Text & Pictures: David Niemegeerts ©SBAP 2014


Back in 1949, under President Harry S. Truman, it was decided that they would use Merritt Island in Florida, to launch missiles and rockets. Due to its geographical location, it was an ideal spot to do this. Some major reasons are that they are very close to the equator, and they can launch in the direction of the Atlantic Ocean, for safety and recovery reasons.


It so happened that I was planning a trip to Florida, and a trip to Kennedy Space Center was something mandatory on my list. As soon as you get near to the complex, you start to grasp the enormous size of the domain. You drive down a very long access road, which immediately makes clear that it actually is an island, due to the crossing of a lot of water over bridges. As soon as you arrive at the entrance of the park, the big External tank and Solid Rocket Boosters of the space shuttle greet you. You turn right onto the parking lot, and already see the so-called "Rocket Garden", which covers the start of the space race, and the evolution of it in the very beginning. From the Mercury-Redstone, Atlas and Titan rockets, to the Gemini and Apollo capsules. An important fact to note, is that only one of these rockets in the rocket garden, is not an original! Can you guess which one?


From the Rocket garden, we go through to the historical tour, from the first prototypes of a rocket engine, the first satellite, to the very first selection of potential astronauts, the first lunar landing, and a lot of background information. The way they present it, is very easy to understand for kids, and still contains more than enough detail to keep the most demanding adult interested.

The rocket garden From left to right: Mercury Redstone, Mercury Atlas, Juno I,
Thor Delta, Atlas Agena and Titan II
Soyouz space vehicle Vanguard I sattelite 1958

Mercury mission room

Goodard's liquid fuel rocket
Gemini program space suit

Neil Armstrong space suit

Space rockets evolution Thrust vectoring vanes of a Redstone rocket
The umbilical cord Orion spacecraft mock-up
Titan II boosters Saturn IB rocket

After we left the historical tour, we had to embark on a bus that would take us to some of the most impressive things I have ever seen in my entire life. They drove us straight to the Vehicle Assembly Building, where the Apollo and the Space Shuttles were assembled, and prepared for their voyages. I have never felt so small... Just to give people an idea: A length of 218 meters, a width of 158 meters, and a height of 160 meters. The 4 «sliding doors", through which the rockets left the building, are the largest in history. 139 meters high, through which the 110 meter high Saturn V-rockets left on the "crawler", the mobile platform that brought the rockets to the launch pads. The doors consist of 7 vertical panels, weighing 8 tons each! Just to open these doors, takes 45 minutes...


We got off the bus, right in front of the Vehicle Assembly Building, to enter the Launch Control Center. Some beautiful old equipment in the lobby, all mission badges of non-classified rocket launches, a security check, and we entered the Firing Room. The sight of all computer consoles, the sheer number of people working on a launch, all protocols to be followed, give you an idea of how complex this all is.


From there, we got back on the bus, and they drove us past the actual launch pads, LC-39A and LC-39B. From here, historical flights such as the Apollo project with the Saturn V, which flew to the moon, and the Space Shuttle missions were launched. also the gigantic crawler-transport was seen along the drive. This crawler has taken the Saturn V rockets, and Space Shuttles to the launch platforms.  Just some numbers to give you an idea... A crawler-transport weighs 2 721 tons, and has eight tracks, two on each corner. Each track has 57 "shoes", and one shoe weighs 900 kg. The total size is 40 by 35 meters, and is between 6.1 and 7.9 meters high (adjustable). The crawler has 16 electrical traction motors, powered by four 1 341 hp generators, who were driven by two 2 750 hp V16 diesel engines. The total lifting capacity of the crawlers today is 8 200 000 kilograms...


All this to show you what humans can do...

That flag is the size of a basketball field...
Test director desk Back in the days...
View from the Launch Control Center, launch pad in the distance
Imagine the atmosphere during a launch...
Counting down
What show is on today?
The gigantic crawler-transport The launch pad
Anti-lightning rods
Scorched exhaust deflector

After this, we went back to the visitor complex, to do a tour of the Apollo missions. First, you go through an IMAX experience, explaining the history of the project, after which you pass through a very small corridor, to finally arrive at the 5 main engines of the Saturn V rocket. The word enormous doesn't even describe the size of this thing... You take a few steps to the side, and then you see that an entire Saturn V is in the hall! The feeling of the three astronauts, sitting in a rocket that was 97% fuel, must have been overwhelming.  Again, some figures to show you how impressive space crafts really are. It's 110,60 meters high, and has a diameter of 10m. Total starting weight was 3 000 tons. The first stage F-1 engines have a combined thrust of 3,5 million kilograms!!! To reach this thrust, 15 m³ of fuel is consumed EVERY SECOND... Stage 1 is ignited for 168 seconds, to reach an altitude of about 67 kilometers... And a very important fact, not one Saturn V ever had an accident... After a long time of trying to wrap our minds around this unbelievable construction, we finally left the hangar to have a look at the Space Shuttle Atlantis display.


First stage of Saturn V

Coupling second stage Saturn V Third stage Saturn V
First stage fuel tank
Third stage engine - Orbital manoeuvring thrusters - F-1 engine
Last stage coopling Service module
Simply gigantic! Lunar module LEM
Appolo XIV command module Module door

First you have an immersive 3D presentation of the start of the project up to the launch, after which a screen rolls up, and reveals the actual Space Shuttle right in front of you, much to the amazement of the crowd. in the enormous hall, you see a sideways-tilted shuttle, with the bay doors open, the robotic arm extended, lots of interactive displays, a shuttle landing simulator, an engine on display, mission explanations, the Hubble telescope, and lots of other shuttle-related objects.

After having seen all this unbelievable stuff, we needed to let our minds rest for a bit, and we returned home, towards the sunset...


”When I first looked back at the Earth, standing on the Moon, I cried.”

Alan Shepard talking about his time on the lunar surface during the Apollo 14 mission in February 1971.

Rocket booster
The underside of the space shuttle with the famous tiles Space shuttle cargo bay
Cargo bay control panel Booster
Side trust vectoring
This could get a bit hot in here...

Used nose wheel tires

The first space shuttle design
A future astronaut?
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