Florida is all about theme parks and thrill rides, right? Wrong. For real lift-off, the most exciting day out is an hour from Orlando: Kennedy Space Center
“That’s one small step for a man...” With those words, Neil Armstrong became the first human being to set foot on the moon. It was on July 20, 1969. But as the world celebrates that 40th anniversary, the excitement of the dream – and the reality – of space travel lives on at Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
Orlando is world-famous for its thrill rides and theme parks, but Kennedy Space Center is number one on my list of Florida attractions. An hour east of Orlando, KSC (as it is known) is on a barrier island on the Atlantic Coast. The excitement here is for real: rockets really do blast off into space and the celebrities that you meet are real space travellers. With IMAX films and rocks from Mars, audio-visuals and simulators that make you feel like astronauts, there is more than enough to keep the family busy for two days.
First and foremost, KSC is enormous. So, to get a feel for the place, I take the free bus tour that includes the highlights. Listening to the audio guide, the statistics come thick and fast. For example, the VAB, the Vehicle Assembly Building, stands 50 storeys high and was home to the Apollo/Saturn V rockets that took men to the moon. Nowadays, space shuttles are stacked here before launch. Each of the four doors measures 139 metres tall – that is higher than the London Eye!
When I get off at the Apollo/Saturn V Center, I relive the excitement of the Apollo missions. “Three, two, one... we have lift-off!” Apollo 8 took astronauts Frank Borman, James Lovell and William Anders into lunar orbit. Watching the huge screen, the tension as they go ‘behind the moon’ is followed by relief when they are once again in radio contact with the Earth. Then the cinema doors open and there is the real thing: a Saturn V. The enormity of this rocket stops me in my tracks. Although it is longer than a football field, the actual Command Module is tiny. Yet this cramped combo of cockpit, kitchen, office and toilet was home to the crew for six days back in 1968.
Toilets have a curious fascination for visitors, especially children. At the International Space Station Center, the first questions are all about the ‘waste management facilities’ used in space. The answer is space loos, with their ingenious hoses, handles and foot holders. See them as you walk through the full-scale mock-ups of the astronauts’ living and working areas. Then watch the technicians as they work on equipment for the space station that orbits 220 miles above the earth.
Back at the Visitor Complex, there is still plenty to do. Meet a space man (or woman!) at the daily Astronaut Encounter. Take the Shuttle Launch Experience to strap in, feel the forces on blast off and see the earth from space as astronauts do. Watch IMAX films, made with footage shot by NASA astronauts. Forget hi-tech special effects – these views of space and the moon are the real thing!
Over at the US Astronaut Hall of Fame, the focus is on the men and women who have blasted away from planet earth. I like the timeline that puts the early space exploration into the context of the Cold War and the upheavals of the Sixties. As for Apollo 13, the “Houston, we have a problem” mission, I peer into a glass case, to see the flight book that belonged to Fred Haise, one of the three astronauts on that famous journey.
All these and more are free with the price of admission, which is good for two days. But KSC also has special programmes that need to be booked and paid for in advance. During ‘Lunch with an Astronaut’ I was part of a small group, so I could ask questions of a NASA astronaut. It was so interesting that I almost forget to eat my meal!
Then, there is the Astronaut Training Experience, or ATX. Whether you choose the full or half-day programme, you undergo some of the tests and preparation as NASA’s finest. I am game for most things, but baulked at the multi-axis trainer. As well as spinning round and round, this machine pitched, yawed and rolled in three different directions – all at once. It looked as much fun as sitting in a tumble-dryer, but others yee-hawed with excitement as their senses, and stomachs, were tested.
More fun was dangling in a bouncy harness 15 feet above the floor. Feeling like Spiderman, I grasped the wall bars and tried to ‘walk’ down the Zero-Gravity Wall. A moment’s loss of concentration and my grip slipped; up I zoomed, to the top of the wall. At the end of the programme, our team ‘launched’ a rocket. My role was part of Mission Control, others were crammed into the ‘space shuttle’. Even though the rocket never moved an inch, we felt as if the successful ‘lift off’ had been a real achievement.