Question: Name one modern task that could result in as much anxiety as working at Mission Control on July 24, 1969 when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin made their way to the lunar surface.

Answer: Going grocery shopping during a pandemic and having to Lysol your cereal.

I know, I know. You’re not wrong.

These are anxious times.

I’m anxious. You’re anxious.

Everyone is losing their damned minds over toilet paper and face masks and Clorox wipes, and it’s all. too. much.

But there was another time our country was gripped by anxiety, and then, just like now, the brightest minds in the world put their heads down, focused on a goal, let science lead, and in the end, triumphed.

It’s a great story and one worth remembering as we all do our best to not lose our shit.

The Space Race

You remember the 20th century. After their World War II alliance, the USSR and the United States retreated and retrenched into their own ways of life, communism for them, capitalism for us, and, suddenly, we found ourselves in a Cold War. The development of nuclear weapons, the Iron Curtain, the Korean War…. Tensions kept building throughout the 1950’s and into the 1960’s. But it was the launch of the Russian satellite, Sputnik, in 1957, that supercharged the rivalry and magnified the tension. Americans suddenly realized that if the Soviets could put a man made object into orbit, they were outpacing us technologically and would soon be able to strike American soil with nuclear warheads.

Wasting no time, in 1958, President Eisenhower established NASA, and soon after, we launched our own satellite. But Russia kept beating us to various milestones – sending a probe to the moon and Yuri Gargarin into orbit.

In May of 1961, President Kennedy got bold, declaring in a speech before Congress that the U.S. would put a man on the moon and return him safely to Earth before the end of the decade.

While not everyone was onboard, NASA got to work. The government poured money into the program and NASA expanded exponentially. They designed and built rockets, recruited and trained astronauts, and did lots and lots and lots of math.

So much math.

It wasn’t easy and it wasn’t pretty. There were numerous failures along the way. The cost in dollars and in human lives – especially the loss of three celebrated astronauts during a routine test in 1967 – shocked the country, and many believed the program should be scrapped entirely.

But NASA kept going, and the very next year, successfully launched a manned mission to orbit the moon.

Then, in July, 1969, right on schedule, this happened:

Now, let’s talk about this for a moment.

Seriously, who does this?

Who is the guy who says “Yeah…. I’ll strap myself to the tallest, heaviest, most powerful rocket ever built, a rocket the size of a 36 story building that burns 20 TONS of fuel per SECOND, and I’ll ride that tornado of fire into space AFTER which things are gonna get really crazy because that’s when we’re gonna open this thing up like a Russian doll, take parts of it out, reconfigure them, and then set off on a 240,000 mile, three-day trip to the Moon. Then, when we get there, we’ll divide our Mr. Potato Head Spacecraft once more, this time piloting half of it – a half which appears to have been constructed mainly of tin foil and duct tape – down to the lunar surface, while leaving the other half of it, and our third team member, orbiting the moon, for almost 24 hours.

Then, after spending less than two hours exploring, we’ll have to get a good night’s sleep on the surface of the Moon while not worrying at all that the engines we’ll be relying on to get us OFF the Moon have never actually been tested ON the Moon, and if they fail, it’s gonna be: “Welcome to the Moon! Population: YOU!!” …until we die in the vast, hopeless, emptiness of space. (In fact, the government was so concerned that the astronauts were going to get stranded, President Nixon already had a speech prepared that said: “Fate has ordained that the men who went to the Moon to explore in peace will stay on the Moon to rest in peace.”)

As catchy and memorable as it is utterly horrifying.

Anyway, assuming everything goes exactly as planned and we’re able to successfully get off the Moon, we’ll just have to catch up with our teammate, perfectly execute a controlled meeting of our two space vehicles while in motion, break out of the Moon’s orbit, and spend 3 more days traveling back to Earth. Then, when we get there, we’ll jettison the majority of the contraption we’ve been relying on to travel through space, and, at just the right time in just the right location, accelerate our tiny cone shaped spacecraft toward Earth at 25,000 miles per hour – hoping like hell we don’t burn up in the atmosphere – and, finally, just to add a tiny bit of drama to this whole thing, pray the parachutes deploy before our mini tin can spaceship crashes into the ocean.

