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Our 2007 Road Trip, Part 7: Space, So Near Yet So Far

Explorer!

As of 2007 the Space Shuttle Explorer was docked in Florida, and we were there. Extra points to experienced Highlights readers who can spot me and my son up there.

Previously on Midlife Crisis Crossover:

Every year since 1999 Anne and I have taken a road trip to a different part of the United States and seen attractions, marvels, history, and institutions we didn’t have back home in Indianapolis. From 1999 to 2003 we did so as best friends; from 2004 to the present, as husband and wife. For 2007 we changed up our strategy a bit and designed an itinerary for what would prove our most kid-friendly outing ever. Granted, my son was now twelve years old and less kid-like than he used to be, but the idea was sound in principle.

Thus in this year of our Lord did we declare: the Goldens are going to Florida!

Longtime MCC readers are no strangers to spaceflight imagery, from the Kansas Cosmosphere in 2012 (link and link) to the Space Shuttle Enterprise‘s temporary residency in Manhattan as of 2016, American space travel has proven quite the must-see whenever we’re in one of its neighborhoods. None were larger or more captivating than the original Kennedy Space Center.

If you have the opportunity to see it yourself one day, do so. But make sure you see it all. And keep in mind you can’t do it by yourself. Literally.

* * * * *

DAY FIVE: Wednesday, June 13th.

Breakfast was at Great Western Steaks and Buffet, one of numerous local places that saturated our tourist literature with coupons. Fortunately for consumers, competition between the International Drive buffets is so fierce that they were apparently in some kind of price war that saw Great Western lower the price on their breakfast buffet to $4.99 a person. They kept enough meat and eggs readied for my purposes, and none of us got sick. For that moment, that was all that mattered.

We’re not the kind of travelers who normally have the upscale privilege of other people paying our way on our road trips (frankly I’m not the right kind of blogger, by which I mean “desirable to companies that spend money on such things”), but for the one time only, a major attraction was comped for us courtesy of a super awesome amazing colossal longtime online friend who is among the greatest humans of all times. Regardless of any paragraphs following this one, that much needs to remain clarified and in full effect to the end of the entry and beyond.

Thus did we make our way to the Visitor Complex of America’s own world-famous Kennedy Space Center, premier exhibition scene for space and space accessories. We spent hours meandering around the offerings in awe. Our passes included a ride on a tour bus around the rest of Cape Canaveral to see more sights not housed within the Space Center proper, but they looked easy to find on KSC’s brochure map, which handily outlined all the major stops — the Apollo/Saturn V Center, the International Space Station Center, an observation gantry, and more — so we didn’t give the tour bus a second thought. We tend to prefer touring at our own pace as opposed to joining a herd on a fixed schedule.

(In fact, I once stayed up till nearly 3 a.m. on a Saturday night writing about the subject after we underwent one particularly frustrating cautionary tale that only reinforced our preference against them.)

Exhibits presented in random order rather than strictly chronological:

The Rocket Garden: Y’know all those famous American rockets throughout the history of the 20th century that were used on all those space flights to do important, groundbreaking things? Several of them now just sit together in a single open park.

Rockets!

I don’t have notes for these, but committed aficionados probably know them on sight.

Rocket Noses!

Lightning round! How many can you name?

The complicated works, astounding achievements, and in some cases stories-tall once-working monuments to thousands of studious dreamers just stand there in plain sight, connected by simple sidewalks. I felt unworthy. I guess I expected dramatic lighting, a John Williams soundtrack, and mandatory genuflecting.

Rocket Parts!

Sometimes you do get tired of dodging your camera around the other tourists.

The IMAX Theater: We now have two of these in Indianapolis, so that in itself we took for granted. Visitors have their choice of seeing either Academy Award Winner Tom Hanks narrate Magnificent Desolation: Walking on the Moon 3D or Academy Award wanter Tom Cruise narrate Space Station 3D. At the time Hanks topped Cruise in my book, so we chose the former, which includes exactly what you’d expect in a documentary on the subject. I’d had too much sugar for breakfast and giggled in a few wrong places that I no longer recall, but it was well done for what it was.

Astronaut Memorial: Kinda like the Vietnam Memorial in DC, it’s a large metal tribute to people who died in the name of space exploration — from real astronauts like Indiana’s own Gus Grissom and his crew, on down to people I’ve never heard of in positions that sounded much less prestigious, but no less deserving of acknowledgment for their contributions to the space program.

Astronauts Memorial.

So many names were mentioned, I wondered if it included maintenance accidents. I’m sure it’s positively meaningful to those lives the dearly departed had touched, but it made me feel as though I was intruding on something private.

Shuttle Explorer: A full-scale replica of a real space shuttle, equipped with a staircase for full interior viewing. This alone was worth it. In 2014 it was moved to Houston, so I’m not sure if anything’s replaced it at KSC.

Booster!

You saw the Explorer in our lead photo. Next to it is the booster, significantly larger.

Robot Scouts: Quasi-roleplay your way through a family-oriented exhibit of actual NASA robots, none of which were tall, bipedal, sentient or armed for combat.

