I really loved Catherine Ryan Howard’s memoir Mousetrapped. It was sweet, funny, charming and inspiring. Particularly the chapter in which Ryan goes to the Kennedy Space Center. It made me cry and it made me feel like anything is possible. Much like seeing the International Space Station did. So after I’d blogged about *that*, I emailed Catherine and asked her if I could share the KSC chapter of her book on my blog. She kindly said yes. Enjoy.
March was a beautiful month to be in Central Florida. With no stifling heat or humidity to speak of, most afternoons managed to get from beginning to end without a single drop of rain.
I had been living in Orlando for a full six months now and, if you forgot almost everything that had happened during the first five of them, then you could have made yourself a nice little montage of me and put it to that ‘Time of My Life’ tune from Dirty Dancing. Catherine driving her new car. Catherine waking up in her new apartment. Catherine lounging by the pool. Catherine buying more stuff she doesn’t need in the Super Target on 192. Catherine going for a drink with her friends on a Wednesday night. Catherine and Andrea bitching about work on their patio late into the evening. I had even chopped off all my straw-like blonde hair and opted instead for a neat brunette bob, because every new beginning needs a new haircut to go with it and no matter what I did I couldn’t get my long locks straight.
The only dip in my recent trajectory of escalating joy was Eva’s departure. She had decided to finish up her J-1 program early and resume her studies in Canada. After a farewell night with what seemed like half the hotel at good old Buffalo Wild Wings, I said goodbye with the gifts of a photo of us on Main Street framed in Mickey’s silhouette and a list of one hundred movies I insisted she watch immediately, if only so that she could understand the vast majority of pop culture references. Whatever Eva had got from her second stint in Orlando, I knew what she had done for me and that was nothing short of everything. She had been my friend, taught me to drive and shown me that living in Orlando could be fun. We were practically a Disney movie waiting to happen.
But there was one important thing that I still hadn’t done, an apple I’d yet to pluck from my newfound tree of Floridian happiness.
I still hadn’t been to Kennedy Space Centre.
In a childhood filled with fleeting obsessions, America’s National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) had managed to maintain a strong and constant footing in the foreground of my mind.
Or at least the Space Shuttle had, anyway.
I had no time for Apollo, the programme that appeared to have had stuffed three men into a dinky tin can, shot them into space, slung them around the moon and dragged them back home again. When I was eight years old and leafing through my Footprints history textbook, I had come across the story of the Apollo 11 lunar landing and decided that I wanted to be an astronaut. But then over the page I had seen a photo of the crew capsule, charred and blackened by the heat of re-entry, bobbing on the surface of the ocean awaiting rescue and promptly changed my mind back again.
One idle afternoon not long after, I discovered the movie Space Camp on the shelves of my local video store. Set at the very real NASA summer camp in Huntsville, Alabama, this implausible adventure begins when a team of kids is accidentally launched into space aboard a runaway Shuttle which is, of course, something that could totally happen in real life. In order to get safely back home they have to work together, forge friendships, realise that they are more alike than they are different and risk an EVA (that’s Extra Vehicular Activity, or a space walk) to get a couple of oxygen tanks from a make-believe space station called Daedalus. You can guess how the story ends. Watching it, I was mesmerised by the pale, sleek beauty of the Orbiter floating above an iridescent earth, although decidedly unimpressed with the electroshock perm of a teenage Kelly Preston.
I thought the launch of a Space Shuttle was a wondrous thing. On ignition, its engines release a curtain of tiny sparks, before the vehicle – which looks more like an airplane than a spaceship – appears to alight with monstrous flames and ascend to the heavens atop a thick column of white smoke, taking only eight minutes to carry its astronaut crew into space.
Fourteen years passed and other dreams came and went. Then I found myself living less than sixty miles from the launch pads and the Kennedy Space Centre (KSC) Visitor Complex that had since sprung up around them.
Four weeks into my driving life, I decided I had had sufficient practice to make the trip out to Cape Canaveral.
