Elon Musk brings new meaning to the word irrepressible.
In early March the SpaceX founder and CEO stunned the spaceflight community by announcing the first joy ride into space. In 2018 he plans to launch one of his rockets to transport not astronauts, but two wealthy private citizens around the moon. The pair have already put down a “significant deposit” for the 300,000 mile trip that will take a week. This will be the first private company to take civilians beyond lower Earth orbit.
When Musk dreamed up the idea for his commercial space exploration company 15 years ago his core principle was to recycle reusable rockets, a strategy that would dramatically reduce the cost of space travel and make it more available for commercial audiences.
Musk's dream turned into reality with a launch of a "flight-proven" rocket in late March. He did it again on June 23 with the blast off of a two-stage, 23-story tall Falcon 9 rocket from Complex 39a at NASA's Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral. The booster rocket transported an 8,000 pound satellite to orbit where it will provide will provide television and data-communications services to Bulgaria, the Balkans and other parts of Europe.
About eight minutes later the first stage rocket touched down intact with fold out legs on the drone ship "Of Course I Still Love You" stationed 200 miles off the coast of Cape Canaveral. SpaceX now has 12 booster landings under its belt. The Falcon 9 rocket bolstered Musk's mission to slash the cost of spaceflight through the use of reusable rockets and hardware. The 45-year old billionaire believes SpaceX can revolutionize travel in the solar system and take humans to establish a city on Mars.
If you're traveling to Florida this summer, consider a side trip to Cape Canaveral on the central coast. SpaceX is expected to launch five more rockets during July and August, while United Launch Alliance, a partnership between Boeing and Lockheed Martin, is due to launch another two.
Watching a rocket launch from a few miles away provides a unique perspective on the technology and power required to send spacecraft into Earth’s orbit. There is nothing quite like it. With more launches happening now than ever before, now is the time to witness the wondrous show.
The closest public launch viewing is from Kennedy Space Center and Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. Special launch viewing areas are made available to visitors. Get there early. Traffic can be hectic on launch days. Arrive when the gates open if you're planning to see a morning launch. Give yourself plenty of time to get to your destination and expect long lines at the gate and in parking areas. For details on purchasing tickets check www.kennedyspacecenter.com.
There are also prime viewing areas outside of the complex including the shores of the Indian River, the Exploration Tower, the Canaveral National Seashore, the Cocoa Beach Pier or any of the beaches south of Port Canaveral. When planning to visit a rocket launch, it's important to remember that dates are rarely finalized until a few weeks to a few months before each launch. And planned launches can be scrubbed or delayed due to weather or technical issues, even down to seconds before launch. So it's important to make flexible plans and prepare to stay for a few days if you're determined to catch the launch despite delays.
Check Space Flight Now (www.spaceflightnow.com/launch-schedule) for up-to-date information, and keep an eye on NASA, SpaceX and ULA Twitter feeds for additional updates. Another good resource is the local newspaper, Florida Today, (www.floridatoday.com) that streams rocket launches starting 30 minutes before the lift off.
Kennedy Space Center is home to the coolest space attractions on the planet. When you enter the gates, head over to the Rocket Garden that 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. Don't miss the guided bus tour. You will experience parts of the space program not otherwise open to the public. 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.
At the $100 million Space Shuttle Atlantis exhibit, a giant screen shows an IMAX 3D 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 pilot's seat where you’re at the yoke ready to land Atlantis.
Virtually within the shadow of the historic rocket towers, prehistoric sea turtles carry out their renewal-of-life rituals. The surrounding beaches are the birthing place for hundreds of loggerhead, green and leatherback turtles that lumber ashore during the night, dig nests with their flippers and deposit 60 to 100, ping-pong ball size eggs that hatch in the late summer and early fall.
Established in 1962 and operated by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge provides a protected habitat for migratory birds and endangered and threatened species. Home to more than a dozen pairs of bald eagles, they perch atop high towers, trees or utility poles and build nests more than six feet in diameter. There are more than 15 varieties of endangered wildlife near the Kennedy Space Center, including West Indian manatees that swim in the surrounding waterways.
Also near the space center is Canaveral National Seashore, created by Congress in 1975. With 24 miles of beach, it has the longest section of undeveloped beach along Florida's eastern coastline home to 1,045 species of plants and 310 species of birds. Endangered species include sea turtle, manatee, Southern bald eagle, wood stork, peregrine falcon, eastern indigo snake, and Florida scrub jay. With beaches from south of New Smyrna Beach to Titusville, Canaveral National Seashore is one of the last of the Florida wildernesses.
Photos courtesy of SpaceX and Canaveral National Seashore