We choose to go to the Moon.

We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.

– John F Kennedy, Rice University, September 12, 1962

Alan Shepherd’s Mercury Redstone rocket in the Rocket Garden at the Kennedy Space Centre

On Monday 12 November, Pookaverse visited the Kennedy Space Centre Visitor Complex based on Merritt Island and part of America’s historic ‘Space Coast’. Based less than 15 miles away in Cocoa Beach, setting for the TV series I Dream of Jeannie starring the cutest pixie on the block Barbara Ellen (who was not permitted by network censors to display her navel) held captive by her master Larry Hagman – an astronaut.

The VAB seen from approximately 7 miles away… a few hundred yards along the causeway that connects the Kennedy Space Centre to Cape Canaveral Air Force Base.

As Alison was poorly and not particularly fussed, Rohan carried the Pookaverse flag purchasing a Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB), Launch pads 39a and 39b and the Saturn V Centre tour for the price of $75 + $10 parking. The entrance to the site is shrouded in construction platforms and confusion. The space shuttle Atlantis has just arrived (11 days before Pookaverse took the tour) and is in the process of being interred wheels-up’ and cargo bay doors open in a new visitor display due to open in July 2013.

No stopping…all pictures of the site had to be taken through the glass of the tour coach…including this one taken while entering the gate of the VAB complex

As Rohan drove the ruler-lined NASA Parkway West and turned left into the Centre, the rear main engine assembly of Atlantis – one of only 3 remaining 5 space-capable orbiters built – was clearly visible protruding from the side of the new centre under construction. Another one of the amazing, spine-tingling sights of the day.

Looking up into the VAB…one of the two 227 metric ton (250 ton) bridge cranes clearly visible used for lifting machine sections into place then, on checkout, onto the crawler-transporter for dispatch to the launch pad…

As Rohan had missed his 10:00 tour he was bumped on to the 11:00 tour which left 45 minutes to explore the Rocket Garden –  a relatively small area of the site that included the rockets that sent man into space and ultimately to the moon.

There were three overlapping phases to the American Moon Space Flight program – Mercury (1959–63), Gemini (1961–66) and Apollo (1961–72).

Included within the garden was  a Mercury Redstone Launch Vehicle  a modification of the Mercury Redstone Missile used to propel Alan Shepherd into sub-orbital flight and into the history books on May 5, 1961 as the first American in Space and only the second human being to have left the stratosphere.

A picture of Apollo 4 assembly as it looked when utilising the high bay within the VAB. Note that these section platforms were removed when the Apollo program was cancelled..and refitted for Space Shuttle assembly

It is when you get up close that you see how ‘small’ this 83-ft machine actually is. Coupled with a visit to see the actual Freedom 7 capsule he squeezed into (Shepherd likened it to a bath tub) that you realise what was being asked of  a select group of seven men who were acclaimed of possessing “the right stuff”.

Note the ‘mouseholes’ next to the open main bay door. That’s where the people go in and out of.

It was this 15-minute flight that proved to the world and won the commitment of a young president to “….put a man on the surface of the Moon and return him safely to Earth” (Special Address to Congress, May 25, 1961) before the end of the decade thus galvanising the loose collection of emerging civilian and military technologies into a tangible but, what must have been at that time, unreachable goal for completion.

A view of the VAB from the trackway leading to launch pads 39-A and 39-B

The very fact that from NASA’s formation in 1958, this agency was able to deliver on JFK’s vision just over 8 years later. It is a tale set against one of the most volatile decades in contemporary history and a fascinating story in itself that is best read outside the context of this blog.

A refurbished ‘Fritz’ or ‘Hans’ in front of launch pad 39-A…where the Apollo program launched from…

For Rohan, the purpose of this visit was to see the main sites that were used during this 8-year period used to take human beings to the Moon.  There have been achievements since. Skylab, the Space Shuttle and now the International Space Station.

A close-up of the crawler-transporter at pad 39-A…as close as you can get anyway

But it was the Apollo program that hold’s the most fascination for Pookaverse. Just to be driving across one of the many bridges that span towards Merrit Island and the Kennedy Space Centre was thrilling.

Pad 39-A…the ‘Apollo’ pad…with the Space Shuttle assembly due to be dismantled…

To think that all those great men of the Apollo program drove down this road at some point – on their way to work.  For $8 per day. Less accommodation and expenses.  A seat in the Columbia command module of Apollo 11 belonged to the government and therefore was classified as ‘accommodation’.

The recreation of the Apollo 8 launch reaches lift-off…and then the goose-bumps start

As most of the selected astronauts including the participants in Flight SA-506 Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin  and Michael Collins were of officer class in their respective armed forces. The average salary for an officer at that time was $17,000. Equivalent to approximately $100,000 in today’s money.  Less tax. Less deductions. A modest amount for the 24 lunar astronauts. Comparatively speaking.

The rear engine assembly of S-IC first stage of the Saturn V space rocket…

When you consider the enormous risks involved. Three astronauts died before the first launch of Apollo 1 on January 27,  1967. All three; Virgil “Gus” Grissom, Edward H. White and Roger B. Chaffee were killed in the fire that consumed their command module on the pad. And the Apollo program was delayed.

