The seat shook, the ground beneath my feet shuddered, and a roar filled my ears. For a brief moment, I was able to pretend I was an astronaut on a spacecraft leaving Earth with a sudden thrust, powering through the atmosphere.
I was fulfilling a childhood dream at the Atlantis Shuttle Launch Experience, a simulation at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex at Cape Canaveral in Florida. Like most kids, I’d toyed with the idea of various professions. Being an astronaut had been right up there on my list along with acquiring superhero powers, though both seemed equally unrealistic to my young mind.
Now, over two decades later, I was having a ball playing make-believe. In a prelude to the simulation experience, we watched short videos of veteran NASA astronauts sharing memories from their first launches. Their descriptions of lying flat on their backs, strapped into chairs, as the seconds to launch were counted down added to my sense of anticipation. They talked of the heat and noise of take-off, of being pushed back by several g-forces, and then the sudden sensation of weightlessness.
I experienced some of that in the simulation, as well as a gasp-inducing glimpse of Earth from space. It was a swirl of white and blue, the oceans and clouds creating a symphony of colour against a twinkling black sky.
After that, I wanted nothing more than to seek out India’s first female astronaut Kalpana Chawla’s name on the Space Mirror memorial in the complex. When she first flew into space in the shuttle Columbia in 1997, her story inspired many including me. She was the closest link to the profession I’d hero-worshipped as a child. And I still remember feeling a pang of loss the day Columbia disintegrated after re-entering the Earth’s atmosphere 12 years ago, killing all on board including Chawla. The Space Mirror’s polished black granite, engraved with the names of astronauts who have lost their lives on the job, aptly reflected the blue sky, with powdery clouds softly floating across. Having completed my pilgrimage, I resumed my exploration of the Visitor Complex.
Everything about the Kennedy Space Center is meant to inspire and intrigue minds. The agenda is set right at the entrance to the Visitor Complex where big, blue letters spell out the word EXPLORE. I’d spotted more Indian families milling around here than anywhere else in Florida, including at the amusement parks and shopping outlets of Orlando. Walking in, the first thing visitors encounter is the Rocket Garden, where tall rockets spring up out of the ground instead of pretty flowers and fountains. A stroll there felt like a walk through a three-dimensional representation of the U.S.A.’s foray into space. Visitors can clamber into a model of a capsule from the Apollo era of the 1960s or walk the length of the powerful 223-foot Saturn 1B rocket that was used to launch the Apollo space crafts to the moon.
Unlike a museum where you can only observe, exploring the Visitor Complex is a tactile experience. It was easy to give my imagination free rein. Besides being rattled around in the Shuttle Launch Experience, I saw the actual shuttle itself in the Space Shuttle Atlantis hall. It is hard to convey the sense of awe I felt tracing the scorch marks left on the shuttle’s nose by space debris. There are over 60 interactive displays and simulations at which I tested my skills, trying unsuccessfully to dock the shuttle at the Space Station, and learning to operate its robotic arms with slightly better luck. Giggling with fear, I crawled through a 22-foot narrow, clear tube suspended 25 feet in the air, which is meant to give visitors an idea of what it feels like to be suspended weightlessly in space. It was frightening to be so far above the ground with seemingly nothing in between. By the time I exited the hall, I was beginning to wrap my head around what it meant to travel into space, a concept that had until then been rather inexplicable to me.
Sauntering out, my legs still a wee bit shaky, a sign over an area under construction made me laugh: “Please Pardon Our Space Dust,” it read. Other signs and names were equally witty. The Space Shop sold “out-of-this-world souvenirs” and at the Orbit Café I learnt that it takes astronauts 30 minutes to reconstitute and heat a meal in space. Movies at the complex’s IMAX theatre were rated “I for Inspirational”. At the Space Shop it was hard to resist picking up packets of Freeze-Dried Ice Cream for colleagues and friends back home.
At the Apollo/Saturn V Center, I walked under a 363-foot rocket suspended horizontally from the ceiling in a huge hall. It was the largest rocket ever made. Standing under it, trying to absorb its immensity and the fact that the first humans on the moon had travelled in this craft, gave me goosebumps. Every available surface of this hall was covered with facts and quotes. Little kiosks played videos of engineers and astronauts. There was a piece of moon rock I could touch. And just beyond the glass walls, a committee of large vultures spread out their wings to catch some sun. It was quite a sensory overload.
