A KSC Visit: Hits and Misses

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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.

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Comments (11)

The Udvar-Hazy museum (which until a few days ago, I didn't know the proper pronunciation of) has Discovery on display now. I visited the museum a few years ago when they still had Enterprise, and I remember thinking similarly how it was larger than I expected it to be. Of course, they had it sitting on its main landing gear, so you could really only see it from the hangar floor looking up; the KSC display sounds like a better setup. Maybe they changed the U-H setup since they had Enterprise, but probably not. I'll definitely give both a viewing, next time I'm in the appropriate area.

Posted by: Gary Baluha | May 23, 2014 8:00 AM    Report this comment

The level of interest that Americans display in the shuttle program is about on a par with their level of interest in general aviation. As Paul said, "sadly, we have to settle for the real answer."

That doesn't mean that GA in America is dead or dying. It just means that it is changing, and it never again will be the way that it once was. Then again, is anything?

I do think that the KSC Visitor Center should be managed by the folks who run the Air & Space Museum on the Mall in DC, and that admission to the KSC VC should be free, as it is in DC.

Posted by: Thomas Yarsley | May 23, 2014 8:05 AM    Report this comment

What's really sad is that none of the three surviving Orbiters (Discovery, Atlantis, Endeavour) still have their RS-25 Space Shuttle Main Engines (SSMEs). (Imagine if the B-29 Enola Gay had lost its Wright R-3350 radials?)

In a budget-stretching move, NASA removed the historic Shuttle engines for re-use in the future Space Launch System (SLS) boosters. The irony is that the re-usable RS-25 engines, which are arguably the defining technology of the Space Shuttle program, will end up on the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean after expendable SLS launches.

Posted by: Dave Passmore | May 23, 2014 8:25 AM    Report this comment

To respond to Gary's comment the Shuttle Orbiter Discovery, on display at the National Air & Space Museum's Udvar-Hazy Center out at Dulles Airport, is sitting on its main gear with its cargo bay doors closed. Since the doors were never meant to be open except in zero-G orbital conditions, they would literally fall off without a substantial (and expensive) supporting structure -- as provided for Atlantis at KSC.

The Smithsonian has a duty to preserve artifacts for future generations, which is why Discovery is sealed without visitor access to the flight deck or cargo bay. Nonetheless there's still a lot to see, including the ability to walk up close enough to examine burn marks on the heat tiles. NASA originally wanted to replace worn or burned tiles, but the Smithsonian insisted that Discovery be preserved to look like it did after returning from 39 missions in space -- the most flights by any Orbiter.

(Note: I'm a volunteer Docent at Udvar-Hazy Center. We charge $15 per car mostly to discourage Dulles Airport passengers from parking there; admission and Docent tours are free.)

Posted by: Dave Passmore | May 23, 2014 8:47 AM    Report this comment

$200 for a family's day spent at Disney? Chortle. That's about enough for one person's park-hopper ticket, not a family of four and not including parking, food, souvenirs, etc.

Posted by: Dennis Lou | May 23, 2014 9:37 AM    Report this comment

I'm with you Paul on this, it seems that most people today, and especially kids, are so technology addicted (read smartphones and video games) that they seem bored with reality; even the sort of reality that provoked fantastic awe and wonder in previous generations. But there will always be a remnant of us, I suppose.

I don't know how to pronounce Udvar-Hazy either, but I from day one I thought it was ironic that a museum dedicated to flying machines would be named "hazy" :-) Maybe it should be Udvar-Cavu instead.

Posted by: A Richie | May 23, 2014 9:42 AM    Report this comment

Oood-var Hazeeh.

Steven Udvar-Hazy is one of the unsung heroes of aerospace, in my view. The Udvar-Hazy Center is a great thing.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | May 23, 2014 9:58 AM    Report this comment

That whole "Space Coast" area used to be an incredible happening place back in the days of the space program, now all it lacks is the tumbleweeds. Depressing!

Posted by: Richard Montague | May 23, 2014 10:54 AM    Report this comment

The "Ooodvar Hazeeh" is also a doable trip by GA ;-) Last time I visited, I flew in to Leesburg (take note of the, err, NOTAM, and be sure to complete the DC SFRA training) and rented a car. It was about a 15 minute drive and easy to get to. The Air & Space museum in DC is great, but the Udvar-Hazy (also part of the Air & Space museum) is even better for those of us who like to just look at a bunch of historic planes up close. Orbiter Discovery, Concorde, Boeing 367-80, SR-71...

But getting back on topic, I visited the KSC back in 2007 (+/- 1 year) and the part I enjoyed the most was the Rocket Garden. The main purpose of my visit was to see the Saturn V rocket, which I imagined it would be standing upright in the Rocket Garden. Sadly, it was lying down in a separate hangar, and while still impressive, you couldn't really get a true sense of how massive it is/was.

Posted by: Gary Baluha | May 23, 2014 10:57 AM    Report this comment

Good write-up. Thanks Paul.

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | May 24, 2014 7:50 AM    Report this comment

I'm not surprised. The less pomp and ceremony, the better. So often on youtube people comment that they wish a soundtrack hadn't been added to an aviation video, drowning out the sound of the engines. I feel like that about museums. Some multimedia is probably good but just let me at the aviation p0rn! I can make my own engine and machine guns noises, thank you very much :-)

Posted by: john hogan | May 25, 2014 7:23 PM    Report this comment

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