The original astronauts van adjacent to the Saturn V exhibit…

For nearly two years until Apollo 8 was launched to orbit the moon 10 times and then splash-down on December 28 1968. It was the same pay for Frank Borman, James Lovell, and William Anders.  Despite having travelled farthest from the earth than any human beings at that time.

Where they sat…Inside the astronauts van used to transport the astronauts from their quarters to the launch pad for the Apollo missions

Then there are  the machines that the astronauts controlled. Vicariously. Bound together with over 2 million separate ‘systems’ within the Saturn V. Built by the lowest bidder. Untried and untested in its entirety for a complete Moon landing. Antiseptic. Distant. Titanic. In less than 6 hours.

the astronaut’s van entire…

For this purpose, the VAB (Vehicle Assembly Building) tour began with a drive through the NASA site and passed refurbished and inncouous looking 2-4 storey blocks. Buildings that housed the NASA astronauts’s quarters. Then past the building that assembles parts in one of the world’s cleanest ‘clean rooms’ sent from the participating global space agencies and dispatched by shuttle to the International Space Station.

Saturn V second stage S-II rear engine assembly….

And then out along a causeway down a single dual carriageway for a view of the the VAB  building from over 7 miles away. You are reminded of the landscape. It’s status as a National Wildlife Refuge and the abundance of bird and animal life that encircles the site.

The Service and Command Module at point plank range…

A short drive later. Disembarked and informed about NASA’s rules when in the VAB including staying with the group and not photographing the security guards – you are inside. The largest single-story building in the world. This is where all the machines were assembled. Saturn V to Space Shuttle to the next generation – The “Orion” Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle (MPCV).

The Lunar Module now descends towards the heads of the American taxpayer drinking Cappuccino and NASA cookies (biscuits) served in fruity little resealable bags…

Each time the internal platforms changed to accommodate access and the complex balances required to swing, bolt, tool and fit each section together. So that it works. To be in that very building was an experience. A memory. But where memory is concerned. Smell is the most poignant reminder. And the interior smelt of nothing.

Inside the earth-bound counterpart of the Lunar Module Interior used for simulations…

And then the product of that industry lowered onto one of two Crawler-Transporter’s for slow passage to the launch pads. Along super-compressed trackways laid with composites of grit, concrete and sandstone to Alabama river pebbles crushed flat by unimaginable pressures. Diverting to either 39-A for Apollo and the Space Shuttle to 39-B for all test firings. We are told that with NASA nothing goes to waste. The pebbles are trawled and smoothed down with a piece of chain-link fence. If it works, we are told, then there is no need to make things complex.

Gene Cernan’s (Apollo 17) practice and simulation space suit…it didn’t go to the moon….

Outside Pad 39-A the newly refurbished Crawler-Transporter either “Hans” or “Franz” with “new engines, new exhausts, new brakes, new hydraulics, new computers” squats near the vacant assembly where the de-commissioned Space Shuttle launched from. In itself being slowly removed. Dismantled and sold. Ready for a new assembly to hold commercial and military payloads steady as they ready themselves for the blasting air. The warm, humid air under the Florida sunshine.

One of Neil Armstrong’s space suits used in practice and simulation…

Jules Verne wrote in From the Earth to the Moon (1865) that the post-confederate world would launch its moon-bound projectiles from Tampa, Florida – 150 miles to the West of this place. Launching rockets to the East benefits the projectile. This place selected based on the ‘push’ given by the earth’s spin.

For this is NASA’s future. A site for industrialists and governments to launch the next generation of machines. Purpose disclosed or otherwise.

As you are deposited by tour end at the Apollo/Saturn V centre. To experience a recreation of the launch of Apollo 8. From a recreated launch site complete with desks blinking rows of buttons and chairs with emblazoned white lab coats overhanging. ‘McDonnell-Douglas”. “Lockheed” “Boeing”. “North American Aviation”. All competing. All united for the countdown. Each time a recorded voice speaks their console is lit. This is Launch Conrol. This isn’t Mission Control. That took place over 1000 miles away in Houston. At the  Johnson Space Center‘s Mission Control at the behest of LBJ. A Texan. The show ends. The light’s go up.

The Gemini capsule used in the Gemini program…Gemini? Two astronauts sat side-by-side…

The purpose of the Saturn V is clear. It is unequivocal. As you exit the theater you walk under the Stage 1 exhaust. The entire length. Separated by stage and suspended in sequence above you head.  The command module over 500 feet away. This was Apollo 18. Almost. Budgets frayed. Public interest waned.  Was that before or after Alan Shepherd played golf on the Moon?

The LM disinterred held aloft above the restaurant tables in this long house.  Space suits line the vault like armor.   Hand tools and collection poles scoop like sword and spear.

The Lunar Rover. A golden chariot of the sun.

Abandoned. Waiting for its master. Who has passed now and will never come.

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2 Responses to “We choose to go to the Moon.”

  1. jose Says:

    WOW what a truly wonderful description of the tour, really feel as if I was on the tour with you. Hope you’re feeling better Ali.

  2. Terri and Andrew Says:

    Wow, you had such a good time!!! Really enjoyed reading about your trip to the Kennedy Space Centre. Andrew

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