We recently visited the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida, with our granddaughters.
Did you know that Cape Canaveral was chosen as the location for the space program because of the warm climate and its location along the East Coast of the United States? This means that rockets can be safely launched to the east over the open waters of the Atlantic Ocean with no risk to populated areas.
My husband is fascinated by the space program and was just 10 years old when man first landed on the moon. He clearly remembers TV sets being brought into classrooms to witness the various Apollo space missions leading up to the big day when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin took off in Apollo 11 on July 16, 1969, landing on the surface of the moon over 100 hours later on July 20.
Although this news was very big around the world, I was only just 3 years old and have no memories of this momentous occasion. I did, however, meet Buzz Aldrin at a scientific conference where he was a keynote speaker in the 1990s, and I have wanted to visit the Kennedy Space Center ever since.
It is a great time to visit Cape Canaveral as the space center is currently celebrating the Apollo Program’s 50th anniversary and honoring this milestone era in NASA’s history (see www. kennedyspacecenter.com and www.space.com for more information).
I learned a lot during this visit, and it was fascinating to see the re-enactments of the first moon landing and the tension build before “the eagle landed.”
I did not realize the huge problems that Armstrong, Aldrin and Michael Collins had to overcome after the Command Module and the Lunar Module separated.
Collins remained in the command module, while Armstrong and Aldrin landed on the moon. Mission Control was having trouble with the radio link to the lunar module, and the computers were being overwhelmed with data leading to an intermittent alarm sounding.
On top of all this, fuel was running perilously low with only a few seconds to spare. Thanks to the skill and courage of the highly qualified professional test pilots recruited by NASA, plus a little luck by not landing in a boulder field, they made it safely down.
NASA stands for National Aeronautics and Space Administration and this U.S. government organization was started on Oct. 1, 1958, to be in charge of U.S. science and technology in the field of airplanes or space.
This agency took on a whole new importance when, on April 12, 1961, the Soviet Union became the first country to send a man into space with the successful mission of Yuri Gagarin in the spacecraft Vostok 1. At that time, the U.S. and the Soviet Union were already locked in an arms race, and there was a major concern that the Soviets would beat the U.S. and control space.
The next month, on May 5, American Alan Shepard flew into space, but did not orbit the earth as the Russian cosmonaut had. America’s early space program got off to a slow start and had a number of setbacks and technical problems.
Despite this, and not to be outdone by America’s Cold War rivals, President John F. Kennedy pledged in 1961 to support an American space program that would eventually dwarf the Soviet program in technological achievements and investment.
On May 25, 1961, President Kennedy announced to Congress his goal of sending an American to the moon by the end of the decade and asked for a significant budget to support this space program. This mission was clearly important and urgent to him, and he made it so for all Americans by linking the need for a space program with the political and economic battle between democracy and communism.
This came at a time that American school children were climbing under desks in practice drills for a nuclear attack, and the idea that America’s enemies could control space and be looking down on us at any time mobilized public support.
Kennedy urged Congress to provide the financial resources to speed up the pace of the space program’s progress. He insisted that America should “go into space because whatever mankind must undertake, free men must fully share.”
President Kennedy’s commitment to the space program was so strong that on Nov. 29, 1963, just one week after he was assassinated in Dallas, the Launch Operation Center in Port Canaveral was renamed to honor this visionary and iconic president.
Kennedy’s vision of sending an American to the moon became a reality six years after his assassination.
While a big part of the Space Center is devoted to the Apollo program, the Space Shuttle program also features heavily, and we walked around the retired space shuttle Atlantis. It was great seeing this veteran ship of 33 missions up close, having spent over 300 hours in space. The presentations and interactive displays were excellent, and the whole experience of space exploration really comes alive for visitors.
Space is an unforgiving environment, and the space center also honors the memory of astronauts and cosmonauts who have died during the course of the space program. The most recent tragedy was the disintegration of the space shuttle Columbia on Feb. 1, 2003, as it re-entered the earth’s atmosphere. It is sobering and moving.
But it wasn’t all seriousness at the Kennedy Space Center. We had some light-hearted moments, such as when our 8- and four-year-old grandchildren were fascinated to look at a toilet like the one used by astronauts in the space shuttle. And we explored inventions arising out of NASA like space dot ice cream and pens that will operate in a vacuum.
There really is only one quote I can leave you with this week, one of the most famous in history, by Neil Armstrong: “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”
God bless America!