Last week, Moby and I were lucky enough to see the launch of the space shuttle Atlantis at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Cape Canaveral, Florida. We were invited as VIPs (that’s “very important persons,” though I made sure the folks at NASA know that Moby’s a robot), so we had one of the best views of anyone at the launch! It was a magical trip.
We arrived a day early so that we could explore the world-famous visitor center at KSC. It blew us away! There, you can learn about the history of the American space flight program, experience a simulated shuttle launch, walk in a garden of gigantic rockets, see one of several IMAX films about space, and lots more! Among other things, I got to sit upside-down in a reproduction of one of the capsules used during the Apollo Project and walk along the same kind of plank structure that the astronauts cross over to enter the shuttle before strapping in. Moby and I went to pay tribute to those who died in the line of duty at the astronaut memorial monument, too. And of course, there was plenty of astronaut ice cream to be had!
Moby makes friends with some of the original astronauts
Visitors to KSC can also take a bus tour of the grounds, which is a lot of fun. You get to see where all the action takes place, including the Vehicle Assembly Building, in which the shuttle gets attached to its rockets; the main launch pad, 39A; the International Space Station Center, where ISS parts get assembled; and the totally awesome Saturn V Center, a museum dedicated to the Apollo Project of the 1960s and 70s, which landed 12 men on the moon. It’s built around an actual (enormous!) Saturn V rocket that was constructed but never used. All around the rocket are fascinating exhibits about the science and history of Apollo, including pieces of moon rock brought back to Earth; a wall of newspaper covers from July 1969, when Apollo 11’s crew first landed on the moon; and lessons about the physical forces required to launch humans into space!
After this exciting introduction to KSC, Moby and I couldn’t wait to return the next day to witness history in the making. The launch we were attending, part of shuttle mission number STS-132, was scheduled to be the third-to-last in the entire space shuttle program, and the last ever for the Atlantis orbiter. It was a busy day at KSC, as everyone wanted to catch a glimpse of the Atlantis ascent, or liftoff. The VIP viewing area was just outside the Saturn V Center by a waterway called Banana Creek, so Moby and I staked out a patch of grass right by the creek and waited patiently for the countdown to get close to 0. You could sense excitement in the air as the big countdown clocks indicated there were just 10 and then five and then two minutes to go! Finally, with 10 seconds left, everyone in the crowd started chanting along…5, 4, 3, 2, 1, LIFTOFF!!
Our view of Atlantis as it soared through the sky into outer space
The first thing we saw was an enormous cloud of smoke billowing from beneath the orbiter, its external fuel tank, and the two solid rocket boosters. For safety reasons, the launch pad is about three and a half miles away from our viewing site, so the sound (which travels slower than light) took a few seconds to get to us. But once it did, it was an incredible booming whoosh! It was a total thrill to know that six humans were on board that flying fireball and headed, quite literally, out of this world. We could see the orbiter for five or six minutes before the light from its engines disappeared in the atmosphere. The cloud it left behind was pretty neat, too: It formed an arc in the sky due to the arced path of the shuttle though the atmosphere.
Anyway, the experience was one I know I’ll never forget. Moby even decided to store a copy of his view onto his long-term memory files for access later on. By the way, if you’re interested in seeing a space shuttle launch, you’d better hurry because there are only two left on NASA’s official schedule: one in September and one in November. But even if you just want to visit the Kennedy Space Center on a non-launch day, there’s tons of history and science and plenty of activities to enjoy and learn from. We highly recommend it!