Just after eight o’clock on the morning of March 14th, I pulled out of Broadwater in my little Mirage and hit the long, straight road baked white in the sun that would bring my car and I all the way to the coast.
Today was sure to be an emotional day, and not just because – as I think I’ve already proved – I tended to cry at the drop of a hat. Florida had finally made friends with me and today was the proof. Seeing the Cape for the first time would be like visiting an amusement park built just for me, a reminder of how living in Florida could be so much fun. I would be treading on the same asphalt as my astronaut heroes once had; I would be able to reach out and touch the black tiles of an Orbiter; my brand new credit card could be put to good use in the Space Shop, the largest store of its kind in the world. Knowing that one, let alone all, of these wonders would be likely to bring about tears or at least childlike excitement, I had thought it best to make this pilgrimage on my own and minimise the embarrassment. Besides, Eva was gone and I wasn’t really interested in going to KSC with anyone who had lived in Central Florida all their life and yet had never been.
That just didn’t say enthusiasm to me.
The night before my trip may as well have been Christmas Eve for all the sleep I got, so my first stop en route was my beloved Starbucks in the Premium Outlet mall. I stuck the first of three newly minted driving CDs into the stereo and eagerly joined the early morning traffic headed for the airport. According to MapQuest, the journey to KSC should take just under an hour, or about forty-five minutes longer than any single drive I had done before. I tried not to think about that, or the fact that driving alone on a learner’s permit could lose me my licence.
An hour, two CDs and three toll plazas later, I took a right turn onto State Road 405 and caught sight of the iconic Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) on the horizon, beyond a shimmering stretch of the Indian River.
On came the waterworks.
The only other time I’d seen the VAB in real life was from the window of the 747 that had brought me to Florida, back when my Mickey Mouse-shaped cup was overflowing with Disney excitement. It had proven to be a rocky few months, but now I finally felt like I was on my feet.
It was a full circle moment, as Oprah likes to say.
I nearly ran the car off the road when I spotted a Space Shuttle parked up ahead, but it turned out to be merely the scale model advertising the Astronaut Hall of Fame – AKA the poor man’s KSC – which I was planning to hit on the way back home.
After a bridge that carried me over the river, I found myself on official NASA soil. One sign welcomed me to KENNEDY SPACE CENTRE: AMERICA’S SPACEPORT (squeal!) while a second one warned me that the threat level was elevated (so no change there then).
Parking lots were still a bit nerve-wracking for me, but because I’d arrived early on a weekday morning in March, there were plenty of open spaces. Adorably, each section of the lot was named after a NASA astronaut, so I left the car with Wally Shirra and skipped up to the ticket booths, which I think were supposed to look like the International Space Station (ISS); the solar panels keeping ticket buyers in the shade while they waited. After purchasing a KSC Commander’s Club Annual Pass – are you jealous? – and passing through the metal detectors and bag search that post 9/11 America seems to love so damn much, I was finally in and standing in the middle of a large, open plaza.
The blue NASA logo was everywhere and I could see the tops of the Rocket Garden’s exhibits over the buildings to my left. My eyes came to rest on The Space Shop directly across from me and my credit card began to beat as if it had a pulse. No doubt my NASA shopping spree would be the highlight of the day, so it was best to leave it for last if I could.
Turning my head away from The Space Shop’s spoils, I consulted my park map. The KSC Visitor Complex has two main attractions for the entertainment of the space enthusiast and the occasional Discovery Channel watcher alike. There’s the Complex itself, with its IMAX theatre, exhibits and not long from now, a brand new amusement ride, and then there’s the bus tour which drives you through NASA’s history, making three stops along the way: the Launch Pad 39 Viewing Gantry, the Apollo/Saturn V (V as in the Roman numeral for five) Centre and the ISS Centre. The route also offers close-up views of NASA’s operations, including the Orbiter Processing Facility (OPF) where the Shuttles are prepared for flight, and the aforementioned VAB.
Have you had enough space-related acronyms yet? No? Good.
I hopped on the first bus. With my camera at the ready, we pulled out of the Visitor Complex. Our smiling, middle-aged tour guide narrated our journey and the small video screens onboard explained everything that happens at KSC, taking us through a Shuttle mission from beginning to end.
