The Vehicle Assembly Building at the Kennedy Space Center is huge and homely and almost 50 years old. It’s tall enough to house a 363-foot Saturn V rocket, wide and deep enough to dwarf a space shuttle, cavernous enough for its powerful cranes to maneuver the orbiter and its external fuel tank and solid rocket boosters into place on a mobile launch platform. By volume — 129 million cubic feet of space — it is the fourth largest building in the world: 525 feet tall, 716 feet long and 518 feet wide.
What this boxy building houses is even more impressive: the past and the future of the U.S. space program and the emotions that go along with that — nostalgia for the glory days of moon walks, pride in the space shuttle, dreams of a heavy-lift launch system that will take us deeper into space.
Space shuttle Atlantis, its tiles scorched by the heat of re-entry, is parked in one of the bays until next year, when it will become the centerpiece of an exhibit at Kennedy Space Center in Titusville. An Orion capsule — similar to the capsules used in the Apollo program, but bigger — just arrived, to be used in testing for the heavy-lift launch system, which is being developed to send rockets to the moon, to Mars or even an asteroid.
Next door in another wing is the Launch Control Center, where NASA supervised the launch of every Apollo and shuttle mission, the countdown clock ticking down the seconds, the launch pad in sight from more than three miles away.
The public has not been allowed into either space in more than 30 years. Now NASA is offering up-close tours of these and other facilities, using the gap between the end of the shuttle program and the start of testing for the heavy-lift system, while many of the facilities sit idle.
“It’s an opportunity for the public to peek under the tent and get a look at these facilities that were built back in the ‘60s during the space race,” said Michael Curie, NASA spokesman at the Kennedy Space Center. “These were built for the Apollo program, then converted to launch the space shuttle, and now are being modified for a space launch system. It’s truly a unique opportunity.”
The newest tour, which started in June, is of the Launch Control Center, which houses four “firing rooms” that were the nerve center for each of 152 Apollo and space shuttle launches. Another tour, which started in November, goes inside the Vehicle Assembly Building.
Added to the other exhibits and experiences at the space center — a massive Saturn V rocket, suspended so visitors can walk under it; a view of the launch pads; the Firing Room Theater with the actual launch consoles used in the Apollo program; the Rocket Garden — the tours underscore the enormous scale of space exploration.
“There is a sense of wonder about these big pieces of equipment,” said J.R. Reilly, a retired astronaut who flew on three shuttle missions and now meets the public through the Astronaut Encounter at the space center. “Every once in a while, you need to stand under that Saturn rocket and see what a monster it is, to appreciate what it took to go to the moon and back in the 1960s.
“I like to call it the gee whiz factor. The Apollo was launched from here to go to the moon, and then we launched the space shuttle from here. Just the scale of it is pretty incredible.”
Visitors like the sense of adventure that seeing the equipment inspires, Reilly said. “They like to have something that will fire their imagination about what it’s like to be above the earth’s atmosphere. Particularly with the younger kids, we try to give them something that will give them a mind’s eye picture of what it is going to be like to set foot on the red dust of Mars.”
The space center, like museums, casinos, malls and other attractions, follows the model of theme parks in using themed entertainment and interactive exhibits to draw people, said Arthur Levine, Theme Parks guide at About.com. “We’re seeing more and more of that,” he said. “I don’t think that museums or attractions like the space center can use static, old-school exhibits like they used to. Kids and everyone else expect a more immersive experience.
“Like theme parks, the Kennedy Space Center offers an odd combination of cutting-edge technology and wild thrills with nostalgic reminders of the past.”
One tour showcases the space program’s physical properties, the other its technical wizardry. KSC this month is adding a third tour, the highlight of which will be a close-up view of the launch pads — currently, the public can view them only from a distance.
The tour of the Launch Control Center starts in the lobby, where the guide helps visitors trace the history of the space program on a mural and explains the 152 mission patches displayed on a wall. Then it’s upstairs to Firing Room 4. The tour passes Firing Room 3, which is in the process of being decommissioned; inside are banks of computer consoles wrapped in plastic.
Across the hall is Firing Room 4 with its rows of desks and computers still intact, although there are no launches to supervise. A few people, still wrapping up reports on the shuttle program, may work here in the early morning, but they are gone before the tours start at 10 a.m. At one end, the rows are banked like seats in a football stadium. At the top is the console where the launch director would sit and make the final “go” or “no go” decision. The banked seats face rows of desks all on one level, like on the field. Name plates indicate where the other members of the launch control team sat — system experts, payload experts, engineers, technicians. On one wall are “tributes” to each of the five shuttles — art work representing each shuttle’s history accomplishments, including a patch designed for each mission. The countdown clock is here, too, and even now it is set in a countdown mode for the benefit of visitors.
Overlooking the firing room is a “bubble room,” where NASA managers, looking through interior windows, watched the launch control team. Through a big expanse of glass on the exterior wall, they could see the launch pad 3 1/2 miles away.
Being in this room where the brain power sat is both humbling and inspiring.
A different tour goes to the Vehicle Assembly Building, where visitors can see space hardware and the giant cranes capable of maneuvering the biggest rockets. The wide center aisle is open for all 52 stories, floor to roof, but the bays on either side are stacked. In busier days, one bay might hold a rocket, the one above it an orbiter. At either end of the center aisle, windows go up and up, until the big American flag that hangs there seems just a speck of red, white and blue.
On this day at the end of June, an Orion capsule sits just inside the entrance, along with nozzles through which the flames from burning rocket fuel escape. They are components of the heavy-lift launch system and sit on wheeled platforms so they can be moved to Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, where they will be tested.
The orbiter Atlantis sits angled away from a window in a bay on one side. It’s being prepared for its place in a permanent display in a building that is under construction elsewhere on the grounds, scheduled to be completed next summer. Atlantis looks worn, NASA having decided to leave the scorched tiles and other wear and tear as it is rather than pretty it up.
When the tour arrives at the bay that holds Atlantis, visitors line up along the waist-high barricade so their companions can take cell-phone photos of them with the shuttle in the background.
The tour also includes a look at the crawler-transporters, big as a baseball diamond, that moved the shuttle from the Vehicle Assembly Building to the launch pad.
“People still get as excited as they did during the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo days. It’s a very moving experience to see space hardware and to see the facilities you saw on TV and to think back to when you saw the launch to the moon,” Curie said.
The tours are currently scheduled to run through the end of 2012, but whether they continue beyond that date depends largely on whether private industry wants to use the facilities for commercial launches. The first launch of an unmanned rocket from the heavy-lift system isn’t planned until 2017, and NASA isn’t using the launch pads, the launch control center or much of the space in the Vehicle Assembly Building. Cape Canaveral Air Force Station next door accommodates launches of NASA science missions, government satellites and commercial space programs for now, although some commercial launches could move to the Kennedy Space Center, in which case the up-close tours probably would be curtailed or stopped.