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

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