Our godson is a house guest this week. To help make it a memorable visit, we decided to visit the Kennedy Space Center, a little over 100 miles from here. We've lived in Florida for over three years, and just hadn't found time to take in the Space Center; this seemed to be a good opportunity. I'd been there once in the mid-80s and thought I had a pretty good recollection of it. Apparently not. I didn't take a camera and should have. Sorry, I have no photos for you. Not a single one.
Much has changed since my first visit to KSC, of course. It's no longer cheap, but it was a well spent day. NASA has added all sorts of theaters, vistas and things to see, touch and do. The whole place has almost a theme park feel to it, and very well done at that. So much so that my wife and I upgraded our one-day tickets to an annual pass at the end of the day.
We had a great day and did much and saw much. One thing stands out. If you ever get the opportunity to see it, go and do so. No, it's nothing to do with the Shuttle. It's the Saturn V and the Moon rocket. From my earlier visit, I recall one displayed outside in the early stages of corrosion and decay. I remember being impressed then by the size, but that impression had faded.
Today, in an enormous new building sits the Saturn-V in all its splendor --- and it's positively mammoth. Words just can't describe it. I don't trust myself to accurately convey size data, though I heard and read a lot of it today. I won't attempt to load you up with numbers.
The rocket is on steel supports, oriented horizontally and set high enough that you can't touch it, but still very near. Each stage is separated from the next so that the engines and plumbing are visible. It positively shines. There's not a speck of rust or corrosion visible anywhere; the paint is flawless. Have I said it's huge?
You enter and find yourself looking up at the base of the 1st stage and the five engines. The bottom of the casing, now vertical, is essentially a flat plate, though with numerous fittings, joints, ribs and attachments. There's no appreciable taper or chamfer from the cylindrical cross-section. It just ends flat. Stuck to that surface sans housings or shrouds of any kind are those five yawning engines, protruding in their entirety. Because of where you enter the display hall, you haven't seen much of the rest yet, though you've begun to get a sense of it. You just find yourself staring up slack-jawed at that monstrous business-end and thinking, perhaps out loud, How can anything that big fly?? Never mind that it flew filled to the gills with fuel and oxidizer. It just doesn't seem possible.
I wandered along, head up, bumping into people, I'm sure. Each section and each break between sections revealed more to marvel at. The second-stage engines, again five in number, are much smaller than their brothers aft, though still very, very large. I'd estimate them to be comparable to the Shuttle's three main engines, one of which we'd seen earlier.
As you walk along, craning your neck to see each section and piece, there are many models, displays, cut-aways and such positioned along both sides to show more of the inner workings and the innards. Near the payload end sits a retired NASA veteran of the Apollo program, holding court with the kids and answering any questions anyone cares to ask. Today's elderly gent was a retired senior engineer who had had responsibility for insulation. He appeared to be in his seventies at least, but still had a spark in his eyes when he spoke of his, program, his rocket, his astronauts setting off for the Moon on top of one of these. I didn't ask him, but if I had, I've no doubt that he would have agreed that the Apollo program was the most fulfilling thing he'd ever done. His manner said so clearly. In the sixties, there were thousands more like him, who collectively made history, made it happen.
The building is huge, as it must be to house this monster. The Saturn is as long as two Shuttles, with their external fuel tanks mated, end to end. The separation of each stage and section in the display adds to that overall length. From nozzles to nose, it's a fair piece.
Everything's clean and well run. We'd been bussed to this facility, the only way for the public to reach it. The bus service, the crowd control, the organization, the physical infrastructure and the interaction with the staff throughout was top notch, right up to and including the re-boarding process for a return to the visitor center.
There are a few other attractions in the same building, the obligatory gift shop and a snack bar. There's a theatre that focuses on the Moon landing. In a nearby room there's a narrated program overlooking a re-creation of the Apollo launch control center using the actual panels and consoles from the original, not mockups. Amongst that, I noted several dial telephones…in black. I don't know why that surprised me and I'm of that era, but somehow it did.
Elsewhere at the Space Center, there's much ado about the Shuttle of course. Some of the exhibits associated with that are things we'll be going back to see. It's their current darling and fair haired son, clearly, and there's some of the Prodigal returned there. Challenger and Columbia gave NASA much to think about, and the Shuttle program has been reborn, better, safer, but with a planned end in sight. So, the Shuttle fleet is intended to be the star of their show these days, not undeservedly.
Having said that, however, I can't stop marveling at that Saturn-V. It proceeded from a new, young president's challenge to Neil Armstrong's first step on the Moon in less than ten years. Computers were equivalent to today's pocket calculators, or even less capable than that, and didn't exist in large numbers. CAD probably didn't exist at all. Design was still mainly done on drafting boards and calculations on slide rules, for the most part. Many of the materials and much of the technology to build this thing simply didn't exist. In many cases, the facilities and sometimes even the businesses needed to supply critical items hadn't been established yet. It's just incredible that it could be done at all, much less in the historical heartbeat of a single decade. It boggles the mind.
Have I said it's huge? No, I don't mean the rocket itself this time, though it is. I refer to the accomplishment of its conception and creation. That elderly gent I saw today and his peers did us proud.