From our new base in Orlando we left early, heading East, to arrive again in Cape Canaveral, to be there when the Kennedy Space Center opens – to make the most of our second day there. We parked at the front of the Scott Parker car park – beneath azure blue skies we skipped towards the entrance, our KSC lanyards around our neck, we watched the famous clock countdown the seconds until opening, the national anthem played, Florida’s love bugs covered everyone and thing, and the doors opened.
From the entrance, through the flying bug infestation, around to the Shuttle Atlantis exhibit. We were going to see a real space ship, something that had been to space and back over and over again – a monumental piece of human history. We were first in, and the place was perfectly quiet – a security guard ushered us into a large room and a film began to tell us the story of the space shuttle.
It’s a launch shuttle piggybacking on a rocket, it’s a space ship and it’s a glider; we watched as the paper prototype was developed into the real thing, tested, redesigned, improved, delayed, over budget, retested, redesigned and built again, until it was ready. The video ends, double doors open, and we’re in another room, a larger room, with screens all around us.
The story continues, and videos from floor to ceiling show the first launch, deployment in space, construction of the space station, the Hubble telescope, and untethered spacewalks – a dramatic taste of the shuttle’s legacy – the lights dim, stars appear, and in front of us the bay doors open, revealing Space Shuttle Atlantis as though suspended in space, mid-mission, floating high above the earth.
Conway ran forward, teddy bear in hand, pointing at the space plane, with an expression that said “look at that”, and not quite sure what to make of it. And there it was, the real thing, a symbol of my 90s childhood, such a joy to look at.
The guide recommends 2 hours for the exhibit, we almost topped 4. We stood and admired, explored, and listened to detailed tours showcasing the design features – from the crew quarters to the thrusters and heat shielding. We played in the mock-up cockpit and Conway had his turn at piloting. We tried an augmented reality space station docking, and a video showed how Hubble was deployed and also fixed – besides a life sized replica of the telescope. We crawled around the tubes of an imitation space station and Conway rolled the giant space shuttle tyres. Sam added “besides the space shuttle”, to the locations where she’s breastfed.
We saw the poignant memorial to the two disasters, Challenger and Columbia.
Outside, back in the bright glare of daylight and the heat of Florida, we grabbed ourselves some lunch – coffee, burgers and chips and key lime pie for dessert. With Conway now asleep we considered an IMAX movie, but just missed one – instead we looked around the Space Now exhibit – showing plans for the upcoming space launch system, Boeing’s spacecraft prototypes, and a real SpaceX dragon capsule.
Near the IMAX Samantha stayed with Conway to watch a science presentation on a 3D globe, while I tried out the shuttle launch simulator – a ride in a chair that moves you around and shakes you a lot.
In the Journey to Mars exhibit a loud presentation called for participants in the Mars programme - the first person to stand on Mars could be in this room, Conway cried with all the loud noises. Bathed in red light were descriptions of robots, prototypes, and the problems facing any Mars crew. In the corner – life sized replicas of the Mars Rovers; Sojourner, Opportunity and Spirit, and the most ambitious of all – the giant Curiosity, larger than I’d imagined.
From the future legends of Mars exploration, to America’s legends of space travel – we whisked around the Hall of Fame – I kept Conway entertained with a GoPro besides reproductions of old mission control, and a real Gemini 9A capsule – the interactive video was too noisy and scary for Conway. Of course, in a wide open space to run around in our little boy found the one sharp edge to knock his head on.
Outside again, and Conway and I played in a soft play area while Sam had a guided tour of the rocket garden. In places like this Samantha goes into full “museum mode”, she becomes a sponge that must soak up every wonderful fact from every exhibit, she is thorough and sees and reads everything. I only wish I had the energy to do the same.
The last event of the day was a talk given in the Universe Theater, a 3D show guiding us through the universe to look at some of the wonders our telescopes have discovered. Conway had his own glasses, but in the dark of the theater he mostly breast-fed.
And now our time here was over, we battled the love bugs as we left, and drove back to Orlando – stopping at Publix for some food reserves – we’d found the British aisle and here in the US we enjoyed a good old plate of British beans on toast. “Beans” Conway said, as excited about beans as he might be about space.