A large part of the complex was under construction. As well as a multi-million dollar refurbishment, KSC was getting its first ever thrill ride, the Space Shuttle Launch Simulation Facility, which was scheduled to open in the summer. In the meantime, signs asked visitors to ‘pardon the space dust’. And all this with money generated solely from ticket sales and donations – not a single taxpayer dollar was spent on the visitor facilities at KSC.
Our driver took us into the ‘restricted area’ and slowly around the VAB. We all craned our necks against the windows trying to get a good look at it.
Back when the VAB was under construction in the early 1960s, Life magazine sent a photographer down to the Cape to capture its size on film. He returned empty-handed. No matter how hard you tried, even your own eyes couldn’t fathom the true scale of this monolith, let alone a camera lens.
So let’s try some statistics instead.
At the time of its completion, the VAB was the largest manmade structure on earth in terms of volume. More than forty years later, it’s still the third largest. At 525 feet, it’s the highest point in the State of Florida. It takes forty-five minutes for each of the VAB’s four doors to fully retract and the United Nations building could easily fit through any one of them. An American flag is painted on one side; a Greyhound bus could drive down any one of its stripes with room to spare.
It is simply gargantuan.
One of the doors was partially open as we passed, and through the gap I could see the tail end of a Solid Rocket Booster (SRB). Right at that moment, the Space Shuttle Atlantis was inside undergoing repairs following a freak hailstorm that had damaged the nose of its External Fuel Tank (ET – not EFT, if you were guessing) while it was sitting on the very launch pad we were headed towards now.
To our left was the Crawler Way, along which the launch vehicle – the combination of an Orbiter or Space Shuttle, a rust-coloured ET and two white SRBs, if everyone’s still with me – is carefully moved to the launch pad at speeds of less than a mile an hour on top of a purpose-built machine that looks like four tanks linked together: the Crawler Transporter.
Along the Crawler Way to the right was our first stop; the Launch Complex 39 Viewing Gantry, where I watched a short film about Shuttle launches before climbing the stairs to get a better look. Unfortunately, a launch pad isn’t very exciting when there’s nothing on it – just a tower of grey steel, a lightning rod, and some cables – so I can’t say I was overly impressed.
In recent weeks – since my new car had led me to pass many an afternoon in the ‘Space’ section of my local Barnes and Noble – my NASA obsession had undergone a bit of a paradigm shift, and my admiration for the Space Shuttle program had begun to dwindle.
In its place, I was filled with awe at the glorious Apollo era, which I had started to understand was a far greater feat then slingshotting a can of man around the moon. In fact, the more I learned about it, the more I considered it to be the single most impressive thing ever achieved by the human race.
On September 12th, 1962, President John F. Kennedy dedicated the new NASA Manned Spacecraft Centre near Houston, Texas. Sixteen months earlier he had announced to Congress his conviction that the United States ‘should commit itself, before this decade is out, to landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to earth.’
Before the Soviets do it.
Two of the world’s biggest superpowers were locked in a race to space and, as the end of the decade approached, the US was lagging behind. Although the Soviet approach to space travel was generally haphazard, risky and held together with duct tape, it worked – so far, they could lay claim to the first man in space, the first woman in space and the first space-walk. All that was really left for NASA was to take the first footstep on the surface of the moon.
But that wouldn’t be easy.
Some people at NASA weren’t even sure it was possible.
For starters, man had never travelled anywhere near that far into space before. NASA Astronauts Dick Gordon and Pete Conrad held the distance record – 850 vertical miles above the earth on Gemini 12 – which was great and all, but the moon was another 249,150 miles away after that. It would take a three-man crew three days to get there and another three to get back – if they could get back, but that was a whole other problem – which meant that NASA would have to launch a crew module they could all fit in, a lunar module with which to land on the moon, as well as somewhere to store enough oxygen, fuel, food and water to keep everyone onboard alive and well for the mission’s duration.
