Florida, May 24.
The 24th of May
Is the Queen’s Birthday
If you don’t give us a holiday
We’ll all run away
I grew up with my grandmother reciting that once a year. It’s the Queen’s Birthday, up in my homeland. Not that anyone for a thousand miles around here would know or care. (Nor should they.) So I feel not only foreign, but somewhat old, knowing that rhyme.
Yesterday’s travels took me to the East Coast of the state, about an hour’s drive from Orlando. I was itching for a swim in the ocean. I was diverted, however, by the sign that read “Kennedy Space Center Visitors Center… 10 miles.” I had no idea I was so close, so I thought, “well, I ain’t gonna be coming this way again soon,” and made the turn.
There are several unexpected things I want to report about the KSC. The first is that the imagery is indeed iconic. For about a mile before you arrive, driving along the causeway approaching the site, you can see the two-rockets-tied-to-a-massive-fuel-tank configuration onto which they strapped the Space Shuttle. There’s a kind of mental “holy crap, that’s THAT THING” which is symbolic of so much technical achievement, so much aspiration. You turn into the Center (I’m using the American spelling on purpose), and get the shock of ten dollar parking and a fifty-dollar admission fee, suppress the desire to run away, and, passing a food truck that seems oddly out of place, enter the somewhat Disney-style gates. Which is the second surprise: how commercial the place is. Clearly this is part of the money-collecting wing of NASA.
I stroll into the Rocket Park. The next surprise is the small scale of the early rockets that are represented here. One has the idea that the launch vehicles for lower earth orbit are larger than these, some of which are on quite a human scale. The mock-up of John Glenn’s capsule, into which you are welcome to squeeze yourself, reminds you how primitive were the first manned space flights: having the Right Stuff was partly about fitting into a very tight space.
I boarded the bus that takes you out to the launch site. You pass the Crawler, the monstrous flat vehicle that transports rockets to the launch at a speed 2/10ths of an MPH, and is capable of loads of several million pounds. En route (pronounced “uhn raoute” here), the driver points out that, of the 22 square miles that make up the NASA site, most is kept as a wildlife sanctuary. We are encouraged to look for alligators in the wetlands, and the largest bald eagle nest is pointed out.
The circle drive around the launch site (getting out of the bus is quite out of the question) is fascinating partly because of the familiarity of the image, and partly haunting because it has the something of the feel of an abandoned heavy-industry yard. I had kind of expected to be wowed by very shiny, high-tech stuff. The buildings, the general state of industrial rust, remind me more of the familiar heavy-industry yards of my home town of Edmonton, that servant of the Northern oil industry.
Some shiny high-tech stuff is to follow, in the first Visitor Center, a celebration of the Apollo Program. I am very susceptible to the nostalgia associated with the first moon landings. I was fifteen, sitting beside my 19th Century-vintage grandfather as we watched Neil Armstrong set foot on Tranquility Base in 1969, and being able to stand under the massive Saturn rocket brilliantly displayed in all its proud strength is truly mind-bending. Equally mind-bending are the displays of everyday artifacts of space travel. The flight log from (I believe) Apollo 11 sits open. It might be a pilot’s log from a commercial airline flight. Various spacesuits are displayed, and you can only shake your head at what looks like technology very little removed from what my uncle would have worn as a Lancaster pilot in 1943 (as indeed, historically speaking, it was). Which is not to say that the scale of human inventiveness on display is not impressive. The very made-for-the-purpose feeling of it is part of what’s most impressive. Yankee ingenuity, indeed. And if you can look at a rock brought back from the moon, that mysterious chunk of ex-earth a quarter of a million miles away, without being gob-smacked, well, you simply have no imagination at all.
When you re-board a bus from the Apollo display center, you are taken back to the main area where you can tour the various displays around the space shuttle Atlantis. I loved seeing the actual space shuttle and the artifacts that were associated with it, but I have to say I was surprised by the absence of hard science. Rather than celebrating the acquisition of knowledge, the Visitor’s Center is celebrating the romanticism of NASA’s accomplishment. Heroic space music, the kind you might associate with superhero movies, is played everywhere. There is a Disneyesque “experience” (the word “ride” is frowned upon, evidently) you can have, in which some forty people are seating in a “pod”, strapped in, and given a shakeup designed to give an idea of what taking off in Atlantis might have been like. I can assure you, even with my very elementary aviation experience, that the experience of taking off in Atlantis must have been a thousand times more exhilarating, especially with the loss of Challenger and its crew in 1986.
Most delightful was the chance to stand within a few feet of the Atlantis herself. The heat-shielding ceramic tiles which cover her give her a somewhat rough-edged feel. And looking into her open cargo-hold at the two cranes clearly marked with the familiar flag and government-sanctioned “Canada” logo gave me a surprising jolt of national pride. I have always thought that celebrating having contributed a couple of “Canadarms” to the space program was too modest an accomplishment to make a big deal of. But there I stood, feeling quite nationalistically smug that, amongst all this American pride, the maple leaf was on prominent display.
NASA’s accomplishments are justly celebrated on Cape Canaveral. I’m glad I saw the place. NASA is one of those massively government-funded projects which, along with the Hoover Dam, the Berlin Airlift, or the New Deal, make Americans most understandably proud. Ironically, it is the kind of government-led, centrally-planned activity that the right wing of U.S. politics seems to decry. And yet, amongst things to wave a flag about, this fifty-year accomplishment is truly one of them.