible is possible.
The late Carl Sagan was fond of saying that we are all made of star dust. In our journey to the stars, we are simply going home. Thank you, for joining me on this tour.
The image is Alec Frazier with Launch Pad 39A.
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