May 26, 2010

Meet an astronaut at Kennedy Space Center

Once you get the theme parks out of your system at Orlando, the biggest whizzy head-rushing ride of all is a visit to meet the rocket scientists at NASA. And because it’s Orlando, they too have a ride. Only theirs is a simulation of what it’s like to be an astronaut sitting atop 2.5 million kgs of explosive, counting down to lift off and hurtling through the speed of sound for a couple of juddery minutes.

Launch pad

Launch pad

I arrived at Kennedy Space Center 2 days after the latest rocket launch (doh!) and heard that around 300,000 people had come as close as they could in their cars to watch it. The roads were backed up for miles. No one can be closer than 3.5km anyway: 120 metres (longer than a rugby field) and the heat would kill you; 240 metres and the sound would kill you. Any buildings close to the launch site have tiny windows that can be closed in a flash lest an explosion occur. The steam you see rising just before launch is caused by the 30,000 litres of water that is pumped under the concrete launch pad to absorb the sound.

Ironically this 57,000 hectare site is the Merritt Island Wildlife Refuge, a designated park with over 500 species of native birds and mammals. These range from alligators (I saw 2 sets of beady eyes lying in the watery ditches along the side of the road. I’m told there are thousands), tons of birds including the Bald Eagle and several vultures that I watched circling. They even have the occasional brown bear and the Florida Panther roaming about.

Astronaut Bob Springer and me!

They do the tourist thing well at Kennedy Space Center. You can have lunch with an astronaut (along with about 100 others) for $23. You’ll have a buffet meal and hear one of them speak about their space mission. Afterwards you can have photos taken with them. I met astronaut and retired engineer Bob Springer. He is a former airforce pilot, then test pilot of over 20 new aircraft before becoming a NASA astronaut in 1981 flying on both Space Shuttle Discovery and Space Shuttle Atlantis. What a lovely guy – and happy to pose for a pic too!

Your admission ($38 for adults including iMax theatres or $59 for special guided tour) includes the Shuttle Launch Experience ride. In we went and stood in a large room watching 3 giant screens giving us a 3-minute education on becoming an astronaut, then into the rocket we filed. Sitting in rows of 4 we were belted in then tipped back so we lay on our backs staring at the gadgets on the dashboard, waiting for the rocket boosters to fire. 6 seconds after igniting and we’re 3,2,1 – lift off! My goodness! Heads were shaking – the guy in front of me looked like he was about to lose his toupee. My throat wobbled. Even my teeth felt heavy! I couldn’t stop laughing at the jiggling ride and thought if I was in charge of driving we’d be stuffed. Fortunately the computer is in charge at this point so the real astronauts can sit and play sudoku. A few minutes later and our rocket boosters apparently fell off and things smoothed out.

We didn’t get to the weightless phase – I guess that would be a bit hard to recreate, but the roof opened and we were looking down at earth.

Vehicle Assembly Building – each star on that flag is 6ft tall!

It’s well worth a trip out here, even if you’re not a space junkie. And take a tour – the Vehicle Assembly Building was built for the Apollo rockets and has a 130 m high door. A US flag is painted on the side and each star is 2m while you could park buses along the stripes.

A rather large left over Apollo rocket (with me underneath)

Another highlight is the Apollo/Saturn V Center with the original and very out-dated computer consoles and a full recreation of the successful Apollo 11 mission (we don’t mention 13).

Also out here is the Space Coast – 115 km of beaches, so if you need a swim, this is the nearest beach to Orlando.

Oh I could go on…. like the Crawler that travels at 0.5 miles per hour and carries the space shuttle to the launch pad. Each caterpillar wheel weighs 900kg and and is operated by 4 individual drivers.

So if you’re reading this in New Zealand and think this is a bit of you, contact the team at United Travel for their special deals on right now to the United States and see what they can do with hotels and a Kennedy Space Center tour – plus lunch with an astronaut!

And for my Top 5 Things To Do in Orlando story, jump here.

About Megan Singleton

Megan

Megan Singleton is a travel writer, blogger and radio correspondent. She's been gallivanting around the world telling stories for the last 16 years and has her suitcase always half packed (or half un-packed!) Follow along on Facebook or Twitter and sign up for monthly newsletters if you want to keep up with the journey!

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