The weight of all this couldn’t reach orbit on any of NASA’s existing rocketry, so a new, more powerful ‘moonrocket’ would have to be designed and built. This rocket would then launch the entire thing – crew module, service module, lunar module – into a ‘parking orbit’ 116 miles above the earth. Three hours later, or twice around, the crew would re-ignite the third stage or last part of their massive rocket and head off towards the moon at a speed of approximately 24,000 miles per hour. This manoeuvre was called Translunar Injection, or TLI. Six thousand miles after that, the delicate lunar module or LEM (for Lunar Excursion Module, more commonly called ‘the Lem,’), its skin thinner in places than a single sheet of tinfoil, would be taken out, turned around and docked with the Command and Service Module, or CSM, in an intricate weightless ballet that had no room for error. For the next three days, the crew would drift through the blackness of space until they were captured, some 30,000 miles out, by the moon’s gravity and pulled the rest of the way there. They would have to time it so that they arrived just as the moon itself, orbiting at speeds of around 2,000 miles an hour, was arriving too, and quickly nudge in front of it. Sixty-nine nautical miles above the moon’s surface, the crew would then attempt Lunar Orbit Insertion (LOI) which does exactly what it says on the tin, and once everything had been checked and was reported to be in good working order, two of our three spacemen would climb into the LEM and fly down to the lunar surface, leaving one behind in the CSM to twiddle his thumbs until they were finished.
But the LEM couldn’t land just anywhere. It had to aim for the landing spot recommended by NASA’s brainiest brain-boxes – and do it with a computer that can’t add two numbers together – or risk heading straight for a bottomless crater or a field of jagged boulders. If they did manage to land safely, the crew could get out and stretch their legs for a bit before getting back into the LEM and taking off. If they could take off; the ascent engine had no redundancy. It would either work, or it wouldn’t. If it does work, the crew would then have to fly back up to the CSM’s orbit, catch it as it passed by and reconnect both modules before all three men – and, fingers crossed, some lunar rocks – could embark on the quarter of a million mile journey back home. Once they reached us, they’d aim for the one tiny dot on the earth’s surface through which they could safely re-enter, dropping like a stone through the atmosphere at a speed of 24,000 miles an hour and, don’t forget, on fire, after which they’d hopefully drop slowly to the surface of the ocean and wait patiently for a helicopter ride back to dry land.
Well, that’s if the parachutes opened, of course.
At NASA headquarters in Washington D.C., the joke had been that the only real challenge JFK had set them was the ‘safely’ part. They were pretty sure they could get a man on the moon, but not without risking his life before, during and afterwards. The task was mammoth, riddled with complications and not helped by the seemingly impossible end-of-decade deadline. It’s difficult to imagine it now, all these years later and from the advantage of a technologically advanced time, but NASA was trying to go to the moon in the face of total ignorance.
Nobody knew if man could even survive in space for that length of time – some of medicine’s leading minds postulated that all three astronauts would be long dead from radiation poisoning before they even caught sight of the moon.
One NASA think tank even suggested sending a man to the moon as soon as possible and leaving him up there until they figured out a way to get him back. At least this way, they’d be sure to make their deadline and beat the Russians.
But somehow they solved the problem. Four hundred thousand of America’s brightest minds (and a rather famous one of Germany’s, rocket genius Werner Von Braun) put their brainy heads together and figured it all out. While the astronauts were the public face of the space program, posing with their wives for Life magazine covers and cutting the ribbons of new car dealerships, NASA’s army of physicists, engineers and mathematicians worked from dusk ‘til dawn in back rooms across the country to make sure they actually got to the moon and back again.
Which was how, three days before Christmas 1968, NASA Astronauts Frank Borman, Jim Lovell and Bill Anders found themselves the very first men on their way there.
At the Apollo/Saturn V Centre to the west of Launch Complex 39, my fellow bus passengers and I waited patiently outside a set of double doors and watched a digital clock count down to zero.
This is what I really came to see, and I couldn’t wait. I was a little confused though, because I had thought there was supposed to be a Saturn V moonrocket inside here somewhere and yet this building in front of me was only three or four storeys tall.
