This post is part of a series of stories from our 2018 trip to Florida.
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With his interest in all things space and space travel increasing by the day, it was only a matter of time before Colt and I would plan a trip — pilgrimage? — to Kennedy Space Center in Florida. His school schedule is a bit different this year — including a week-long fall intersession break — so we made plans to catch Orlando in the blissfully less crowded off-season.
As we typically do in trip planning, we’d done our homework on Kennedy. Colt wanted to do and see every last exhibit and film and nook and cranny so it became clear early on that we’d need more than one day. Then it became a game to see how many special tours and experiences we could fit into two days without anything overlapping or running us ragged. I jigsawed everything together, ordered our tickets (and myself a NASA shirt.. because you gotta look the part), and we drove through the rain that first morning to arrive at the gate as the sky cleared to give us THIS.
It would be but the first time I got teary-eyed that day.
The complex is roughly organized in zones based on chronological era of American space exploration — from the earliest days of the first Americans in space to the Apollo program that put Americans on the moon to the current exploration of Mars and future plans to explore Mars and beyond. I was particularly fortunate to have a walking space dictionary/encyclopedia/trivia game right there with me, but it’s a beautiful and inspiring place even if space isn’t your thing.
A quick cheat sheet for fellow space amateurs:
- There were three chapters of the journey to the moon: Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo.
- MERCURY (1 astronaut). Primary goal: get an astronaut into orbit.
- GEMINI (2 astronauts). Primary goals: accomplish specific tasks that would be needed later for moon landing (i.e. docking two spacecraft together in space)
- APOLLO (3 astronauts). Primary goal: put a man on the moon.
- Each phase had several missions: Mercury flew missions 1-6, Gemini flew missions 1-12, and Apollo flew missions 1-17. (We got to the moon with Apollo 11.)
- And then there’s the shuttle program: Challenger, Atlantis, Discovery, Columbia, Endeavour, Enterprise. That’s the big white airplane-lookalike that could land on an airstrip and be reused.
- And now there’s SpaceX and a few others and my knowledge starts to run dry.
- Mostly, American rockets are launched from Kennedy Space Center in Florida and supported by Mission Control in Houston.
And anything beyond that you’ll need to consult with the experts. (Colt would laugh at this list and it probably only marginally helps. Maybe I should’ve had Colt narrate this whole thing.)
I mostly spent the day trying to keep up with him as he climbed into every capsule, pointed out every detail, and rattled off story after story and detail after detail of different missions and rockets and astronauts.
It was all just so overwhelming — so inspiring. Space travel isn’t about conquering other countries or defeating an enemy or finding riches to exploit. It’s just about being curious and brave.
Exploring THE UNIVERSE. Just because it’s a hard thing that’s never been done.
It’s as if astronauts are children who were never told things are impossible.
And all the videos during every exhibit have incredible music and storytelling. And Colt was just so wide-eyed and curious and I absolutely cried several times.
To break up our day of starry-eyed exploration, we had lunch with an astronaut. And not just ANY astronaut. One of only two astronauts from my home state of South Dakota! Different astronauts are on campus throughout the year for various reasons and events so South Dakotan Sam Gemar being there that week was a fun coincidence.
We toasted our Tang and heard Sam talk about his shuttle missions — and he had prepared photos in his presentation for what I assume is the absolute #1 question he gets: But how do you go to the bathroom?
After lunch we were back at it — exploring every inch and soaking it all in.
And before we knew it, it was closing time. We had been one of the first three cars in the gate that morning — and we shut the place down that night. Colt never lost steam and never lost interest. I knew two days was the right choice.
After visiting nearly every exhibit on Day 1, we were focused Day 2 on two special experiences: a historical, behind the scenes tour, and something Kennedy calls the ATX: Astronaut Training Experience. They were scheduled back to back and would take most of the day (and then some) so we stopped by the only exhibit we’d missed the day before — then headed to the buses for a trip back in time.
We had a choice of several tours as we made plans but after reading the description of the “Cape Canaveral Early Space Tour” I knew it would be perfect for Colt.
America’s space program was born on the sunny coast of Florida at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in 1950. Before NASA built Kennedy Space Center, rockets soared into Earth orbit from an extensive complex of launch pads mean to propel America into the future, courtesy of the U.S. Air Force. Visitors can tour this historic military site, including launch complexes where Alan Shepard and the rest of the Mercury 7 astronauts blasted into space and Project Gemini’s two-person launches helped us learn how to send astronauts to the moon. Tour stops also include the Air Force Space & Missile Museum, the Mercury 7 Monument, and Launch Complex 34, the memorial site for the crew of Apollo 1.
The history of it all may just be his favorite part – so off we went. Cape Canaveral is still a working Air Force Station and they have rules about photography — so some places we were only allowed to take photos through the windows of the bus, and some places we weren’t allowed to take photos at all. The tour was mostly in chronological order, which meant we had to start at the beginning — the VERY beginning. We visited the blockhouses of some of the earliest satellites and unmanned rocket tests.
It was all just frozen in time. I’m not entirely sure the reality of the (lack of) technology registered with Colt — our tour guide talked about the methods engineers used to measure fuel and distance and looking around those tiny little rooms it was difficult to imagine the number of bodies scurrying around each other to check gauges and do most of the math by hand or slide rule. Incredible.
It was during the monkey portion of the tour that Colt raised his little hand to volunteer some additional detail he’d read on the topic and the tour guide looked at me and grinned. He knew he had a live one. It’s also worth mentioning there were absolutely no other kids on the tour and I’m sure most of the other folks were thinking he’d be bored in no time. Instead, he started tag-teaming the details with our guide. At one point, I reached for Colt’s arm to remind him to let the tour guide be the tour guide, and the guy shushed me! “No! Let him!” So I took the hint. These two clearly understood each other.
The next stop was Launch Complex 5 where Alan Shepard would become the first American in space. We got to WALK on the LAUNCHPAD where Alan Shepard climbed into a tiny capsule atop a giant rocket and let his friends shoot him into space.
Another highlight of the tour was the site of the Apollo 1 disaster.
This place was so heavy and our tour guide did a beautiful job of telling the story of the three astronauts who died in the fire right here on the launch pad during a test.
We made several more stops on the way back to Kennedy, and heard such incredible storytelling from our tour guide.
Our tour through history was over, and it was time to get hands-on.
We would spend the next five hours — yes FIVE — trying our hand at simulators, microgravity, virtual reality and completing a docking mission. It was SO MUCH FUN.
Five hours absolutely flew by and it was time to go. And by now we’d more than shut the place down — it was officially after hours at Kennedy. Our ATX instructors had to let our group out of the complex through a special door because the place had long since closed and it was around 8:30pm.
I’d say we milked every last drop.