T minus Zero!
Apr 18, 2008
|. . and we have liftoff! - Friday, April 18
Today's adventure took us back to Merritt Island and Cape Canaveral, but this time to see the wonders of the Kennedy Space Center. We've been here before, and this is the third time for me, but it's always changing and always a thrill to see it again.
At the entrance we booked a 2:30 Up-Close Guided Tour that will take us out to the shuttle launch pads and has a well informed guide to explain it all. It's more expensive than the general tour but how often do we get here? With the shuttle program scheduled to end in two years this may be our last chance to see this history making phase.
It's the off season and the center is not crowded. There are the usual school groups of clueless teenagers, but the atmosphere is cool and the impact of the place gets through, even to them. We had some time before our tour started, so we spent it going through the shuttle model and watching an excellent 3D IMAX movie on the moon landings. The movie was titled Magnificent Desolation - and it was.
We just had time to grab some lunch and it was time for the tour. We boarded the bus with a driver and guide - two old guys who seem to enjoy doing this in their retirement, and headed out to see more of the KSC.
We toured the administrative complex, and drove by the buildings where the astronauts train and prep for the flights, and then passed the gigantic Vehicle Assembly Building (formerly the Vertical Assembly Building). One of the doors was open, so we got a rare glimpse of a part of the shuttle inside. The press viewing area is located at the VAB, and as far as it is from the launch sites, it's interesting to note that this is as close as it's safe to be!
We followed the wide stone paved tracks the crawlers use to take the shuttle and mobile launch pad assembly out to the launch sites, and they took us first to Pad 39A, the only pad currently in use, and the pad that every moon landing flight took off from. The launch when Challenger tragically exploded took off from Pad 39B.
The guide explained everything with humor and a good sense of history, and we learned a lot. The bus stopped at a ridge overlooking the ocean, where we could see and photograph both pad sites. The guide said that at 400 feet from the pad the heat would kill you. At 800 feet from the pad the noise would still kill you, and at 4,000 feet from the pad the snakes and alligators would probably kill you because the noise really stirs them up!
Only a rescue crew is stationed in a blast proof building near the site, and everyone else watches the launch from about three and a half miles away! No vehicles are left out there either because the blast would blow out all their windows. The few small windows in the nearby buildings are made of bullet proof glass.
The water tower near the pad has a huge pipe coming out of it, and it's job is to deliver some 360,000 gallons of water to flood the pad in the first nine seconds. Most of that white billowing around the launch is steam from that water. A number of times the bus stopped so the driver or guide could point out an eagle or alligator. They are all over the place.
From the pad the bus took us back to the VAB and stopped so we could get out and take pictures. An Asian man asked me if I would take a picture of him with his camera. He was from Connecticut and said coming here was a lifelong dream of his. He kindly reciprocated and took one of us.
From there we toured the shuttle processing area and then out to the orbiter landing site, which is a 17,000 foot long strip of pavement that is 300 feet wide. That is several thousand feet longer than the longest commercial landing strip anywhere in the world - because the shuttle comes in at nearly twice the speed of a commercial plane. It lands at over 200 mph and only lowers it's landing gear a few seconds before touchdown so the wind doesn't blow it off.
Our last stop was the Apollo-Saturn V Center where we saw a movie about the moon shot launches and then went in to see the mind boggling actual vehicle stretched out on stands over 400 feet long, and nearly touching a ceiling that must be at least 60 feet high. I've seen it three times now, and it never fails to blow me away, with it's breathtaking size and mind numbing complexity.
At take-off the astronauts are sitting atop a mass of propellant that has the explosive force of a nuclear bomb. Shuttle statistics say that at launch the vehicle assembly weighs 4.5 million pounds, and that 3.8 million pounds of that is propellant that is consumed in 8.5 minutes!
Astronauts acknowledge the risk, saying that when you board a vehicle that is 91% explosives and venture into the most hostile environment imaginable the element of risk is always there, but it is a risk they willingly take for the opportunity to go where few if any of us will ever go.
Back at the visitor complex we spent our last hour taking the realistic Shuttle Launch Experience Simulator, and then toured an exhibit on recent and future space ventures, like the Cassini probe of Saturn, and the Mars orbiters and explorers. There is more to see, but the center was closing and it will have to wait for another visit. Maybe after 2010 when the Ares 1 and Ares V projects get under way. They are being designed for a return of men to the moon with the ultimate goal of building a moon station there someday.
And after that . . . . .?