|Tuesday, July 2, 2013: Happy Birthday, Tom! For your birthday, you get to spend the entire day surrounded by NASA!
|The new Atlantis exhibit had just opened three days earlier, so the timing of our vacation was perfect.
|We arrived at 8:30 AM for the 9:00 AM park opening. We were the first ones on the grounds, so we got Tom's photo without anyone else to block the shot.
|Crowds started to arrive, so we kept our eye on the prize -- the entrance gates.
|Five minutes before the park opened, we picked a gate and stood in front of it as others started to gather. At 9:00 AM sharp, the National Anthem played and when it was finished, the gates opened.
|We were the first ones through security and out of the gates. Not having kids with us allowed us to move much more nimbly than all of the families behind us.
|We moved swiftly through the Center, pausing briefly to get this cool display representing the different countries involved in the International Space Station.
|This is what we were after -- an unobstructed photo of Tom in front of the amazing Atlantis exhibit, ...
|... and the front of the line inside. We were the first to arrive and were greeted at the door by the exhibit manager, who walked in with us and told us about the crowds they'd had so far. He told us about the other two shuttles that are now on display and how they are positioned, and that Atlantis is unique in that she is shown as she would be in flight.
|Entrance to the display involves watching a short film in this room, followed by another short film in another room, both of which were very interesting.
|When we got into the exhibit itself, we were starstruck. Everyone got to have their photo taken in front of the shuttle (and of course, Tom was first).
|A Kennedy Space Center employee was also there to take photos. We purchased the photo she took but this one that she took on our camera turned out a little nicer, so that's the one we'll share.
|After the photos of us, it was time to behold the glorious Atlantis.
|The exhibit is designed so that you can get really close and see every detail, and yet there's plenty of room for everyone to move around and enjoy it without crowding.
|You can get a nice close look into the cargo bay.
|A video display behind the shuttle gives a changing view of what passengers on the shuttle got to enjoy.
|So, back to the cargo bay. Who knew that the space shuttle was basically just a freighter? Tom did. Debbie, not so much.
|The next group of visitors gets their first look at Atlantis, while the previous group has moved on to the next level up or down.
|Here's the view from near the back, ...
|... and here's the view of the back. There is no way to convey a sense of scale.
|Oh, wait, yes there is. Here's tiny human Tom taking a photo of just one part of it. In the background, you can see the upper level which allows visitors to continue staring at the shuttle without the people below blocking their view. The upper level also has several exhibits that we'll show you very soon.
|Looking down, you can see the lower level. Patience. We'll go there soon as well.
|Now, back to the exhibits on the upper level. Here's some sort of engine-y thingie. Note that Tom is not writing these captions.
|This was a mockup of the shuttle controls. Those darn kids wouldn't let Tom in to play, but only because there was a never-ending stream of future astronauts waiting for their turn, and let's face it, Tom is a grown-up.
|Oooh, it's the floating spaceman! What is his name again? Tom knows. Tom always knows. (Tom: "Come on, woman! Try to remember this time! It's Bruce McCandless!")
|Next up was the Hubble telescope display. These six columns noted the missions that deployed and repaired the Hubble.
|Here's a replica of the Hubble telescope.
|We were finally ready to head down toward the lower level when we were delayed by this fantastic view of the underside of Atlantis, ...
|... and then by this fun little display of tubes representing the International Space Station.
|We stowed our shoes and in we went!
|The clear tube was probably meant to represent walking in space, but we're pretty sure your knees don't hurt after a spacewalk.
|Ooooh, Earth is pretty.
|This was the lead up to a large slide that represents the space shuttle as it lands. This represents the first of the four S-turns the shuttle made when slowing down for landing.
|Unfortunately, the slide was currently out of commission, so we took the ramp instead and passed all these colorful mission logos.
|This little display discussed the Combined Operational Load-Bearing External Resistance Treadmill (C.O.L.B.E.R.T.) named after Stephen Colbert in lieu of naming a new ISS node after him.
