Time has a way of distorting our memories, some are remembered and embellished, often with wistful romance. Many other memories are pushed aside and forgotten until an object or chance encounter breathes new life into them. My memories of the space race included only those images seen repeatedly throughout the media. Until this visit, I had forgotten how exciting the Space Program could be. Maybe it’s because I had fallen into the pattern that so many others have when the novelty wore off and sending people into orbit became a relatively common occurrence. Shuttle missions were flying, satellites were being put into orbit and the space station was being built.
Beyond the incredible Hubble images, there seemed to be nothing to capture the imagination of we the people. Perhaps it’s because unlike other forms of exploration, space is inaccessible to all but a handful of highly trained individuals. If you live near a body of water, all it takes to be an explorer is an inexpensive pair of goggles. To explore hills and mountains it often takes no equipment at all, simply the will to make it to the top. Space on the other hand requires not only highly specialized training but the fearlessness to strap yourself into a seat atop a rocket with the explosive energy of a hydrogen bomb and be shot into the pitiless vacuum of space.
At the Kennedy Space Center technological marvel after marvel was revealed as we studied the various exhibits and toured the facility. Diagnostic ultrasound, portable x-ray devices, programable pacemakers, insulin pumps, microchips, robotics and virtual reality programs were among the technologies produced and refined as a direct result of the space program.
We were able to attend one of the tours of the famous Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB). The VAB was last opened to the public at the end of the Apollo era and now that the shuttle program has ended, visitors are allowed into the building once again. It is the largest one story building in the world and was originally constructed for the assembly of the magnificent Saturn V moon rockets used in the Apollo program. The huge exterior bay doors are tall enough to allow a fully assembled 363 foot tall Saturn V rocket on it’s mobile launch platform to pass through. We were informed that the space shuttle Endeavour was being transformed from Orbiter to museum exhibit in one of the VAB bays and as we turned a corner, there it was. I was spellbound, for to come face to face with an actual spaceship was the stuff of dreams. Standing ten feet from the Endeavour I felt a sense of pride and just a little sadness for it’s loss.
Even more so than the shuttle, the crown jewel of manned space flight is the Saturn V moon rocket. The Saturn V Center was the actual launch center for the Apollo program. On display is one of the few remaining Saturn V rockets. It is lying on it’s side with it’s stages separated and engines exposed. It is massive and it is majestic and all I could think about was how wonderful it would be to put it together, stand it up and light the fuse.
The Saturn V is the most powerful rocket ever built and I have been told that had the Apollo program continued, we could have used this rocket to reach Mars by the early 1980’s. When the public lost interest and the Apollo program was cancelled in the 70’s, congress committed one the greatest acts of hubris in history. In order to ensure that their decision to cancel the Apollo program could not be undone by future congresses, they ordered all the tools used to manufacture the Saturn V rocket destroyed and the blueprints shredded.
On a more positive note, we did see the rocket gantry for the Space Launch System (SLS) that will eventually be used to carry the new Orion capsule, but It will be several years before the Orion is ready for testing, and then probably several more before it begins to take humans into space.
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