Rover!

This Rover wasn’t one of the active robots, unless it was advanced enough to play possum.

Exploration in the New Millennium: Space travel…of THE FUTURE! Theoretical displays of works in progress or fanciful notions in the offing. Real Mars rocks on display, so that was kinda cool.

Nature & Technology: This building fulfills KSC’s environmental quota with a display about nature and the benefits it receives from space travel. Or something. We stopped here for restroom breaks.

Turtle!

Taxidermy wasn’t really why we were here, though.

We missed out on a few regrettable areas. The new indoor Space Shuttle Launch Experience simulator sounded loud and awe-inspiring from outside, but the line looked to be a couple hours long. The Astronaut Encounter — basically, lunch with a real astronaut (!) — sounded intriguing, but there was something about the timing, which now escapes me, that precluded it from our itinerary. We skipped the “Mad Mission to Mars” show because we could tell just by looking through the partition cracks between it and the “Exploration in the New Millennium” that it was a song-‘n’-dance kiddie show. I would’ve been willing to sit through it for wrongful amusement purposes, but my son would’ve never forgiven us.

We grabbed lunch at the Orbit Food Court and souvenirs from the Space Shop, finishing up ’round 3:15 and figured we’d best head down the road before the other sites closed. Following the KSC map, we took SR 405 east toward the aforementioned tour bus stops. That way would lead us to more cool buildings and spaceships.

We slowed down at a security outpost just past the main campus. The guard on duty, who reminded me of Stanley from The Office, told us what the brochures, the maps, the official websites, the coupons, the tickets, all the signs inside KSC, and dozens of employees in every facility had collectively failed to emphasize.

All those fanciful tour bus stops — the Apollo/Saturn V Center, the International Space Station Center, an observation gantry, and more — were accessible to the public via the tour bus…and only via the tour bus. No civilian cars were permitted beyond this point.

And the last tour bus for the day had departed at 2:45.

I was not happy.

I took minuscule comfort in that ours wasn’t the only car that had to turn around. The presence of a well-worn turnaround path just after the outpost confirmed my hunch that this was a common occurrence. I’m not sure how hard it would have been for them to mention this. EVER. At least once.

Even some indecipherable fine print would have been acceptable. I’d be willing to extend them moral victory on that technicality. But no, not even the scores of fine print would confess to this restriction. The fine print on the main brochure advised that KSC uses no straws or drink lids, that operational requirements may occasionally necessitate attraction closures, that tickets are non-refundable, that attendance of the IMAX films includes some courtesy ground rules. We three found nothing to the tune of “AUTHORIZED PERSONNEL ONLY” in print anywhere. Anyone who possesses documentation to the contrary in their 2007 literature is cheerfully invited to prove me wrong.

With one site unseen and still accessible to us, we retraced our path and hit the Astronaut Hall of Fame, admission to which was also included with our KSC passes, and which wouldn’t close for a couple more hours. Much of the Astronaut Hall of Fame would be familiar to anyone who ever visited a children’s museum in their youth, where the science section was the best part because it was chock full of hands-on experiments and interactive simulations. Not exactly the KSC grand finale we’d imagined.

The museum also had lots of genuine astronaut artifacts — astronaut suits, real space capsules, assorted tools, etc. I can’t recall which of these remaining photos were in the Hall of Fame and which were elsewhere, but the cumulative effect works the same.

Vanguard!

Leftover satellite from Project Vanguard, ostensibly our answer to Sputnik.

Mercury Spacesuit!

Obligatory spacesuit, Mercury era.

Mercury 3 Capsule!

Capsule from Mercury 3 to match the suit.

Capsule Boy!

Or you can try a less prestigious capsule on for size and appreciate those brave astronauts who had no time for claustrophobia.

Mission Control!

Mission Control, where you can pretend you’re Ed Harris yelling, “FAILURE IS NOT AN OPTION!” Or you can be the wisecracking intern who starts to say, “Well, actually failure is an option, but it’s not — ” until Ed Harris punches you in the face.

My favorite part was a primitive live-action Pong simulator called “Gravball” that required participants to play with their whole body. For a cute visual touch, the paddles in the video display are replaced with photos of each contestant.

Gravball!

Affordable VR at its finest. Fun for the participants who can see themselves on the monitors, goofy-looking for bystanders.

Later after the fact, we reexamined the brochure one last time to see if we’d missed some glaringly obvious instruction or warning sign about the restricted area. Upon squinting at our brochure, I noticed some details-oriented artist did draw an itsy-bitsy roadside booth in the exact spot where Stanley turned us away, about a millimeter in size on the map. It was unlabeled.

Helmeted.

If anyone wants me, I’ll just be inside this helmet hoping no one can hear me yelling through it.

To be continued!

[Link enclosed here to handy checklist for other chapters and for our complete road trip history to date. Follow us on Facebook or via email signup for new-entry alerts, or over on Twitter if you want to track my TV live-tweeting and other signs of life between entries. Thanks for reading!]

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