Monday, January 30, 2012

Astronaut Hall of Fame Museum

This museum is only a short drive from the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex.  Your ticket from the Kennedy Space Center will get you into the Astronaut Hall of Fame within 7 days of your visit.  You can spend a couple hours here and see it all, well worth a stop if you are in the area.

A collection of test pilot helmets from a few of the original astronauts

The building houses the world's largest collection of personal space memorabilia and great displays showing the history of the Space Race and the US Space programs.

There is an area with interactive displays where you can try to do some of the tasks the astronauts do in space and a G-force trainer!  If you are brave enough there is the opportunity to experience 4Gs in the trainer - but lines can get long for this as it only seats 2 people at a time (about 20 per hour can do this).  You can try your hand at the Space Shuttle landing simulation which is quicker and doesn't have the same effect on your stomach as the G-force trainer!

A wall mural by Alan Bean

A small gift shop is at this location but there is no cafe or restaurant so plan accordingly.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Kennedy Space Center, the 'Up Close' tour

We returned to the Kennedy Space Center after learning about the Up Close tour offering.  This tour now includes a visit to the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) that has been closed to tours since the beginning of the Shuttle program.  This tour has an additional cost ($25) above the entrance fee to the Kennedy Space Center.  Season pass holders can save 10% on the tour and also save on food and purchases in the gift shop.  If you are planning to go on this tour and purchase entrance tickets, check out the difference between season tickets and the benefits vs single day tickets.

Part of the Rocket Garden at the Kennedy Space Center

During the Shuttle program we were lucky to be on site at the Kennedy Space Center for 3 launches.  The museum displays, IMAX movies and exhibits do change - so there is always something new to see even if you have been here recently.  We arrived in the morning when the center opened and had time to look around a little before our 10am tour.  You are given a sticker badge with your tour and time on it, so you just show up at the bus tour area a few minutes before your tour time.  Be prepared to have your photo taken and available for purchase after your tour.   We were given a tour booklet and a bookmark while waiting in line - both have great information about the Kennedy Space Center and websites to visit.

Our tour bus at a photo stop with the VAB is the distance

This tour was different than the bus tour which is included in a visit to the center.  Our guide was an employee of NASA and had a PhD in engineering.  He had worked on many of the space programs,  was a great speaker and provided a wealth of information.  It wasn't the usual memorized script of a tour, but real stories and anecdotes that made this a great time for us!  Some things he told us were fun to know - like how the Mars rover that is due to land in August 2012 has Morse Code in the tires.  The engineers originally built the prototype tires with the letters JPL in reverse on the tires would leave tracks on Mars that showed JPL (for the Jet Propulsion Labs).   NASA said 'no' to advertising on the Martian surface, so the engineers changed the tires to have Morse Code built in for JPL.  We saw the prototype on display- with no mention anywhere of unusual tires!  Without this tour, we would not have noticed this interesting part.  Our guide also told us where we could see recovered solid rocket boosters and an external fuel tank that are being stored.  We were able to drive right up to the gate and take a look!

Mars explorer 'Opportunity'

External tank and solid rocket booster

The main reason we took the tour was to get up close to a Shuttle and to get inside the VAB.  Both events were great!  The Shuttle Endeavour was in the VAB at the time of our visit. The size of this building is hard to judge in pictures.  It is one of the world's largest enclosed spaces - 525 ft high, with four times the volume of the Empire State Building!  The Space Shuttles are being readied for their permanent homes on display around the country.  Atlantis will make it's home at Kennedy Space Center.  If you can go right now (Until Jan 30), Endeavour AND Atlantis are in the VAB to be seen on the Up Close tour!

Looking up in the VAB

Mission banners around the building were signed by workers

The main reason to be in the VAB!  This is shuttle Endeavour

Other stops on the tour included the A/B launch complex, views of the crawler transporters, mobile launch platforms and the Shuttle Landing Facility.  In addition you see the industrial area where NASA's headquarters are and the Operations & Checkout building.  The tour ends at the Apollo/Saturn V Center (the regular tours end here also).  You can spend as much time as you want here, buses run continually back to the Visitor Center.  There are a couple movies and displays to view here as well as a snack bar and gift shop.  This center is where the VIPs and family members watch launches from.

