Launch Zone

Florida: At the Kennedy Space Center, visitors can see the future of space exploration along with America's first forays into the heavens.

January 07, 2001|By Ron Driscoll | By Ron Driscoll,BOSTON GLOBE

"I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon. ... In a very real sense, it will not be one man going to the moon ... it will be an entire nation. For all of us must work to put him there."

-- John F. Kennedy, May 25, 1961

The 45-rpm record had long gathered dust on a bookshelf of my mother's home. This rendition of "Man on the Moon" was recorded not by the rock group R.E.M. but by CBS anchorman Walter Cronkite, and it stirs memories of a euphoric time in the United States, man's first landing on the moon in 1969.

The Apollo 11 mission accomplished President Kennedy's goal, and although Kennedy died before his timetable was met, we all shared in the "space race" victory over the Soviet Union.

Today, the U.S. space program is battling a variety of ignominies, from miscalculated flight paths to substandard equipment. It has also been criticized for its participation in the International Space Station project, a partnership of 16 nations, Russia among them, laboring to build a working, manned research laboratory in space.

Through it all, the space program continues to fly, and later this month, in the early-morning hours of Jan. 21, the next space station mission will launch from Kennedy Space Center in Florida with three of the five astronauts onboard having Baltimore ties.

Watching a launch is exciting, but even if you can't make it to Florida for the Balti-nauts' date with space, a visit to Kennedy Space Center any time is an uplifting experience.

The center is the working headquarters for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, and visitors are able to view preparations for the space station, scheduled to be finished in 2006 or 2007.

Baltimoreans Tom Jones and Robert Curbeam Jr., and Marsha Ivins, who was born in Charm City and raised in Pennsylvania, will be part of STS-98, as the coming 10-day mission is dubbed. Jones and Curbeam will make up the first all-Baltimore space walk. Maybe afterward, they'll dine on the freeze-dried crab soup they are planning to bring along.

Apollo missions

The space station is a major focus these days at the space center, but visitors will also see NASA's successes of the 1960s and 1970s.

A highlight of the tour is the Apollo / Saturn V Center, which pays the highest tribute to man's initial moon landing. The tour begins in the Firing Room Theater, a control center mock-up. The simulated countdown and liftoff of Apollo 8 on Dec. 21, 1968, are enhanced by realistic effects and actual equipment and videotape from that day.

Huge banners marking each Apollo mission are suspended above the rocket plaza, which is dominated by a restored, 363-foot Saturn V rocket, its five giant boosters suspended above a spellbound audience.

An amazing thought to ponder while gawking: The Saturn V reached speeds of 25,000 miles an hour on its way into orbit. The rocket is one of three in existence; 15 were built, and 12 were launched successfully.

The KSC, as locals refer to it, is about 50 miles from Orlando, making it a comfortable day trip between visits to Walt Disney World or Universal Studios.

As our space center tour continued, we realized our misty recollections weren't translating well to our daughters, ages 9 and 6. They've always known about space travel, not as Jules Verne fiction brought to reality, but as a fact of life. A word of caution: Don't be surprised if the younger set seems a tad underwhelmed.

The space center is on Merritt Island, and you cross the Intracoastal Waterway to reach the 140,000-acre complex (that's one-fifth the size of Rhode Island). The space center itself takes up just 6,000 of those acres. The remainder makes up the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge, which provides a haven for more endangered and threatened species than any other U.S. refuge.

We saw a few alligators as we drove in, their outlines barely visible above the surface of the creek running parallel to the causeway. And we spotted a small, motionless gator in the lagoon near the gift shop. A wall kept us at a polite distance.

A $120 million renovation of the KSC Visitor Complex was completed in late 1999. The official tour book points out, not once but twice, that sales of food and merchandise -- not tax money -- funded the improvements.

Buses constantly going

Space center tour buses go in a continuous loop between the visitor complex, the Launch Complex 39 observation gantry, the Apollo / Saturn V Center and the International Space Station Center.

You take tour buses from venue to venue, with an overhead video guide providing whimsical updates on where you're headed next.

If you buy the "maximum access badge" ($24 for adults, $15 for children 3 to 11), you can go to all major sites and view two IMAX movies at the visitor complex. Three films were being screened on our visit, including "L5: First City in Space," a 3-D depiction of an orbiting city 100 years from now, based on NASA studies.

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