|Yes, do tell us -- how do astronauts go?
|On this. This is how they go.
|And this is how they eat, ...
|... and this is how they sleep.
|This sobering display paid tribute to the two shuttle crews who never made it back.
|Here are tires that were used as landing gear.
|The shuttle is so large, ...
|... that one of the wings extends to the lower level.
|Here's a closeup of the tiles on the wing's tip.
|Remember that broken slide? Here it is. It sure looks fun!
|But there's no way that it is as fun as a simulator. Here is Tom landing the shuttle, ...
|... and here he is docking it with the International Space Station.
|Next, we stowed our belongings in a locker and went on the Shuttle Launch Experience which was very entertaining.
|Finally, we passed the Astrovan on our way to the gift shop where we loaded up on the first of many bags of souvenirs, including a polo for Tom, ...
|... and very realistic photos of ourselves as astronauts.
|We had just a short time to grab lunch, because our purchased-online tour tickets told us we needed to check in for our tour shortly after noon. So, we grabbed a sandwich, chips, banana pudding, Diet Coke, and a beer, and had a quick lunch outside. Of course, we opted for the souvenir 3D cup as well.
|We went to the appointed meeting area to wait for our tour. After a major screw-up by the visitor center in which we were not issued magic stickers because we had purchased online and we waited 40 minutes for no reason whatsoever, ...
|... the rest of the tour group was called to line up and allowed to pick seats on the bus. Finally, a security guard came to check our IDs and we were one of the last ones on the bus despite buying our tickets two months in advance and being the first ones to arrive. Yeah, it was maddening.
|But we got on the bus and headed out on our tour: "Cape Canaveral: Then and Now." This tour leaves the Kennedy Space Center grounds and is conducted on the Air Force base of Cape Canaveral, so the emphasis is on military history. As we left the visitor center, we passed this gate that we clearly need to have in our yard somewhere.
|Our first stop was the Air Force Space and Missile Museum. Part of it is housed in a blockhouse (launch shelter) used for the early rocket launches at Cape Canaveral.
|Our volunteer guide for this visit was a retired Air Force colonel, and he gave us a great tour of the museum and told us all about the early days of rockets and satellites.
|The displays included Women in Space, ...
|... I Dream of Jeannie (this is Cape Canaveral, after all), ...
|... Early Satellites, ...
|... Explorer I, ...
|... and Animals in Space.
|This is one of the capsules used to house the chimps who went into space, dubbed a Chimpanzee Couch.
|In the missile launch room, we saw the extremely thick glass windows used to view the launches while still remaining safe behind the thick walls of the shelter.
|Next door, we saw more exhibits, including ...
|... Winged Missiles of the U.S.A.F., ...
|... Space Launch Vehicles, ...
|... and this Gemini capsule displayed to showcase the heat shield.
|In a nod to the beautiful Florida coast on which Cape Canaveral Air Force Station is located, there was a display of local shells.
|In the area behind the museums, there was a collection of space treasures, including ...
|... this white rocket, ...
|... and this red one, ...
|... and this green one, ...
|... and this other white one with a big orange one behind it.
|Let's not forget this red thing.
|After a quick dash to the rest rooms and a stop at the gift shop to buy a Cape Canaveral polo for Tom, we got back on the bus. The area was under a weather alert, but we had not yet reached Phase Two, indicating lightning was nearby, so we were still free to exit the bus at our next stop, which was another small museum within Launch Complex 5/6.
|It was at this moment that Debbie realized that the astronaut in the opening credits of "Star Trek: Enterprise" was none other than Alan Shephard.
|This was a small building filled with ancient equipment protected behind plexiglass.
|Our tour guide for the day told us some stuff and once again, we looked out the thick glass windows at the launch pad used for the first U.S. manned launch.
