Today I had the chance to visit Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral. I was there with my family, plus Andy Seely (who guided us there with his awesome wayfinding superpowers) and his two sons. It was an amazing time, and I want to write this down while it's fresh in my mind.
Side note: I don't have much in the way of pictures. There are lots of pictures that are much better than anything I'll be able to take, and I didn't want to be distracted from being there and really seeing what was in front of me.
First up was looking at the Mercury, Gemini and Agena rockets. It was incredible to see how small they were -- not just the capsules, but the rockets themselves. The only rocket we'd seen previously was the first successfully landed first stage of a Falcon 9, and these things were (I think) well under its height. And the size of the Mercury and Gemini capsules -- wow. I knew they were small, but this was just incredible. (Unfortunately, I didn't think to pay much attention to the Agena rocket -- it would have been interesting to look at it and think about the various EVAs the Gemini astronauts did when around it.)
Next up was the Atlantis Space Shuttle. It wasn't direct -- instead, like a theme park ride, there was a lineup (though, since we were there on a Wednesday, it was incredibly short), then a film, and then the great unveiling. And man...I did not anticipate being awed by a Shuttle, but I was. No offense to the shuttle; it's the Apollo missions that really awe me, and going to see Atlantis was more in the "Eh, we're here, why not?" category. But seeing it...WOW. It was amazingly big, and the way they've got it displayed -- horizontal, wings angled like it's banking in flight, cargo bay open -- really shows that off. I was awestruck.
One cool thing: Andy and I talked to the docent, who was a retired NASA employee. It turned out he had not only worked on certain Shuttle subsystems (hydrogen tanks, IIRC) but had also been involved in the canceled Resource Prospector mission, a rover that would have gone to the moon to pave the way for ISRU. Once he figured out we were space nerds that he could geek out in front of, he talked in depth about the work he was doing, the pain of seeing the mission cancelled, and some frank talk about SLS and commercial options. It was fascinating. KSC has a "Lunch with an Astronaut" program...which should thrill me to death, but for some reason does not. I'd totally go for a "Take a Docent to Lunch" program though. (Still don't understand this part of my brain; I think both could talk in equally technical depth about their work, and I think both would be fascinating.)
After that we went through the Shuttle Launch Experience; it was fun for me, but my youngest son found it pretty scary, so that wasn't good. (I think he's pretty much put off on the idea of ever going to space now.) After that, lunch...and then...
...the Kennedy Space Center Bus Tour, which took us by the Vehicle Assembly Building, Historic Launch Pad 39A, and some other launch pads as well (39B, maybe? my memory is already gone.) This was interesting, but seeing everything from such a distance made it hard to get a sense of scale. I was disappointed that the SpaceX Falcon 9 for Merah Putih was not out...but now that I check the launch calendar, I see that it has been delayed again 'til August 7th. Boo.
The KSC bus tour drops you off at the Apollo/Saturn V center; again, you have to go through a film (interesting), then sit in the Firing Room (launch control for the Apollo missions) to watch another film (mildly interesting) before you get to the meat of the center: the Saturn V mounted on its side, where you can walk underneath it and see just how freaking HUGE this thing is. It was jaw-dropping. This was the awe I expected, and it in no way disappointed. Walking out under the F1 engines was incredible...and only beat by walking the length of the rocket to see the incredibly tiny (by comparison) command module up at the very top.
And the only thing that beat that was a lunar module hanging from the ceiling. It had been built for Apollo 15, but was replaced by a newer module. It was amazing to see it, to see how simultaneously big and tiny it was.
After that, we caught the bus back to the main visitor center. We bought souvenirs, and drove off to return to Tampa. (Another side note: Orlando traffic is truly shitty.)
So. What to say about all this?
Seeing these things is like going to church. I'm staunchly atheist, but I'm pretty sure that the sense of awe and wonder and grandeur and tearing up and wanting to cry is a decent approximation of what a devout person feels approaching the holy.
At the same time, it's hard for me to not notice all the Wondrous! Space! Music! that's playing everywhere. It is stirring! and uplifting! and like eating an inspiration sundae every 15 minutes! By which I mean it's cloying after a while!
I dropped a stupid amount of money at the souvenir shop, knowing full well what I was doing and doing it anyway.
I tried hard not to be a full nerd, but it was hard not to cringe every time something mentioned SLS launching in 2018, JWST launching in 2019, the Asteroid Redirect Mission or the Journey to Mars. (If you're not a space nerd: those are either optimistic schedules that have been overtaken by events, or NASA goals that were given to them by one administration and removed by another. And for the record, I would LOVE it if all those things were to happen on time.)
There was a woman wearing a ULA hat and a Parker Space Probe hat. I complimented her on both, and it turns out she's on the integration team for the PSP, and was there with her family on a tourist outing in the middle of her work. I shook her hand and wished her the best of luck with the launch.
There is a lot of "Thank you for your service" aimed at military service people in the US. This can extend to things like "...and here's 10% off your next mattress purchase." This strikes me as a bit over the top...but I still wanted to thank the NASA docent for their service to, I guess, humanity.
I could totally see myself coming back and spending a few days visiting this place alone. I felt the same way when I visited the Grand Canyon.
I am extremely grateful to family and friends for coming along with me. These things are neat, but like anything else they are not everyone's cup of tea.
The bus tour is fun...but the videos they play on the bus are a way of passing the time during what is a very long drive between interesting things.
I'd love to see the VAB from the inside to get a better sense of scale.
The souvenir shop had prints of Apollo 11 pictures signed by Buzz Aldrin for $1800 each. I was tempted.
A few weeks back, it looked like there was a good chance that 2 rockets would be lifting off around this time. That has not happened. In a way, I'm grateful...this was already a long day, and I think adding a launch to it would only have made it longer (or pushed other stuff to a future visit.)
So one of the first things NASA's gonna do now that Curiosity has landed is upgrade the software:
Sols 5-8: Flight software upgrade. They need to move from version 9 of the flight software, which operates Curiosity as a spacecraft, to version 10, which is designed to operate Curiosity as a landed, roving vehicle. The software was already uploaded to Curiosity while it was on its way to Mars, but it'll still take four days to install and check out the operating system upgrade on both of its redundant main computers.