On 26 July 1969, millions watched their TV screens with bated breath as one man placed his foot on the moon for the first time.
Today you can touch a moon rock, walk under the largest rocket ever launched, tweet to an astronaut and even sign up to live on Mars. Space is closer than ever before, and nowhere is that more obvious than the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, USA.
The most heartening part about visiting the Center is that you can get as involved as you like. Just want to try the simulations and live your space-movie dreams? You can do that. Want to take a look at only the rocket garden and launch pads? That’s available too. Interested in trying freeze-dried ice-cream (a vacuum-dried “space treat” that sounds better than it tastes) with a side of astronaut epiphanies? Of course!
The place itself feels like a science-fiction film set. Touch-screen exhibits stand alongside space-age simulators. Astronaut memorabilia and IMAX movies celebrate American space exploration.
And floating mid-air, in the centre of it all, is the space shuttle Atlantis, flaunting every scar from her 126 million miles of space travel. It’s the venue for our shuttle-launch simulation. Buckle up!
Naively, I expect this might be something like the Incredible Hulk Roller Coaster at Universal Studios in Orlando nearby; but it’s soon clear that this is no joyride. Astronauts swear this is as close as it gets to the real thing. The engines throb, the boosters rumble as we gear up for a simulated 17,500-mph space launch. The ‘windows’ show us taking off, ascending the heavens until home is but a blue-green planet below.
Back on Earth, lunching with an astronaut (a popular part of any visit here) has our jaw dropping as low as it will go. As she talks about her training for her mission (emergency drills, being quarantined from her own children), it’s clear that only single-minded grit is allowed on this road less travelled.
UP, UP AND AWAY!
Once in space, however, the rules of life as you know them are clearly suspended. “The first thing you notice when in orbit is how you float,” she says. “You can tell that I’m in space by the lovely hairdo.” Her hair, in the image she proffers, has blown into a giant pouf. That’s the sense of humour essential to lubricate any challenging journey.
“Weightlessness can be as fun as you make it,” says the astronaut. “Initially, when we orbited the earth, my legs and arms were all over the place; but gradually I got used it. There’s no need for shoes because you can’t walk anywhere. You can reach the ceiling by floating. Your sleep station is not much larger than you and you’re floating while you sleep. Space is at a premium in space.”
Zero gravity means nothing’s done quite the way it is back home. Food is fastened down with Velcro so it doesn’t float away. You spit your toothpaste into paper when brushing your teeth. Washing your hair is more challenging. (Imagine shampoo suds floating away!) You quickly become grateful, not just for all that you have on Earth, but also for all you have on board, where everything is priceless – even dehydrated food.
There are, of course, perks. One of the astronaut’s jobs was documenting Earth. They’d circle the planet in 90 minutes, at 17,000 miles per hour, giving them 45 minutes each of day and night. All aboard would see a sunset or sunrise every 45 minutes, even though they’d just last nine seconds.
LONG RIDE AHEAD
Many who visit the Space Center time it to catch a real shuttle launch. Still others enroll for workshops and programmes that deepen your insights and potentially determine if you’re cut out for time in the heavens.
But no matter your reason to visit, you’ll be drawn in. For the Kennedy Space Center has the most successful of all things. It has a story. All the trappings of a fairy tale: challenges, obstacles, a literal suspension of reality and above all, the idea that space travel is a triumph of imagination and will.
From HT Brunch, September 27
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