I was pretty sure the Saturn V was a little bit bigger than that.
When the clock finally reached zero, the doors opened to reveal a small, dark space. Three screens were hanging from the ceiling. A KSC staff member picked up a microphone and welcomed us, before a ten-minute film about how NASA got as far as Apollo 8 began. By the time we got to Kennedy’s rousing speech – ‘We do these things…not because they are easy, but because they are hard’ – I was already welling up.
All this stuff was just so goddamn inspiring. I couldn’t help myself.
When the film ended – leaving us only hours from Apollo 8’s historic launch and the first real test of a Saturn V rocket – doors opened in front of us and we filed into a mock-up of the Firing Room, or Launch Control, as it looked in 1968. The workstations and displays are the real thing, and I got a kick out of the thought that NASA knew they had made a contribution to history so significant that it was required of them to preserve their clunky computer terminals for future generations to admire. Astronaut Jim Lovell appeared on screens above us and his buttery drawl filled the room. He was there to talk us through a re-enactment of Apollo 8’s launch.
Apollo 8 was going to make or break NASA’s bid for a lunar landing. If everything went to plan, its crew would be the first to leave earth, traverse space and enter lunar orbit. If it didn’t, three astronauts could be left forever circling the moon in a sarcophagus that America built and at Christmas time, no less. That’s if NASA’s slide rules, orbital mechanics and arithmetic were all sound and they managed to make it to the moon in the first place.
While Lovell talked about sitting in a tiny capsule fixed to the top of a Saturn V like the tip of the lead on a pencil, the screen showed hundreds of thousands of people gathered on the NASA Causeway and along the Indian River’s banks to watch them fly to the moon on flames. As the Saturn V shook and shimmied and roared to life, it began to shed the blanket of ice that had formed on it while it waited, a hail of broken pieces that fell to the ground in showers, blurring the white edges of the rocket as it struggled to free itself from the launch pad’s bonds. Flight Director Gene Kranz said it looked and sounded like it was alive.
Hold onto your hats, people.
At 363 feet tall, the Saturn V rocket had sixty feet on the Statue of Liberty and was longer than two Space Shuttles parked end to end. It weighed 6,000,000 pounds at launch and produced 7,500,000 pounds of thrust, or 160,000,000 horsepower. With the sole exception of a nuclear bomb, it produced the loudest noise ever made by the hand of man. It had nearly 6,000,000 moving parts but never failed, reliable enough to send Apollo 8 to the moon on only its third ever flight. No one could be closer to it than three miles at launch; the Saturn had the explosive power of a million pounds of TNT and the shock waves alone would be enough to kill you. It burnt through twenty tons of fuel every second, or ten times more than Charles Lindbergh used to fly his solo-engine plane from New York to Paris only forty years earlier.
After the simulated launch, complete with vibrations rattling the windows behind us, Lovell casually mentioned that he flew on two Saturns, the other being in April 1970 and on Apollo 13.
‘But that’s another story,’ he quipped.
As his grandfatherly face faded out to black, yet another set of magic doors opened on the opposite side. Little Miss Eager Beaver here had been the first one in and now I was the first one out.
I was thinking, Poor Jim Lovell. He never got to walk on the-
[Prolonged pause with mouth hanging open.]
I was twenty feet from the engine bell-end of a Saturn V, lying on its side and suspended on a frame above the floor. As people exited the Firing Room, conversation was stopping and footsteps were squeaking to a sudden halt on the linoleum floor.
I walked around a bit, trying to take in the length, the sheer size, the circumference. Digital camera operators backed up against the windows behind us but still couldn’t get more than a piece of it into a frame. About halfway down the exhibit hall people were sitting at the Moon Rock Cafe’s tables, their eyes fixed on the monster above them while they absentmindedly shovelled pizza and fries into their mouths.
