Kennedy Space Center (1997)

Cocoa Beach, FL - Walt Disney World, EPCOT, and other attractions in the Orlando area dominate the tourist scene so much that vacationers often miss seeing a wonderful, scientific slice of America just 45 miles to the east.

Not only does the Kennedy Space Center provide a wide variety of “see, hear and touch” exhibits about America's space program's past, present and future, it does so at reasonable prices and in a first-class manner. The Visitors Center is historic, its fun, its educational, and its something the entire family can enjoy and appreciate. The space program is unbelievable to some, as I found out.

While leaving the static display of the Space Shuttle Explorer and walking toward the exit, a visitor who appeared to be in his thirties. surprised me with this question:

“Do you believe any of this actually happened?”

“Of course it happened,” I responded, somewhat taken aback.

He countered, “What makes you think it did?”

I considered his odd statement for a moment and said, “Well, for one thing, you can see them being launched into space right here. Where do you think they go? For another, I know Alan Shepard personally, as well as other military people who have been involved in space flight, and I know it is real and that all this actually happened and will continue to happen. You seem like a very intelligent young man. Why would you question it?”

“Because I think it is all a big government hoax,” he answered in all seriousness. “Hollywood can make us believe anything, and apparently NASA can, too. It's all a fraud by the government and big business for the rich to get richer. Only God can be in space, not man.”

I told him I believed that God guided these astronauts and scientists in their endeavors, “but you are in a vast minority if you think this is all a hoax or myth.”

“What proof do you have that it isn't?” he persisted.

“I am a former naval aviator who has flown aircraft and navigated by the stars and radio frequencies across vast sea expanse,” I answered, adding, “I know about space phenomena and I know that space travel is both possible and actual.

I continued, “I'm sorry if you can't appreciate America's great consuming effort of the past 40 years. Surely the wonders of our space technology alone, which have resulted in so many electronic conveniences that you yourself use and see everyday, should be enough to convince you about the reality of all this. Yes, I say it all happened and will continue to happen even faster and greater than ever before, my friend.”

He merely smiled, as if indulging my stupidity, and walked away.

Perhaps nothing I could have said would have convinced him otherwise, but it made me aware that there must be others who think like he does. Certainly there is plenty of distrust in big government these days and a lot of fantasy in the movies and on TV. Maybe the rapid progress in space technology is simply too much for some people to comprehend.

This past July was a good time to be at the Visitors Center, with so much activity going on in space — critical problems with the joint U.S.-Russia effort on Space Station Mir, Shuttle Columbia's burn tests, and the media-hogging events of the Mars Pathfinder's space landing, with its remote cameras sending back images of the space rover Sojourner.

A replica of Sojourner, in a Mars-like setting, is available for visitors' hands-on operation by remote control. It is mind-boggling, I'll agree.

An Austin, Texas friend, Dr. David Carr, is Chairman of the Texas Space Commission. He comes here frequently for space launches, when possible, and has asked me along on several occasions. None of these opportunities came at a convenient time for me, so I made a point to stop and see it enroute to Key West.

Unfortunately, I couldn't stay long enough for the Shuttle Recovery scheduled the following week, nor come back for the August launch. However, by taking the bus tour out to see the launch pads, and enjoying two of three I-MAX presentations being featured, I lived the thrill vicariously. At some future date, I will meet David here for the real thing.

A special memorial features a huge slab automatically adjusted to reflect the sky and highlight the engraved names of astronauts lost in the name of space exploration. It is called the Space Mirror.

The newest eye-popping exhibit is the gigantic Apollo/Saturn V Center that displays the largest and most powerful rocket ever built. It took our astronauts to the moon. Its size is breath-taking - 363 feet long, weighing 6.2 million pounds - as evidenced by the gasps of surprise when visitors first enter the room to glimpse this huge rocket assembly displayed on heavy metal stanchions in the enormous building that houses it.

Rockets have a long history here, dating back to the military launches of the 1950s. The government chose this site because of its proximity to the ocean for over-water launches, a climate conducive to year-round operation and the availability of sparsely populated land. NASA was established in 1958 and three years later launched Astronaut Alan Shepard, the first American, into space.

As the Mercury and Gemini programs were undertaken in the 1960s from Cape Canaveral, a launch complex designed specifically for the Apollo Saturn V missions took shape nearby and Kennedy Space Center was born.

It was here that Astronauts Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins began their historic 1989 moon landing.

Following the Apollo program, the Saturn V facilities were modified to handle a new type launch system called the Space Shuttle - with reusable booster rockets and an orbiter that could return from space, glide to a runway touchdown and be refitted to fly again. Since that first mission in 1981, almost 80 such launches have begun from Kennedy Space Center's pads.

Soon the international space station will be launched from here, while newer more efficient launch systems are being developed to take the Kennedy Space Center into the next millennium.