Here's a question: why are rockets launched from Cape Canaveral, Florida?
Set on the Atlantic Ocean and relatively nearer the equator compared to other U.S. locations, Cape Canaveral is a prime spot because rockets traveling eastward get a boost from the earth's natural spin. So, they save on fuel as well as rocket power. The rate of spin is at its highest on the equator and slowest at the poles. Cape Canaveral's southern latitude of just 28 degrees above the equator is a nice fit.
In the early 1960s the area around Cape Canaveral was a rural beach within a short driving distance of both Navy and Army bases. Since infrastructure was in place for transportation and there was a fair amount of reasonable privacy and isolation, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) established its command post here.
The Kennedy Space Center (KSC) became the gateway to the cosmos. Today, KSC's landscape is dotted with towering launch pads and support facilities filled with massive buildings and high-tech hardware and gear. But the space launch complex has a wild side.
Residing roughly midway between Jacksonville and Miami, the space center shares a boundary with the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge. Established in 1962 and operated by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, it provides a protected habitat for migratory birds and endangered and threatened species. It's a strange marriage of colossal technology and exquisite natural beauty that has co-existed for more than 50 years.
The refuge is home to more than a dozen pairs of bald eagles until most migrate into the mountains of North Carolina for the summer. By September they begin returning to KSC one by one building nests more than six feet in diameter. Perched atop high towers, trees or utility poles, they keep an eye out for their mates. In early December the female lays an egg or two. The downy eaglets hatch around Christmas and a new generation of the majestic birds is launched.
A strategic location along the Atlantic Flyway, the refuge provides a resting and feeding place for thousands of wading birds, shorebirds, and songbirds. Diverse habitats that include brackish marshes, salt water estuaries, and hardwood hammocks provide homes to an amazing diversity of more than 500 species of wildlife.
You will also discover more than 15 varieties of endangered wildlife at KSC. More than 300 manatees swim in the surrounding waterways, making up about 30 percent of Florida's total manatee population. And then there are the mighty alligators. Prior to each Kennedy Shuttle landing, a special crew was tasked with clearing the runway of all debris, including gators that might be sunning themselves there.
The once bustling commercial fishing area of Cape Canaveral is still home to a small shrimping fleet, charter boats, and party fishing boats. However, these days the big show are cruises. Port Canaveral Carnival, Disney, and Royal Caribbean cruise lines set sail at the north end of Port Canaveral that is home to some nice waterfront restaurants with expansive waterfront decks. Port Canaveral is now Florida's second-busiest cruise port for multiday cruises.
A five-minute drive north brings you to the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex. Operated by Delaware North, the dazzling makeover of America's spaceport is in a word, spectacular. KSC Attracting over 1.5 million people a year, it's an experience equal parts theme park and fascinating deep space education, packed with heart-pumping thrills. Plan for a full day outing. Here are some of my favorite highlights.
When you enter the gates head over to the Rocket Garden. The outdoor garden features eight authentic rockets from the past, including a Mercury-Atlas rocket similar to the one used to launch John Glenn into space in 1962. Elements include dramatic lighting, water features, “climb-in” Mercury, Gemini and Apollo capsule replicas, seating and informative graphic elements.
Don't miss the guided bus tour. You will experience parts of the space program not otherwise open to the public. Our driver Scott navigated us around multiple launch sites, including ones that are leased out to SpaceX and Boeing. You will travel past the massive Vehicle Assembly Building (the world's largest building) where NASA is currently constructing a rocket that will eventually take astronauts to Mars. The bus doesn’t stop at these spots, but Scott provided an entertaining running commentary on everything from the wildlife to the history of launches to almost everything you see out the window.
Visitors enter the new $100 million Space Shuttle Atlantis exhibit strolling past a full-scale, upright of replica of the massive space shuttle stack, including external tank and two solid rocket boosters. You quickly get a true sense of the awesome power used to thrust the shuttle into orbit. Stepping inside, two sweeping architectural elements or “wings” in hues of orange and gold represent both the heat and the bright colors of re-entry. A giant screen shows a film on the origin and history of the space shuttle program that went to space and back 33 times. The video is accompanied by a soaring soundtrack. One of the most complicated and sophisticated pieces of equipment ever built, the shuttle was launched like a rocket, flew in orbit like a spacecraft and landed on a runway like a glider.
When the video is over, the wall behind the front screen opens and you come face-to-face with Atlantis herself. A magical touch. Visitors experience a display as only spacewalking astronauts have seen her before -- the Atlantis is rotated 43.21 degrees with payload doors open and its robotic arm extended, as if it had just undocked from the International Space Station (ISS). There are more than 60 interactive exhibits and high-tech simulators that bring to life the complex systems and components behind this incredible feat of engineering. The shuttle fleet was the main method of transporting and building the ISS and other space wonders including the legendary Hubble Telescope.
Interactive kiosks explain each section of the spacecraft. Kids and adults alike rush to climb into replicas of the Atlantis’ pilot seat where you’re at the yoke ready to land Atlantis. Or try your hand seeing what it is like to move objects in space. It's a wonderful tribute to the decades of shuttle missions and astronaut heroes.
How about "Lunch with an Astronaut?" Each day you can sit down to a buffet meal and hear personal stories from a veteran NASA astronaut about what it’s really like to launch, live and work in space.
We opted for a quick lunch at the Orbit Cafe, where the lettuces and herbs in the salads are grown hydroponically in towers right before your eyes. Enjoy "build your own salads," a variety of burgers and sandwiches, pizza, mac and cheese, and seasonal berry shortcake. Or stay mobile and enjoy a wide selection of breakfast and lunch menu items at the Rocket Fuel Food Truck.
We closed out our visit with the newest gem: the IMAX movie "A Beautiful Planet." The film is a stunning portrait of Earth from space, providing a unique perspective and increased understanding of our planet and galaxy as never seen before.
Astronauts shot the film entirely with digital cameras that are smaller and easier to use than their analog predecessors. Cinematographer James Neihouse trained the astronauts to frame, light, and shoot footage from aboard the ISS. All of the earth scenes were shot through the Cupola, the ISS’s seven-pane bay window, including rare views of earthly phenomena such as the northern lights. Over the course of filming, the cameras circled Earth more than 7,000 times, eventually traveling some 189 million miles.
Stop by the Space Shop on the way out. We picked up SpaceX's "Occupy Mars" T-shirt. It went into a gift bag our host Kenna handed us earlier that contained among other goodies Astronaut Ice Cream. Frozen to -40 Fahrenheit, astronauts eat the space treat under weightless conditions.
If you're headed to Central Florida make the trip over to the Kennedy Space Center that educates, inspires and shares the wonders of space with the next generation of space explorers.