Feeling a bit overwhelmed, I headed for “Lunch With an Astronaut,” which gives visitors a chance to meet a veteran astronaut and hear about their experiences of working and living in space. I was keen to meet a woman astronaut and hear her point of view. Of NASA’s 330 astronauts, only 49 have been women. It was my lucky day, and soon astronaut Susan Kilrain, veteran of two space flights and 471 hours in space, was sharing her experiences with the 40 or so people present. She shared interesting tales about how her body reacted to being in space, the pranks the astronauts pulled on each other, and what it felt like to return to Earth. She told us how she had to relearn simple everyday tasks like brushing her teeth to be able to perform them in zero gravity. Her sense of humour and unassuming manner helped humanise astronauts, who I’ve always thought of as people to be idolised from a distance.
Kennedy Space Center is NASA’s launch operations centre and the Visitor Complex is one small portion of it. Visitors can take a bus tour of other NASA buildings and rocket launch sites, and that’s what I did next. The centre is located on Merritt Island, off Florida’s east coast, and is 55 kilometres long and about 10 kilometres wide. The open, unused area forms the Merritt Island Nature National Wildlife Refuge which hosts many animals and birds. En route to the launch sites, I spotted a bald eagle nest, alligators sunning themselves by water channels, and mud turtles scurrying into their burrows. The Space Center also includes an intriguing research building with no windows on the ground floor, so no one can sneak an unauthorised peek; a gigantic Vehicle Assembly Building where shuttles are put together; and a huge trolley on which they are transported to launch sites. It was a behind-the-scenes look of the glitzy launches one sees on television. In fact, visitors can actually schedule their trips for when there’s a launch and buy special tickets to see it all live (details in the box at the end of the story).
Returning to the Visitor Complex, I made a stop at the Explorers Wanted exhibition, which shares information about the various career options available with NASA. Meant for young children and teenagers who are in the process of deciding what they want to be, it seemed to be a culmination of everything the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex is meant to achieve. In a single afternoon, space and the journey to it became so much more understandable. My imagination had soared as the various simulations and displays allowed me to feel a small part of what astronauts experience. At Space Shuttle Atlantis, I understood some of the challenges faced by engineers who tried to make the first-ever reusable shuttle. At the Apollo Center, I got a sense of what went into getting a man on the moon. I saw children everywhere, their eyes sparkling with wonder as they felt their way around this frontier of science. At Explorers Wanted, they learnt that they too could be a part of this exciting field of science, not just as astronauts but also as engineers or scientists who help put others in space. It told young people that their childhood dreams can come true.
• Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex is located on the eastern coast of central Florida, 62 km east of Orlando and 340 km north of Miami.
• Visitors can fly in to Orlando International Airport and avail of shuttle bus services (www.orlandoairports.net/transport/shuttles.htm) or book a taxi ($105/₹6,960 one way). The Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex is an easy day trip from Orlando and combines well with a trip to Disney World.
• Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex is open daily year-round. It opens at 9 a.m. and the closing time varies by season (+1-866-7375235; www.kennedyspacecenter.com)
• Basic entry tickets cost $50/₹3,330 for adults and $40/₹2,665 for children; a package that includes lunch with an astronaut or a KSC bus tour costs $75/₹4,995 for adults and $59/₹3,930 for children. There are several ticket combinations, with details available at www.kennedyspacecenter.com/tickets.aspx. Tickets can be bought online in advance.
• Keep in mind that there is limited seating for “Lunch with an Astronaut”, so it is advisable to purchase tickets in advance.
• TIP The last bus tour starts at 2.30 p.m. It is about two hours long and there are no opportunities to purchase water or visit the loo during the trip, so prepare accordingly.
Appeared in the October 2015 issue as “Soaring In Space”.
Details of rocket launches and viewing opportunities are regularly updated here. Seats are limited; if you’re keen, check back regularly.
Another option is to see the launch from a public viewing site. The Space Coast tourism website has a list of suitable spots and dates here: www.visitspacecoast.com/launches.
is Deputy Editor at National Geographic Traveller India. She is happiest trotting off the beaten path, trekking in the Himalayas, scuba diving in Andaman & Nicobar, or exploring local markets in small towns. She tweets as @nehadara.
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