I was in the presence of an actual moonrocket. After landing five Apollo crews on the lunar surface, and with the Soviets well and truly beat, Americans turned their backs on the space program and NASA’s once limitless funding all but dried up; the remaining Apollo missions were cancelled. While I was happy to see a real Saturn V at KSC, it should have been used to take men to the moon on Apollos 18 or 19. Instead, this Saturn V was helping visitors from all over the world understand the true meaning of the phrase ‘mind-boggling.’ Taking in its stats made my brain ache like it did when I tried to make sense of what was going on with Lost.
All day the dying embers of my Space Shuttle love affair had been threatening to go out forever and now seeing the Saturn V had just thrown ice-cold water over whatever was left. The Apollo program suddenly had what I’d once thought was exclusive to the Shuttle fleet: space sexiness. Yeah, the Orbiter was aerodynamic and sleek and cool and all, but just look at that Saturn V. They just strapped three guys to the top of this thing and lit it. They just set this monster alight!
Clearly I needed to calm down, so I walked purposefully to the other end of the hall and had a look at the Astronaut Van while simultaneously ignoring The Right Stuff gift shop on the other side. (Are those NASA logo travel mugs?) I lined up at the Lunar Theatre for a short presentation about Neil’s small step and how it had enveloped the entire world in awe.
‘For the first time,’ the voice-over said, ‘We were one people, with one history.’
I could cry right now, just thinking about it.
I decided to leave the ISS Centre for another day – there were sure to be plenty more of them over the next twelve months, now that I had my annual pass – and got on a bus that would take me back to the Visitor Complex.
En route, a video talked about how Merritt Island (the bit of the Cape that isn’t KSC) is a nature reserve full of manatees, gators and birdlife, to name but a few. I was wondering how much more vicious the gators got when they’ve been all riled up by the vibrations of a Shuttle launch, when our driver stopped the bus to point out a bald eagle’s nest in a tree on the roadside up head. Everyone else on the bus nearly broke their necks trying to get a good look but I was like, hello? I’m here to see space stuff, not Animal Planet Live.
I arrived right on time (i.e. thirty minutes early) for the next showing of Magnificent Desolation: Walking on the Moon, an IMAX movie presented by Tom Hanks, unofficial leader of the Armchair Astronauts. A space cadet since childhood, Hanks played Jim Lovell in the movie Apollo 13 and went on to produce From the Earth to the Moon, a mini-series about the Apollo programme, which I had spent a glorious weekend watching from beginning to end.
I bought some M&Ms and a Coke from a lady who told me it was her dream to work in Disney World – I wanted to grab her by the shoulders and say, ‘You work in KSC, woman. Get a grip!’ – and took my seat in the theatre among sunburned British tourists, Type A American parents and the hyperactive offspring of both.
Seated in the row in front of me was a young couple fighting because Mummy had got herself a pair of 3D glasses and a pair for Daddy but neglected to get any for their young daughter who was sitting between them. After sulking in silence for a while, the woman turned to her husband and asked, ‘Where is the Space Station?’
‘I don’t know what you mean.’
‘Like, where is it exactly?’
‘I know it’s in space, honey. I’m not stupid.’
‘Then I don’t get what you’re asking me.’
‘I mean where is it. Like is it over France, or over China, or…’
I tried to turn off my ears, like I have to do in Epcot when I overhear blonde cheerleaders in shorts so short they should really only be worn under other shorts say things like, ‘Well, the UK pavilion is like, totally Ireland as well. They’re like, the same.’ Either only stupid people come to Florida on vacation or there’s some weird wrinkle in the space/time continuum that dumbs down everybody upon arrival. No doubt when Space Station Mummy got to Magic Kingdom, she’d be asking the Cast Members there at what time she should expect the three o’clock parade.
After a thoroughly enjoyable trip to the moon with Astronaut Hanks, I had a quick look in the Shuttle Explorer, a full-scale Orbiter replica whose interior KSC visitors can tour. It wasn’t very…well, it wasn’t very anything, really. The Boeing 747 that had brought me here from Ireland would completely dwarf it. Climbing the walkway, I passed displays highlighting the benefits of the Shuttle program for the rest of us back here on earth. Apparently experiments carried out onboard had resulted in safer roads, something about seat-belts, an environmental thingy…
It just all seemed a little desperate. The Shuttle never ventured further than 200 miles above the earth (or not very far, space-wise) and had cost – was still costing – billions and billions of taxpayer dollars. The more you looked around KSC, the more signs you saw that NASA was trying to win Space Shuttle fans.