|At this point, our guide asked if anyone knew what Gus Grissom's capsule was called. One clueless person scanned the display and answered, "The Virgil I," incorrectly interpreting Gus' real first name and middle initial as the name of his capsule instead. (Correct answer: the Liberty Bell 7.)
|We got a nice view of the back of the launch complex and this Mercury Redstone rocket.
|Here is the oft-photographed Cape Canaveral Light, being photographed again, this time through the window of a tour bus.
|By now, it had started to rain and we were under Phase Two, so we were not able to exit the bus at this brief stop, ...
|... but we were able to photograph the Mercury 7 Monument through the windows of the bus.
|Phase Two was lifted just as we arrived at Launch Complex 34 so we were able to get out and look around.
|We were forbidden from taking any photographs of the rocket being prepared on the launch pad north of us, so we didn't. As we explored the complex, a security guard was also there to see if an alligator had returned to the marsh next to the pad. (It hadn't.)
|This is the site of the Apollo I launch pad fire that killed three astronauts.
|Off to one side is a small monument to the astronauts. Each of the three benches bears the name and the military branch of each man.
|Long past the 3-hour mark, we were brought to the Apollo Saturn V Center and deposited with the masses waiting to be let in to the next available presentation. Exhausted and tired of crowds, we decided to head to the departure bus area, and then happily discovered the back door to the center.
|In we went and it was well worth it. Before the throngs from outside appeared, we got to see much of the center.
|This is a collection of Man Walks on Moon headlines on newspapers around the world.
|This is the biggest rocket any mere mortal has ever gotten to see close up.
|And here's more of it, ...
|... and more, ...
|... and more.
|What do you suppose this is? Something shiny, I guess. No, Tom assures the reader that this is an Apollo command/service module.
|This was a genuine piece of moon rock that we were allowed to touch. After a million visitors touching it, the surface was worn to a nice shine.
|Every child of the 70s remembers the space buggy with its cool metal tires. Tom insists on calling it a lunar rover. Whatever.
|This is the Apollo 14 command module.
|When we were done, we boarded a bus back to the main visitor center, past this mobile launch platform ...
|... and the vehicle assembly building. We also passed an eagle's nest, but didn't get a good photo, sorry.
|Back at the center, the sun was starting to peek out while Tom tried his hand at spinning the night sky. This cool thing is called a Kugel fountain and we've seen several of these.
|We walked right into the IMAX Theater's showing of Space Station 3D, which we very much enjoyed.
|Then we walked into and right back out of the Angry Birds Space Encounter exhibit that featured a hands-on tossing game and probably some other stuff. Great fun for the kids, but we moved on.
|We quickly walked through the Exploration Space exhibit because we were getting tired by now. Tom noticed that all of the kids interacting with the exhibits were girls, including these two, ...
|... and these two with their obviously awesome parents. It was very encouraging to see.
|Tom treated himself to a souvenir tag and about half of the goods in a nearby gift shop, including a towel, plaque, gummy space shuttles, an ornament, socks, a shot glass, another polo, and a commemorative tote bag to carry it all.
|Our final stop was the awe-inspiring Rocket Garden.
|This dude loves rockets.
|We walked on the same service arm that the Apollo 11 astronauts used to enter the command module, ...
|... replicated here.
|A trio of rockets.
|Tom demonstrates the proper technique for sitting in a capsule. Shortly after this, we bade farewell to the fabulous Kennedy Space Center.
|We were starving after our long day, so we headed to Paul's Smokehouse for dinner.
|We were seated by the windows with a nice view of the Indian River.
|Tom celebrated his birthday with a bowl of his favorite soup: French onion.
|Then we feasted on giant slabs of prime rib.
|During and after dinner, we amused ourselves by watching the antics of the jumping mullet just offshore.
Just south of us, we could see the bridge on which we had driven to and from the Kennedy Space Center. It was a very good day.
Copyright © Deborah Schilling/Thomas Bundy