What’s the best thing about going to Orlando, Florida? (Apart from the fact that its actually warm and sunny, not a ridiculous -25 C in mid-March). That would be the Kennedy Space Center. This is the closest a mere mortal can get to the legendary moonwalkers, and some of the awesome astronauts who today represent human hopes and dreams in space. I just spent a fantastic weekend there, and I’m itching to go back (not least because spacesuits are way cooler than snowsuits…)
I’d recommend a trip here to anyone who happens to be in the vicinity. Ditch Disney. Really. Spend all your time at the Kennedy Space Center. It’ll be worth it. I got to meet and listen to astronaut Wendy Lawrence (Q: How does it feel when you take off? A: Like an elephant sat on your chest). My eyes popped out at the size of the fuel tank and solid rocket boosters needed to launch the shuttles. I ogled a fully recreated Saturn V rocket. I admired the gigantic VAB (Vehicle Assembly Building) – the largest single storey building in the world. And I almost wept to behold the doughty Space Shuttle Atlantis, which flew a magnificent 33 missions before retiring to the comfort of the Space Center Visitor Complex.
Most of all, I learned about the men and women who have devoted their lives to space exploration, including those who have made the ultimate sacrifice. Let us never forget the men and women of Apollo 1, Challenger, and Columbia. The Space Mirror Memorial at the Visitor Complex was dedicated in 1991 to remember all the astronauts who have died in various space programs of the United States.
Disheartening though the end of the Shuttle program in 2011 was, the staff at the Kennedy Space Center are quick to point out that what they’re planning next is way more exciting and complicated – the Space Launch System or the SLS. The Shuttle was designed to explore near-Earth environments, whereas the SLS – which builds on the technology of both the Shuttle and the Saturn rockets – is designed for deeper space exploration. Exciting times…
On display at the visitor center is a model of Orion, the newest crew module, which is scheduled to be tested at the end of this year and is designed for travel beyond low Earth orbit. A manned mission to Mars could happen in the early 2020s. Go NASA go! Because if you won’t, who else will? Okay, Mars One is planning a human settlement on Mars by 2023, but I’ll believe it when it happens…
Extra: a quick little quiz (answers at the bottom, no cheating!):
1. Which was the first artificial satellite?
2. Who was the first human to do a spacewalk?
3. What was NASA’s first manned spaceflight?
4. How many moons does Mars have?
5. How long does the moon take to go around the Earth?
6. How many men actually walked on the moon?
7. Who was the first woman in space?
Quiz answers (how many did you get right?):
1. Sputnik 1 was the first artificial satellite. Launched by the Soviets into low Earth orbit in 1957, it was no bigger than a beachball, but provided valuable scientific information. Its launch marked the beginning of the space race between the two powers.
2. Alexey Leonov, a Soviet/Russian cosmonaut, became the first human to conduct an extra-vehicular activity (EVA), or a space walk, in 1965. Edward White was the first American to do a space walk later that same year. Tragically, in 1967, Edward White along with fellow astronauts “Gus” Grissom and Roger Chaffee died in an accident during prelaunch testing for the first manned Apollo mission at Cape Canaveral.
3. NASA’s first manned spaceflight was a suborbital flight in May 1961 with astronaut Alan Shepard aboard Freedom 7 as part of Project Mercury. The first orbital flight was in Feb 1962, with astronaut John Glenn.
4. Duh! Mars has two known moons, Phobos and Deimos.
5. The moon takes 27 days to go around the Earth, and that’s also how long it takes to make one full rotation. That’s why we always see the same side of the moon.
6. There are just twelve moonwalkers. Neil Armstrong, Edwin Aldrin, Pete Conrad, Alan Bean, Alan Shepard, Edgar Mitchell, David Scott, James Irwin, John Young, Charles Duke, Eugene Cernan, and Harrison Schmitt.
7. Valentina Tereshkova, a Soviet cosmonaut, became the first woman to fly in space when she piloted Vostok 6 in 1963. In 2013 she offered to go on a one-way trip to Mars if the opportunity arose. Hats off to you, Major General…