I couldn’t imagine the Saturn V pleading for support. It didn’t have to. Just looking at it made you dizzy. Did I tell you they just strapped three guys to the top of that thing and lit it? They just set it alight! They just-
My crossover to fully-fledged Apollo Gal now complete, I stopped at the Astronaut Memorial, a large black ‘space mirror’ that reflects the names of all the astronauts lost to the exploration of space. It includes the crews of Apollo 1 (1967) and the Space Shuttles Challenger (1986) and Columbia (2003), and is maintained by the Astronaut Memorial Fund who collect a portion of the price of every special Challenger/Columbia license plate purchased in the State of Florida. Needless to say, one of them was on the back of my Mirage out in Wally Shirra.
The Space Shop, unsurprisingly, was two levels of everything I could have hoped for and more. I emerged after a heady forty-five minutes marvelling at my self-control. I had only bought a NASA baseball cap, an ‘I Need My Space’ keychain, a print of the moon and two books: Light This Candle: The Life and Times of Alan Shepard by Neal Thompson and Apollo by Charles Murray and Catherine Cox. Also in my possession: a list as long as the Saturn V of stuff I wanted to buy on my next visit.
Later on, six miles back along SR405, I couldn’t quite figure out the Astronaut Hall of Fame. Admission is included with your KSC ticket and, in a display of Shuttle-like desperation, it stays open an hour later, hoping to snare you on the way home. The propaganda included with my KSC map claimed that the Hall of Fame was ‘an interactive look at the life of an astronaut’ and that it told the ‘human story behind space travel…through the largest collection of personal astronaut memorabilia ever assembled.’ There were also the ‘stunning glass etchings’ in the Hall of Heroes to look forward to. But as I pulled up outside a dirty white building surrounded by cracked pavement and stray weeds, I wondered if I had the right place.
Inside, the building had the noise of a public library and the liveliness of a morgue. The woman at reception directed me down a dark corridor towards a set of doors with automatic opening warnings.
Pushed against one wall were two garden benches. I’m not kidding – they were literally garden benches, the kind with varnished slats for a seat and a wrought iron frame. The TV monitors above the doors were switched off. After waiting for a few minutes and with nothing happening, my patience fizzled and I pushed open the doors.
Beyond was near total darkness. As my eyes adjusted, I saw rows and rows of seats – empty seats – and a small projection screen at the top of the room. On the other side an identical set of double doors were just sliding closed. I took a seat, completely alone in the theatre at four in the afternoon.
A short film began to play, most of it completely out of focus. As best I could tell through the blur, it had something to do with Magellan, or maybe Columbus, with a little bit about Neil Armstrong thrown in at the end. A comparative study, maybe? I didn’t really care. I was just after seeing the moon in all its IMAX 3-D glory and now I was trapped here, being subjected to someone’s best efforts with Windows Movie Maker.
After five long minutes, the wretched thing ended and I was free to escape. On the other side of the doors was what I presumed was the promised ‘collection of personal astronaut memorabilia’ in glass display cases. There were some interesting items, including an original Apollo 11 flight plan and a Western Union telegram from President Gerald Ford to the parents of Apollo 1’s Roger Chaffee, offering the President and First Lady’s condolences.
The Hall of Heroes, although aptly named, was more disturbing than stunning. Tall blue podiums displayed eerie glass etchings of all the Hall of Famers, including Orlando’s own John Young, one of NASA’s most experienced astronauts and the namesake of one of the city’s main thoroughfares, John Young Parkway. On learning of this honour, Young reportedly said dryly, ‘Them boys shouldn’t have done that. I ain’t dead yet.’
I strode past the ‘simulators’ and ‘hands-on activity’ area – empty save for a couple of unsupervised kids running riot – and also managed to bypass my fourth space-themed gift shop of the afternoon.
