Earlier this month we stopped for a few days outside of Cocoa Beach, Florida, and visited the Kennedy Space Center. After spending around seven hours there, we could have spent another day. If you are planning a visit, we'd recommend either knowing what you won’t mind missing or spending two days – there is too much to see in one. The huge spacecraft on exhibit and the bus tour of the buildings and launchpads made big impressions, but most memorable was the presentation of the inspiring and emotional historical content.
One moment we'll never forget was the presentation of the prep and launch of the Apollo 8 mission, which sent the first humans out of earth’s orbit, into moon orbit, and back safely. The video above captures some of it. Even today, it sounds like a Hollywood script, more science fiction than history. What made the experience incredible was the presentation of this real-life drama.
We were seated in bleachers overlooking the actual Apollo control center equipment in the configuration from launch day. A video presentation on the monitors showed footage and information from Russia’s post-Sputnik period of space superiority, bringing the audience into the anxiety of that moment. We then re-lived actual footage of the series of explosions and failures that made President Kennedy’s dream of a man on the moon by the end of the 1960s seem impossible.
Information was provided about the preposterously large Saturn rockets, so much bigger and more complex than the previous vehicles that only had to reach low orbit, but with so many additional points of failure and fewer test opportunities. We were shown the preparations made by the hundreds of thousands of people who worked on millions of parts and plans, under time pressure, cost and safety constraints, knowing each piece could decide success or failure.
The presentation culminated in a description of what was expected to happen at each stage of the launch, followed by a countdown in the control room in front of us, and footage from the launch countdown. Forty-eight years later, it still evoked a spine-tingling tension. A roaring sound system amplified the excitement. The reactions of relief and celebration caught on the control room footage were enough to make anyone proud not just of NASA and the USA, but of humanity. Proud that whatever else we have done, or will do, as a species or a people, we have also done this.
There are innumerable other highlights which make Kennedy Center worth visiting. The space shuttle Atlantis is hanging from the ceiling in a building dedicated in tribute to the shuttle program. Visitors can get hands-on time in a cockpit, experience a launch, and offer respect to those who lost their lives aboard Challenger and Columbia. A gigantic Saturn rocket is hanging from the ceiling in another vast museum dedicated to the Apollo program, where visitors can see real suits and gear that were used on the moon, and even touch a moon rock.
We were also lucky enough to visit soon after the opening of the new Heroes and Legends exhibit, which commemorates all of the astronauts in the center’s history, including John Glenn, the first American to orbit earth, who died this month at the age of 95. It was a very fine museum, but in the context of the whole experience, it left us thinking of all of the other, less visible heroes, scientists and civilians, who have made the space program successful.
There are also exhibits about Mars. The focus of funds and research at Kennedy Space Center now is clearly to ignite the public’s interest in the next phase of human space exploration and Mars in particular. Maybe it was some of the inspiration from the Apollo exhibits spilling over, but I really want to believe that we are still capable as a species of caring about pushing beyond our limits in space and buckling down to make it happen.
The new vehicle under development, the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle (Orion MPCV,) is scheduled to be launched from one of the pads that we got to visit. It is a modular design, and like the Apollo program, the general plan is to build and test components in a series of missions, which ultimately produce an interplanetary vehicle. The current mission schedule includes extraordinary plans – including this gem:
"Send an Orion capsule in 2026 with four crew members to an asteroid that had been robotically captured and placed in lunar orbit in late 2025.”
Of course in today’s world these plans will require working public/private partnerships, international collaboration and reliable funding. In my opinion, the audacity and grandiosity of our plans for the stars is a measure of humanity. Big goals are not cheap, although NASA has done incredible things on budget. Something like $1 billion - $1.5 billion per year has been spent on Orion so far; roughly $14 billion in the last decade.
At the center, you see the engineering that goes into producing zero-fail systems with many redundant parts, which have to fit into absurd spaces, and weigh as little as possible. It is a marvel that these custom jobs can be done and work together at any price. Often on the first try. In space.
The Kennedy Space Center is a place that is well worth a visit, to see what hundreds of thousands of dreamers have been able to achieve, and to be inspired about the future. The facilities, rockets and treasures there are the property of all Americans. The achievements realized and honored there belong to all of humanity. It is impossible to visit without feeling very humbled, and very proud.
Kathryn Tully and Shane Sesta are a married couple, one American and one Brit, who are spending a year traveling across America and writing about their discoveries. Sonny is their rescue cat and fried chicken aficionado.