NASA rocket on a launch pad (inside the white covering)

One of the launch platforms

Launch Complex

Inside the Apollo/Saturn V center - you can see how massive these rockets are

When you visit the KSC make sure to check out the 'Astronaut Encounter'.  This is held in one of the small theaters and changes almost daily.  There will be an astronaut on site (usually the same one at the 'Lunch with an Astronaut' for that day).  The astronaut will give a presentation in the theater about their mission, job duties, show pictures and answer questions.  There is a photo op at the end - they take your picture to buy AND you can use your own camera too!  The astronaut is also available for autographs in the gift shop in the late afternoon - check the sign in the shop for times.  You can buy your photo, NASA stock photos or anything else you would like signed.  They will sign one item not purchased there per person.  Lots of kids had their ticket stubs signed.  Make sure you ask if there are any fees involved.  Some of the Mercury/Apollo astronauts get big $$ for signing items.  Most of the shuttle crews will autograph for free.  We were able to see Barbara Morgan STS-118 who was our 'Teacher in Space'.  She was the backup for Christa McAuliffe STS-51 and after the Challenger tragedy, it took 20+ years for her chance to fly.  She really enjoyed talking with kids and encouraging them to study math and science.  Lots of kids were happy to meet "a real, live astronaut"!

Astronaut Barbara Morgan STS-118

Time for visits and autographs

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Okefenokee the "Land of Trembling Earth"

We decided to end 2011 at a place we have talked about visiting for quite some time - the Okefenokee.  Marlin Perkins gave us our first glimpse of the alligators, birds and the bouncy, moving ground that is actually layers of peat over the swamp in the 1960's.  We attempted to visit a couple of times before now, once it was raining and so windy that the rain was blowing sideways (not a good time for outdoor activity) and this past summer we were turned away at the gate due to wildfires.

There are areas untouched by fire and some that are already growing back

The Honey Prairie fire was started by lightning in April of 2011 and by October had burned over 309,000 acres.  Fire is a natural event in the swamps and needed to clear overgrowth and allow young cypress trees to get the sunlight they need.   Usually the fires can be controlled and directed, this one was different.  The fire raged and burned deep into the peat layers. Firefighters took months to gain control and unfortunately the fire consumed some of the areas that visitors enjoy - boardwalks, trails and a lookout tower.  There are still areas of the park that are burning and you can see scorched trees along the trails and drives.  Lots of new plants are already growing in and the fire cleared areas so you have an unobstructed view into parts of the swamp and marsh.

Sunset on the Canal

The East Entrance - Suwannee Canal Recreation Area was where we entered the park.  This area has a visitor center, a few hiking trails, scenic drive and Okefenokee Adventures.  The park is a National Wildlife Refuge and charges a nominal gate admission.

The visitor center and Okefenokee Adventures

We started our exploring at the Richard S. Bolt visitor center where the staff was helpful in giving us ideas of what to do and maps of the trails and scenic drive.  There is a movie about the swamp and interactive displays that teach the cycle of the swamp, flora, fauna and conservation efforts.  A small gift shop is at this site.

Make sure to read the warning signs!

Okefenokee Adventures is an on-site commercial provider of guided boat tours, canoe and camping gear rentals, food vendor and a gift shop.  There is a place to launch your boat- just make sure you register your trip with the staff.  We opted for a guided boat tour and were able to join a sunset cruise.  There were earlier cruises which are 90 mins and cost about $18 pp, our cruise was 2 1/2 hrs and was $24 pp.

Nile - our guide made sure we saw lots of wildlife and had time for pictures and questions

One of many gators we saw - I don't think we will canoe or camp out here!

Our boat left while it was still sunny and Nile was our guide.   He told us about the history, wildlife, plants and trees of the area while boating down the canal.  He was great at spotting gators, birds and more.  The group also helped to spot animals hiding in the area.  We boated out onto the marsh and were able to get out of the boat and jump on the ground to feel how it moves.  It was a very interesting experience - like walking on a big, spongy trampoline!

Barred Owl

Sandhill Cranes

At sunset we enjoyed listening to the bird calls and frogs.  By the time we arrived back at the pier it was getting dark.  This was a great end to a fun year of travels!  Our resolution for 2012 - more exploring of course!