Last Saturday we rocketed a bit north and a lot east (see what I did there ? Eh ? Eh ?) as it was the day after the shuttle launch had been scrubbed and I reckoned the place would be empty. By 'the place' I mean the whole area along the Space Coast which 24 hrs earlier would've been swarming with people wanting to get a view of the penultimate shuttle launch.
I just wanted to pop along to the Kennedy Space Centre and not actually go in as I've been fortunate enough to have 'been there, done the tour and bought the t-shirt' many times over the last 22 years. In fact when I first started my visits there in the late 80's and early 90's, admission was free. What a deal THAT was as it's now $43 + tax to get in.
So why go last Saturday and not go in ? Well the trip was really to go to the nearby coastal town of Titusville which has built its tourist industry on the fact that it IS the closest town to the KSC and over the decades has established many links with NASA and the astronauts. It's also a decent place from which to watch shuttle launches !
As we approached the long causeway leading to the KSC, a temporary electronic sign informed us that only badge holders could use the road and all other traffic had to exit onto US1 and basically get lost. I assumed this sign hadn't been removed since the previous day when its message would've been valid and so we ploughed on and planned on pleading ignorance if we were buzzed by F16's and stopped along the causeway. We weren't.
As soon as you get onto the causeway, it's time to leave it again if you want to visit the first attraction. The Astronaut Hall of Fame no less. Actually it makes more sense to visit it on the return trip as the admission fee is included in the $43 + tax that you pay at the main centre. I wonder how many uninformed visitors have fallen foul of THAT little nugget of info.
Again I didn't need to go into the building but wanted a few outside pics. I was glad we did stop as a new building had been added since my last visit, 29 months earlier. There is now a Police Hall of Fame (and Museum) and for the life of me, I've no idea why such a place should've been built at a Space location !!
But it was, and so there it is. Lovely.
And here is me facing said building with a much more interesting view behind me. If I have a choice of having my photo taken with a space shuttle behind me (albeit a mock up of one) or a Police Hall of Fame building, I know where my interests lie.
Like with most 'theme parks' the KSC gets updated to keep things interesting for returning visitors and it seemed to have had a new welcome sign since my last visit.
We drove into the huge Disneyesque car park and as the nearest available empty bay was somewhere near Georgia, Debby dropped me off near the visitor entrance so I could jump out and take some photos while she kept the engine running, so to speak.
Not a good idea as when I'm at the KSC, even just outside the entrance, time becomes meaningless. Over on the left I could see some of the historic exhibits from the Rocket Garden and I have to say, they did seem to have grown a bit over the last 29 months. Anything grows in this tropical weather I guess !!
Then in front on me were the entrance booths which were decidedly bereft of customers at this time. Early afternoon on a Saturday. Where was everyone ??!! Judging by the number of cars in the park, I guess they were all inside already.
NASA has adapted the expression "old astronauts never retire, they just run out of space" by getting a couple of them to suit up and look down on arriving visitors from a lofty vantage point on top of the booths. This serves two functions as not only does their presence excite the visitors but it lets the astronauts earn their retirement checks.
Over on my right, and here you'll have to take my word for it, was a hollow space suit, set up with steps around the back so that children of all ages could climb up inside and be photographed just as if they were kosher astronauts.
Of course I wanted to be one of those kids of all ages but who to entrust to take my photo ? As if by the magic of Disney himself, Debby appeared at my side as she'd managed to sit in the car and wait for a suitable parking spot to open up in the row closest to the entrance and when it did, she nabbed it and came to join me. Brill.
And so she photographed me in the suit and vice versa.....but as our faces came out too dark to really be seen, I'll spare you the evidence.
After a little more time taking in the ambiance, we left and headed up the coast to Titusville.
Now back in the day (in the summer of '89 in fact) when I first stepped onto US soil, I left Orlando airport and headed for a motel in Titusville as my very first tourist attraction the following morning was always going to be the KSC. Last Saturday, I returned to the town.
Sadly I couldn't remember the name of the motel and so didn't spend any time looking for it. I did, however, want to visit the famous Space View Park which didn't exist back then as not only is it the favourite free viewing location for the many hundreds of shuttle watchers who descend on the town on launch days but it also 'houses' many plaques, memorials and hand prints of just about every astronaut from the days of Mercury to the present day.
The park is right on the edge of a stretch of water with an unobstructed view across to the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB), the launch pads and the Atlantic beyond that. In the following photograph, which for once I've uploaded full size, you can just see the VAB building on the horizon (click to enlarge and then click again to enlarge more) and to the left of it, there are what seem like 2 white tipped towers. These are 2 of the 3 lightning towers built in 2009 around launch pad 39b for the next generation of rockets (Constellation Project) which were due to be considerably taller than the shuttle and as such, risked being struck by lightning during the numerous t-storms that occur locally all summer.
The project was cancelled last year but the 3 x 600ft towers, costing as much as a royal wedding to construct, remain for the US tax payer to enjoy looking at. Launch pad 39a with the shuttle still in place is between those towers and the VAB but I can't see it even when the photo is enlarged. There ARE a couple of structures but neither look like a launch gantry to me.
There was a guy there trying his best to look for it. He had an astronomical telescope pointed across the water which can spot the rings of Saturn but he couldn't find it either ! I didn't feel too bad that I couldn't find it with my 200mm lens !
So as not to disappoint, here is a photo of me instead.
I'm the squat structure to the left of the very large structure (on the horizon) in case you get confused.
There is a special "7" section of the park dedicated to the 7 original Mercury astronauts with various plaques and their hand prints and signatures set in bronze.
Across the road, in another part of the park, there are more monuments and plaques and hand prints, this time of the astronauts who followed along the lofty path set by the Magnificent Seven.
One of the plaques, located prominently beside this bust of Kennedy, belongs to the reclusive but nevertheless most famous astronaut of them all, Neil Armstrong.
Ignoring the sanitary implications, I placed my hands 'into his' and wow.....they matched perfectly. He had two and I have two !
Actually the bronze was so hot that my hands barely touched the great man's imprints as, much as I admire him, I wasn't prepared to risk 3rd degree burns just to say I'd mixed my DNA with that of hundreds of others, none of which belonged to him anyway !
By now it was 4:30pm and we needed to get back on the road as we needed something to eat, do a spot of shopping and it was a 3hr drive home. The last photo I took was a close up of that bust of Kennedy...a name that will always be associated with NASA and all things spacey.
We arrived home around 10:30pm so it had been a long but very enjoyable day trip. When I left the KSC I didn't say "well I'll never be back here again" as I've learned over the years that phrase is rarely accurate.
With STS-134 scrubbed until 8th May at the earliest (and I leave Florida tomorrow), I'll not get to see any more shuttle launches but who knows what the future holds. One fact IS irrefutable though.
Bin Laden won't be seeing them either.