A KSC Visit: Hits and Misses
At last week’s UAV show in Orlando, the pre-day was held at Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral. Ostensibly, the AUVSI had a flight display line there, but because of what I’d call overbearing safety concerns from the FAA, they chased us too far away to see them flying. Disappointing for sure, but also a windfall of sorts. Our press passes included full access to the KSC Visitor Center, which I hadn’t see since the facility built its Shuttle display.
How a thing can be intensely interesting and depressing at the same time might seem illogical but the private company running the center for NASA manages that. The interesting part is obvious and more on that in a moment, but first the depressing part. In the modern vernacular of Orlando, the space center has become just another “attraction” competing with Universal, Disney and SeaWorld. For those of us who grew up marveling at the space program, this is slightly hard to swallow since we thought it had to do with science, exploration and advancing the boundaries of manned flight and not the world’s largest water slide.
Also, the place reeks of past glory presented in the sort of mile-wide-inch-deep fashion that accommodates the fruit-fly like attention span park designers think all of us have these days. Indeed, the number of people wanding around with noses in a smartphone is staggering. The overall feel of the place is that we were once great space farers, but all that achievement now just bleaches in the Florida sun. Even if I must intellectually accept these facts as true, must I be reminded of it? I thought a little scholastic density of the sort you find at the Air & Space Museum would have been welcome.
Now for the interesting part. The KSC visitor center has the retired Shuttle Atlantis. I knew it was there but wasn’t quite sure where or how it was displayed. To see it, you enter through an archway formed by an actual Shuttle launch stack minus the Shuttle. Just a pair of SRBs and the external fuel tank. In scale alone, it’s worthy of a half-hour of careful examination, pondering the thought that such a thing could fly at all let alone hurl something into orbit. As for Atlantis itself, you first view a short—and painfully shallow—film on the development of the orbiter before being herded into another theater for a short on Atlantis launches and missions. When that concludes, the screen rolls up and there it is, the actual Atlantis orbiter in all its space-worn glory. I have to concede, the effect is dramatic and quite emotional, at least for me.
Atlantis is displayed in a 30-degree left bank, with the payload doors open and with the remote manipulator arm extended. The bay interior is superbly well lighted and you can see every little detail, right down to the screw heads and wiring bundles. I wasn’t at all prepared for the scale of this machine. I guess it’s a third or more larger than I had fixed it in my mind’s eye, with every detail from the engine bells to the thermal tiles just far bigger than they look in pictures. The reaction control system nozzles, which I imagined to be like garden hoses, are in fact the diameter of a dinner plate.
The machine is displayed on two levels, so can you walk under its full length to take in the extraordinary shape and the underside tiles, of which there are thousands. I was a little pressed for time and didn’t read all of the placards, but the ones I did read were lucid and sufficiently technical to engage a pilot who may have followed the Shuttle program. Oddly, very few of the people in my tour group were doing that. Most of the kids rushed to the interactive displays around the periphery of the hall and few of the adults seemed interested in the spacecraft itself. Maybe they were expecting more. It’s too bad, really, because apart from Air & Space, there aren’t many examples of living history that are so vivid and so breathtakingly large.
A guide at the center told me that visitor levels have diminished considerably since the Shuttle stopped flying in 2011. I figured May was the slack season, but he said it no longer picks up much during the winter, as in days past. The price may have something to do with it. Adult admission is $45 and it’s easy to see how a family could burn through $200 for the day. They’ll spend that much at Disney too, but if you’re an eight-year-old, would you pick Space Mountain or the Space Shuttle? I know what we wish the answer to that is, but, sadly, we have to settle for the real answer.
Nonetheless, the Shuttle tour is worth the price of admission. I recommend seeing it if you get the chance.