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New Kennedy Space Center exhibit asks: What is a hero?

Painted on glass, this artwork represents NASA’s Mercury 7 astronauts: Scott Carpenter, Gordon Cooper, John Glenn, Gus Grissom, Wally Schirra, Alan Shepard, and Deke Slayton. A large fiberglass sculpture of the image is on the building’s facade.
Painted on glass, this artwork represents NASA’s Mercury 7 astronauts: Scott Carpenter, Gordon Cooper, John Glenn, Gus Grissom, Wally Schirra, Alan Shepard, and Deke Slayton. A large fiberglass sculpture of the image is on the building’s facade. mlambert@miamiherald.com

Space memorabilia and astronaut tales are almost always a draw. Just ask the people who run the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex, which gets more than 1.5 million visitors a year.

But the setting can make a difference. For years, the U.S. Astronaut Hall of Fame — brainchild of the Mercury 7 astronauts and loaded with artifacts from the space program — sat six miles down the road from the Kennedy visitor complex near Titusville, technically part of the Kennedy operation but getting few of its visitors.

Now the Hall of Fame has moved into a new $20 million exhibit at the space center’s visitor complex on Merritt Island. Heroes & Legends, which opened Nov. 11, combines high-tech theater, tales of heroism, a 21st century setting for space vehicles and astronaut memorabilia, and poses the question: What makes a hero?

According to the exhibit, a hero is passionate, curious, tenacious, inspired, confident, disciplined, principled, selfless and courageous.

Beating the drama of the space shuttle Atlantis exhibit or the enormous Saturn rockets on display at the visitor complex is hard. But the new exhibit captures the human element of the space program. With its high-tech and interactive elements added to stories by and about astronauts, it is a compelling exhibit. 

The highlight is a 7  1/2minute movie, “Through the Eyes of a Hero,” that tells stories about four astronauts — Alan Shepard, Neil Armstrong, John Glenn and James Lovell — enhanced by old film clips and new computer-generated images.

In it, there’s a re-creation of a young Lovell walking on the beach with the man he names as his hero, Charles Lindbergh, who was a fan of the space program. In another vignette, Armstrong tries to stop the end-over-end tumbling of Gemini 8 during a docking exercise in space, and we hear “We have serious problems here … The capsule is spinning out of control.”  

The movie reminds us why we think of astronauts as heroes and teaches us about the meaning of courage. Astronauts are pioneers in an environment more hostile than any place on earth. They face risks every minute of their missions, from fiery launch to space walks to the hazardous re-entry, knowing there is no outer-space version of AAA to rescue them if something goes wrong.

Honoring space travelers was the goal of the six surviving Mercury 7 astronauts and Betty Grissom, widow of the seventh, Gus Grissom, when they founded the Astronaut Hall of Fame in 1990. Starting with the Mercury 7, a few U.S. astronauts were inducted every year. Currently, 93 of 338 U.S. astronauts from the Mercury, Gemini, Apollo and space shuttle programs are in the hall of fame.

But the hall had some rocky times and was on the verge of bankruptcy in 2002 when NASA and Delaware North, the privately held company that operates the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex, took it over. The hall of fame was then included in admission to the visitor complex, but after touring the sprawling space center, few visitors stopped at the hall six miles away.

A year ago, Delaware North closed the hall of fame in order to move it to the visitor complex as part of the planned Heroes & Legends exhibit. Heroes & Legends, in turn, is part of Delaware North’s effort to modernize the visitor complex, parts of which still have a ’70s look. That look is consistent with the era of the Apollo space program but doesn’t help the space center compete with the theme parks just an hour’s drive away in Orlando.

The new exhibit is sponsored by Boeing and was designed by Falcon’s Treehouse, an Orlando attractions-design firm, which interviewed more than 60 astronauts and produced more than 60 hours of content and 10,000 photos. One of their goals: to create an experience that will appeal to young people.

Heroes & Legends moved into the building that used to house the Early Space Exploration display and incorporated some of its elements. It was deliberately placed near the visitor complex entrance so that it would be guests’ first stop. “We’ve been focusing on a story to create what we consider a ‘launch pad’ for our visitors that really sets the stage for their full-day experience here,” Therrin Protze, chief operating officer of the visitor complex, said in a statement.

93 U.S. astronauts from the Mercury, Gemini, Apollo and space shuttle programs inducted into the Astronaut Hall of Fame.

The building got a new look, too. The façade has a new 30-foot-by-40-foot bas relief sculpture of the Mercury 7 astronauts. An entrance ramp, an elongated loop representing the journey into space, curves through the adjoining Rocket Garden.

If you think of the exhibit as a show, it has four acts:

▪ Act 1 is an array of photos on a 360-degree screen that morph into a film called “What is a Hero?” featuring astronauts, celebrities and ordinary people talking about their heroes. Included in the seven-minute presentation are snippets of videos submitted by members of the public in which they answer the question “what is a hero?” and name their own heroes. The answers range from parents and teachers to astronauts, Chuck Yeager and fictional characters like Superman.

▪ Act 2 is “Through the Eyes of a Hero.” The 225-degree curved screen stands 28 feet tall, putting observers into the action. Stand in the front balcony, and you get caught up in the details of what’s right in front of you. Stand in the top balcony, set furthest back, and you’ll see the panorama more than the details of the movie. Best bet is the second or third tier — or watch it twice from different angles.

▪ Act 3, called “A Hero Is…” features displays of astronauts’ artifacts and discussions of the characteristics of heroes. The designers built displays to illustrate each of nine qualities: A hero is passionate, curious, tenacious, inspired, confident, disciplined, principled, selfless and courageous.

Each pod is designed to look like the inside of a space capsule and contains artifacts — many of them donated by astronauts — and offers interactive components, including audio or video of astronauts talking about something related to that characteristic. Other larger exhibits use holograms or augmented reality.

Among the artifacts are Gus Grissom’s Mercury spaceflight suit; Deke Slayton’s World War II bomber jacket; a Gemini IX capsule with a hologram of astronaut Gene Cernan climbing out of it; a Sigma 7 Mercury spacecraft paired with a Mercury-Redstone rocket; and an old NASA logo that was hung on the wall of the Mercury Mission Control Center at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in 1959.

Largest of all is a display containing the original consoles of the Mercury Mission Control room and the map of the world on which John Glenn’s 1962 flight on Friendship 7 was tracked.

▪ Act 4 is the Astronaut Hall of Fame. The walls of the rotunda are lined with plaques and images of the 93 astronauts who have been inducted. A statue of Alan Shepard from the old hall stands in the center of the room. Another component offers hundreds of photos of the Mercury astronauts and a wall where a visitor can pose with an image of a Mercury astronaut.

Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex

Where: The visitors complex at the Kennedy Space Center is on State Route 405 on Merritt Island, just northwest of Cape Canaveral.

Admission: Adults $50, children 3-11 $40. Includes general bus tour (not special behind-the-scenes tours), Legends & Heroes, Atlantis exhibit and launch experience, Angry Birds Space Encounter, IMAX 3D films, Apollo/Saturn V Center.

Hours: Opens daily at 9 a.m.; closing times vary by season.

Information: 855-433-4210, kennedyspacecenter.com

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