The premier tourist attraction in the Titusville area is the Kennedy Space Center. The space center and Cape Canaveral, which also played a major part in US space accomplishments are located on Merritt Island and separated by the Banana River. Together they comprise a land mass larger than the state of Rhode Island. It is impossible to see it all, but while we are here we will give it a good try. We've been here once before, but while this is a dynamic area rich in historic technological endeavors, it is also the location of constant exploration and innovation so it is unlikely that the tour we took twenty years ago included much of what's going on today. As we left the parking lot, it seemed like we were the only native English speakers there. The rest of the world obviously shares our desire to push the bounds of where man can travel and see things for himself. Later we learned that almost forty other countries have sent astronauts to the international space station.
Today we took a tour called "Cape Canaveral: Now & Then", which made us feel like we are historical artifacts who belong in a museum ourselves. Although I have forgotten some of the names and precise dates, the early space program is very vivid in our memories. Cape Canaveral was and is an air force base, and during World War II work was being done there on building missiles that could carry bombs. The Germans were working on this challenge as well and after the war, some of their best and brightest were brought here to help us. Undoubtedly some had been enthusiastic Nazis, but in our competition with the Russians who also profited from German brain power, it was easy to overlook these inconvenient details.
Once the Russians launched Sputnik we began to worry that they could spy on us or rain bombs on our heads from space and the work went into high gear. It took a while to get going; we saw many videos of rockets exploding. They needed lots of launch pads because so many were damaged by exploding rockets. Cape Canaveral was full of launching pads with block houses alongside where the technicians monitored the equipment and pressed the "go" button. Initially, they were as close as 300 yards away from the rocket since moving farther away gave them less control and immediate feedback. Of course, all their computer systems and consoles with vacuum tubes and blinking lights looked truly medieval. The phones in our pockets have more brain power.
During those early uncertain years the Russians sent up dogs and we sent up monkeys. We saw the monkey capsule where the monkeys proved that living things could perform tasks in space. When Alan Shepard, the first American in space went up, he said "they ran out of monkeys." At the time President Kennedy issued his famous challenge to land on the moon within the decade, Shepard had been in the air six minutes and flown from Cape Canaveral to the Bahamas. That's chutzpah.
We saw the spot where the tragic Apollo 1 fire took the lives of Gus Grissom, Edward White and Roger Chaffee at Launch Complex 34 in 1967. Their deaths shook NASA to the core and years went by as they reworked and reviewed all aspects of the space capsule and launch mechanisms to ensure that it did not happen again. Last night family members came to this spot to leave a plaque and a flower wreathe to commemorate their ultimate sacrifice.
The Cape Canaveral base became too small to accommodate the construction needed for the Apollo program and the Kennedy Space Center was built across the river. Many of the old launch pads and buildings have deteriorated in the salt air and Mother Nature has covered over much of the land, but activity has begun once again as SpaceX and the Boeing Corporation have purchased some of the facilities. They are planning to send astronauts to the International Space Station in two years, so we can stop relying on our Russian friends. They are already bringing supplies to the station. Private industry is taking over the routine work in space; launching satellites for communications and scientific monitoring will become money makers. NASA will continue with the cutting edge exploration. Going to Mars is the next big goal. Like most of us NASA has money problems; the Pentagon spends their annual budget every seven days.
We learned and remembered so much on this tour that I could go on and on. But we will be returning to the space center again in a few days and I'll have the opportunity to write about it all again.