More importantly, I made it all the way back to Orlando without getting pulled over. All in all, a successful day.
Of course, Apollo 8 made it to the moon.
NASA Astronauts Borman, Lovell and Anders entered lunar orbit on Christmas Eve, 1968, after a near perfect trip of a quarter of a million miles. Their names would go down in history as the first among humankind to leave the bonds of earth behind them and bravely venture into the black and endless still of space.
Due to the angle at which Apollo 8 approached, the moon was hidden from them until they were practically upon it. Then it swung out from the shadows, its grey and pockmarked surface illuminated by the bright light of the sun, filling the windows of their Command Module and touching the eyes of mankind for the very first time.
At 8.11pm, these three explorers began their ninth and penultimate orbit of the moon while back on earth, half a billion people tuned in for their live television broadcast.
The men began by sharing their impressions of the lunar surface, sixty-nine nautical miles below. They saw it as something both familiar and foreign, and they believed it offered them no invitation. The most surprising thing about travelling to the moon, they thought, was how small the earth seemed to be when they looked back at it – just a little thumbprint of a planet, suspended in a lonely vista. The astronauts were moved by the sight of their first ‘earthrise’ and Bill Anders took a picture of it to show the rest of us back home.
Before they signed off, the crew of Apollo 8 said they had a special message for the people of earth. Anders flipped through the flight plan until he reached the extra insert at the back. Then he took a breath and began to read.
‘In the beginning,’ he said, ‘God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the spirit of God moved upon the face of the water. And God said, Let there be light…and there was light.’
Three days prior to this, Mission Control had advised Apollo 8 that they were ‘go to TLI’. A Man on the Moon author Andrew Chaikin calls this ‘one of the most momentous directives ever given.’ With this, man left the earth and made for the moon.
But that was just the beginning. After Apollo 11 in July 1969, five more Apollo crews landed on the moon1 and, on December 13th, 1972, Astronaut Gene Cernan was the last man to leave it. He and Harrison Schmitt had lived and worked on the lunar surface for three days and driven across its harsh terrain on a battery-powered car called the Lunar Rover.
More than thirty-five years later, Cernan can still say he was the last man on the moon.
The Apollo program was born of a race for supremacy and power. It was a task that united a nation and captivated the world, and it should have changed the course of our history forever. Even today, we should still be shaking our heads, wondering how such a thing could have been possible.
But just two missions after the first lunar landing, we had already changed the channel. Until an oxygen tank exploded onboard Apollo 13′s Service Module, most people weren’t even aware that anyone was up there – not one TV station carried the crew’s live broadcast before the incident occurred. Of course, they were all replaying it afterwards.
Some people say the Apollo program never happened2, while others say we cannot justify the expense of space exploration when problems closer to home need fixing. And to be honest, were I called upon to justify the Space Shuttle program, the construction of the ISS or – our next step – returning to the moon with an eye on Mars, I probably couldn’t come up with anything better than I just think that we should.
Apollo is more than science or teamwork or exploration – it’s inspiration. When Apollo 17’s Cernan talks to schoolchildren about his time in space, he tells them to take the word ‘impossible’ out of their vocabulary, because how can anything be impossible when he can say that he lived on the moon for three days and that he did it almost forty years ago?
We sent men to the moon at a time when the gap between such a triumph of technology and our everyday lives was just too great to span any real understanding of what was taking place. But the gap is far smaller today and we can now – we should now – turn back to that decade, when a piece of the future was transported to the past, and look at it anew.
The greatest lesson to be learned from travelling to the moon is one about ourselves here on earth and what we are capable of achieving. If you ever forget how great we all are, how magnificent and amazing and brilliant we are; if you ever doubt for a second just how much we can achieve, then walk outside some night and look up at the moon. Remind yourself that once, not long ago, one of us was up there.
And he was driving around in a car.
Back on Apollo 8, as both the crew’s broadcast and Christmas Eve 1968 came to a close, Astronaut Borman said, ‘Good night, good luck, a Merry Christmas, and God bless all of you, all of you on the good earth.’