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Kenedy Space Center – Cape Canaveral Then And Now
The Cape Canaveral Then and Now tour may well be the last option you consider on a trip to Kennedy Space Center but it has some hidden gems. It goes deeper into the Space Center than any other current tour and gives a fantastic opportunity to fully experience some of the historic sites of the early days of space exploration.
You will need a government issued photo ID to take the tour. It takes you out onto USAF property and so everyone must be positively id’d. Once you enter the space center visitor complex, after going through the metal detectors and bag checks, head over to the right. There is a small office in the corner of the visitor center where a USAF official will check your ID and ticket and issue you with a blue stick-on tour badge.
The first stop on the tour is the USAF rocket museum. The first exhibit here is a rocket motor from a V2 rocket; the weapon that caused so much destruction during the Second World War. An air force volunteer tells the story of how the US space program was born during the cold war era, out of fear over the lead the Russians had gained in space technology. They also explain the history of the rocket technology used by the early space program, and how much of it was taken directly from the weapons programs. 2005 will see the launch of the last Titan 4 rocket when it takes a payload for the National Reconnaissance Office into orbit. Before being used for space launches the Titan was the workhorse of the US nuclear weapons program, being the main delivery vehicle for intercontinental weapons; the ICBMs that were so often mentioned in the news before Leonid Brezhnev and Jimmy Carter signed the SALT II treaty in 1979.
Next stop is the blockhouse (firing room) for launch complex 26, the site of the Explorer 1 satellite launch. This was America’s first successful satellite launch as they worked overtime to catch up the lead the Soviet’s had gained with the launch of Sputnik 1. The old equipment in the blockhouse gives a very good idea of the technology used in the early days of space exploration, from the foot thick blast-proof laminated glass in the windows to the corn and grain scales used to weigh the rocket to make sure it had the correct amount of fuel.
From launch complex 26 it is only a short bus ride to launch complex 5 and a chance to set foot on the actual launch pad used to send Alan Shepherd into space on May 5, 1961. It brings out quite a feeling of history to stand on the pad and see the unused Atlas Redstone rocket (an adaptation of the Atlas Missile) on the pad. It still looks ready to fly.
The drive from LC26 to the next stop, LC34, passes by the scoreboard and launch site of the Gemini missions. The Gemini program was the stepping stone from the first manned flights of the Mercury program to the Apollo program, which would ultimately land a man on the moon with the Apollo 11 mission.
The historic site of launch complex 34 (LC34) is quite a poignant reminder of the dangers involved in space exploration. It was on this pad that 3 Apollo astronauts, Virgil Gissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee lost their lives when a flash fire enveloped their capsule during a ‘plugs out test’ in preparation for the launch of Apollo 1.
The final leg of the tour leaves the Cape Canaveral missile range and crosses back into Kennedy Space Center. The usual route of the drive home passes some of the more usual NASA highlights; the space shuttle launch pads, LC39A and B, the enormous Vehicle Assembly Building and the massive crawler transporters that were first used to transport the Saturn V rockets out to pads 39A and B and are now used for the Space Shuttle.
The tour ends at the Saturn V Exhibit. This offers the chance to see one of the 3 remaining Saturn V rockets up close, as well as learn more about the Apollo program; the only space program to this day that has taken a man to the moon.
It is quite amazing to think that it was less than three weeks after Alan Shepherd became America’s first man into space that John F. Kennedy made his historic ‘We chose to go to the moon’ speech. Only 8 years later this dream was fulfilled when Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon’s surface on July 21, 1969.
The Cape Canaveral Then and Now tour gives a very interesting chronicle of this first chapter of mankind’s exploration into space. The partner tour, NASA Up Close, picks up where the moon landings left off, looking mostly at the technology behind the Space Shuttle and International Space Station projects. The Saturn V exhibit neatly fills in the gap in the middle.
If you have only a single day to visit Kennedy Space Center the NASA Up Close tour would probably be the better of the two. It has more wow factor due to the more modern space technology it studies. If you have a second day at KSC or are visiting again on a future trip, the Cape Canaveral Then and Now tour gives a marvellous overview of the history of the space program.
The tour runs only once daily, and departs at 12:50. It lasts between 2 1/2 and 3 hours, so with a bit of time at the Saturn V exhibit it means you will not be back at the main visitor complex until about 4:30pm at the earliest. This means that to catch of the IMAX movies or other attractions you should see them before leaving on the Then and Now tour.
The tour often does not run when a rocket launch is due from one of the Cape Canaveral launch pads as it would breach the minimum safe distance required for these pads. Other operational reasons might also cause this tour to be cancelled for a day or two. If in doubt it is worth phoning KSC information on 321 449 4440 to make sure the tour is running.
Author: Steve Harrison
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