(Picture: My friends and I with NASA astronaut Bob Springer at KSC’s Astronaut Encounter.)
Every semester, our Society of Physics Students/Students for the Exploration and Development of Space group (SPS/SEDS) from Florida Tech’s Physics and Space Sciences department takes a trip to the Kennedy Space Center (KSC). This fall, we had nearly thirty students go on the trip and we all got to explore the visitor’s center for free thanks to Dr. Durrance (one of our professors who’s been to the International Space Station). Since we already had free day-passes, we decided to upgrade our tickets to a Commander’s Club Pass for only $5.30. The Commander’s Club is an annual pass to KSC that includes free parking, free admission to the Astronaut Hall of Fame, 10% off all retail items, 20% off food, and a free commemoration coin celebrating the 50th year of the space center. All in all, we thought it was a great deal!
After getting our Commander passes, we went to the “Shuttle Experience.” This is a huge simulation ride that gives visitors a little taste of what a shuttle launch is like. We were the only ones in line (due to the somewhat early hour), so we got the “Shuttle” all to ourselves. Like the other times I have ridden on it, I laughed almost the entire time as it shook and rattled us. Then, as we reached orbit around Earth, the simulated weightlessness felt awesome, even if it only lasted for a little bit.
After the Shuttle Experience, we took the bus tour out to the actual launch pad site. We saw one of the rocket engines up close and where the Saturn V rockets (aka “moon rockets”) and the shuttle rockets were launched from, all while dark, menacing thunderclouds approached from behind the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB). The VAB is where the rockets and shuttle fuel tanks were put together and housed before launch. The building is a little over 3.5 million cubic meters in volume, making it one of the largest buildings in the world (at least where volume is concerned). We had the chance to go inside of it last semester, and let me tell you, it is unbelievable. The ceiling soars 160 meters (526 feet) overhead and four 139-meter (456-foot) doors allow entrance to the bays, each able to hold a rocket or shuttle fuel tank. These doors take forty-five minutes to open and are the largest doors in the world. In order to get such large equipment inside, five enormous cranes attached to a bridge above were used, along with over a hundred other, smaller lifting devices. Two of these cranes could lift 325 tons each! The VAB is an engineering masterpiece and is probably my favorite building.
From the launch pad, the tour bus took us to the Saturn V display. This is the rocket model built specifically for going to the moon and is still one of the most powerful machines ever built. The rocket is suspended lengthways inside so visitors are walking underneath it as they view the little displays about the Apollo missions. If the rocket were to be laid down on a football field, it would stretch end-zone to end-zone, just to give you a little perspective on how large this thing is. In order to successfully work, the miles and miles of wiring have to function properly, this was no small feat on the part of the engineers and scientists who designed and built it.
Back at the main visitor’s center, we went to the “Astronaut Encounter” expedition where we listened to Bob Springer, a mission specialist on two space shuttle flights. He detailed his experiences getting to NASA and at the ISS, including how astronauts use the facilities in micro-gravity (one word describes it well: suction!). The day ended with the Hubble IMAX theater presentation in 3-D.
If you have never visited the Kennedy Space Center, I would highly recommend it. Space flight is an important part of our past and our future, and KSC is a good way to learn about both!