In 1999, I experienced my first shuttle launch.

Okay… so I experienced it from a distance… watching the launch while sitting on the shores of the Indian River in Titusville (the home of NASA is right across the river – and, in the 60’s, Titusville used to be a thriving mecca of rocket scientists, math geniuses and astronauts during the infamous Space Race).

I was (and still am) amazed by the power of rockets… and the enormous amount of human collaboration and problem-solving that needs to happen if one intends to send people into outer space and – indeed – to the moon… (and now to Mars too!).

As I sat on the banks of the Indian River (at 3 in the morning)… feeling the earth vibrate beneath me, and watching the sky light up as another one of NASA’s shuttles blasted into the stratosphere – I was filled with awe (you can see the photos I took of the launch here).

And two days ago, I was filled with awe again… not because I witnessed another shuttle launch (the shuttle programme is closed for now)… but, because I finally had an up-close-and-personal experience with Atlantis – a shuttle that has safely taken astronauts and cosmonauts in and out of space… on 33 separate missions.

I’ve visited the Kennedy Space Centre on two occasions.

1998 was the first time I visited (Nick was there too).  At the time, Atlantis (the shuttle) was still very-much in use… but we did have the awesome and very mind-blowing experience of seeing one of the Saturn rockets built for the Apollo 11 moon-walking mission in 1969.  Here’s a photo that Nick took of me in 1998… standing in front of the rocket’s massive boosters…

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And here’s our most recent photo, taken in the same spot:

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Kennedy Space Centre does a fantastic job of re-creating the events that led to the launch of the Saturn.  Before you’re ushered in to the hanger to see the rocket itself, you experience a step by step re-creation of the launch (with footage and recordings of the actual event)… and a mock-up of Mission Control (with the same consoles and instruments that were used on that memorable day)…

It’s not only fascinating… but very educating too (for all of us).

Here’s some more photos of the Apollo / Saturn 5 Centre at KSC:

Joah holding up the Saturn...

Joah holding up the Saturn… (with one arm, nogal … )

What a fascinating place to visit!

What a fascinating place to visit!

Touching a teeny piece of moon...

Touching a teeny piece of moon…

I really enjoy the little experiences that take my mind to another place… like touching the little piece of smooth moon rock.  I was  annoyed by a paranoid mother who didn’t want her kid to touch the piece of moon.  “There’s been a million dirty fingers on that thing!”, she grumbled.  The kid insisted though, and as soon as he was done, the mother barked:  “Now go and wash your hands!  Right now!”.

Jeez!  I really don’t get some people.  What a way to put a damper on such a one-of-a-kind experience:  make it all about the flippin’ germs!

Anyhoo…  after the fascinating Saturn exhibit… and a bus tour around the facility… we arrived at the Space Shuttle Atlantis and the Shuttle Launch Experience.  These – by the way – are new additions to the Kennedy Space Centre… and therefore, brand new experiences for me.

Here’s the entrance… (and my jumping family):

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Once inside… we were ushered into a big room where they showed a fascinating short film about how they came up with the idea of building a shuttle.  Then, we were ushered into another room – where the walls were huge screens – and they screened the story of the space shuttle Atlantis… (with beautifully shot footage of the Atlantis in action).  Because there were screens on the walls and the ceiling – it felt as though we were in space with the Atlantis…

The whole thing ended when the movie screen suddenly became transparent… and the Atlantis we had been watching on screen suddenly transformed into the real Atlantis… the screen lifted, and there she was:  this incredible space machine… now peacefully retired after 33 missions.

Nick and I were blown away by the experience.  You can still the blackened burn marks from when the ship last entered Earth’s atmosphere… and the hundreds of special tiles that the scientists had designed that could withstand the heat and keep the shuttle in tact.  Absolutely fascinating!

Here’s some pics:

The photos just don't do it justice, unfortunately. You actually have to experience it for yourself.

The photos just don’t do it justice, unfortunately. You actually have to experience it for yourself.

Family photo (with nasty flash)...

Family photo (with nasty flash)…

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I took this photo with my iPad… but you can probably get a good idea of how big the shuttle is.

I took this photo with my iPad… but you can probably get a good idea of how big the shuttle is.

What was lovely about the whole exhibit was how many interactive things there was to do.  You could even try your hand at landing the Atlantis (on a simple simulator)… and there where awesome, interactive play areas so that children could “experience” a real space shuttle.

Best of all – we all went on a simulator called “The Shuttle Launch Experience”.  They strapped us in and turned us vertical and did the whole countdown… earth-shaking… here-we-go… thing.  Lots of fun (especially for the kids).

All kinds of buttons and dials that he could push….

All kinds of buttons and dials that he could push….

Morgan's turn to pilot the Atlantis...

Morgan’s turn to pilot the Atlantis…

Also… the KSC made an enormous amount of effort to ensure that the exhibit was fascinating and fun for people of all ages.  There was a lovely Space Station – suspended way in the air… and kids could crawl through transparent tunnels… high above the people below.  Here’s a photo…

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And this (photo below) may just seem like a fun slide for the kids… (and it WAS a fun slide)… but it’s actually a very clever demonstration of the steep rate of descent that shuttles experience in order to land.  If you look carefully at the slide,  you can see diagrams and illustrations – showing the angle of descent that the pilot of a shuttle needs to master (very different than an aeroplane with zero room for mistakes.  The shuttle is designed as a glider and when it re-enters Earth’s atmosphere, it has no fuel.  If the pilot overshoots the runway – there’s no second chance for him to try again).

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In all, it was a lovely, interesting, informative day.

We even met one of the Angry Birds…

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Here’s a few more photos to end off the post:

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These are the original Mission Control consoles (where they re-created the Saturn launch scene for us)...

These are the original Mission Control consoles (where they re-created the Saturn launch scene for us)…

This is the (enormous) Vehicle Assembly Building and the Launch Control Centre...

This is the (enormous) Vehicle Assembly Building and the Launch Control Centre…

With Theresa (who got us great discounts on our tickets because she's a Brevard County resident)… at the entrance to the Kennedy Space Centre.

With Theresa (who got us great discounts on our tickets because she’s a Brevard County resident)… at the entrance to the Kennedy Space Centre.

Okay… so… now I’ve blogged enough about that.

Time to do washing… packing… and other errands before we head off back to Orlando tomorrow.  Our friend Phil is coming over later to cook us one of his famous dinners.  Oh happy day!  🙂