“Piece of cake!”

I mean, I realize I’m not the most courageous person on the planet – as anyone who’s been in the same room with me and a spider will attest – but I gotta believe the list of people who have the kind of intestinal fortitude that these guys had is very, very, VERY small.

And if I haven’t yet convinced you of just how stressful all of this was, here’s another video that’s worth your time:

This is film that Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong shot as Armstrong was piloting the Eagle lander onto the moon. The video is overlaid with the conversation between the astronauts and various folks at Mission Control. It captures the moments when they are making decisions in real time, struggling to communicate, and determining whether alarms that are going off in the cockpit can be ignored or must be addressed – all while watching their supply of fuel run out.

(and I know what you’re thinking: “I’ll watch that later.” but really, you’re stuck at home and you have nothing to do. Watch it. It’s amazing.)

Anyway, as stressful as it is to watch, we all know how it ends.

That’s right: “The Eagle has landed.”

And what happened after that?

“That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”

Say it with me: “USA! USA! USA!”

Ah, the good old days….

So, why am I talking about all this and haranguing you to watch YouTube videos about things that happened 50 years ago? Because in January, we got to visit the incomparable Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida. And if a visit to the KSC doesn’t make you proud of American ingenuity and a believer in the power of science, then nothing will.

The Kennedy Space Center

From the moment you walk up to the front gates, the Kennedy Space Center punches you in the face with pride and nostalgia.

Remember the huge countdown clock that used to sit on the lawn in front of the visitors and media who had assembled to watch space shuttle launches?

Countdown clock at Kennedy Space Center

Panel explaining history of countdown clock at Kennedy Space Center

Remember when President Kennedy gave stirring speeches calling on Americans to unite and dream big? “We choose to go to the moon not because it is easy but because it is hard…” (OK, I don’t remember these things, but I’ve heard recordings and that guy could give a speech.)

John F. Kennedy memorial fountain at the Kennedy Space CenterRemember when you were a kid and you wanted to ride a rocketship to space???

Rocket garden at Kennedy Space Center

All of it is here for you within the first minutes of your visit.

But soon enough, you realize that the rockets pictured above are ‘bullshit-sized’ rockets.

It’s time to check out the biggest, baddest flamethrower of them all, the rocket in the video above, the one that took us to the moon…

The Saturn V

Tickets to the Kennedy Space Center include a bus tour of NASA facilities that ends at a huge exhibit building about the Saturn V. The bus tour includes some video elements and some guidance from your tour guide/bus driver. (Tip: When you get on the bus, try to get a seat on the driver’s side – you’ll be closer to most of the stuff you want to see.)

We saw some of the launch pads (including Launch Complex 39 – which is where the shuttles launched from), and the famous Vehicle Assembly Building – which is where all these rockets and shuttles were assembled before being rolled out to the launch pads.

Everyone always talks about how enormous the building itself is, but it’s hard to understand until you see a completed vehicle being rolled out of it. Here’s an impressive set of photographs from the roll out of one of the last Space Shuttle missions…

NASA's Vehicle Assembly BuildingEventually, the bus drops you off in front of the Saturn V building, where you are ushered into a theater room to watch a video about the program.

At the front of the theater is the actual Mission Control room from the Apollo flights,

The theater including Apollo Mission Control for the Saturn V launch exhibit at Kennedy Space Center

and you’re treated to a really cool multi-screen, surround sound, audiovisual experience watching the rocket lift off as various stations in Mission Control light up….

The theater including Apollo Mission Control for the Saturn V launch exhibit at Kennedy Space Center

Once the video ends, you walk into the big (really big) room that contains the Saturn V turned on its side…

The bottom of the Saturn V rocket at Kennedy Space Center
And if you’re thinking, “Man, Kevin has aged a LOT since her last blog post,” fear not – that’s my dad. Hi Dad!

It’s hard to explain just how enormous this thing is.

This picture is of another Saturn V we saw at the Johnson Space Center – It’s just a better pic than what I took at KSC.

In addition to the rocket itself, there were exhibits about various aspects of the launch and the landing, the tools and gadgets they used, and a replica of the lunar lander…

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However, oddly enough, the one thing we couldn’t find anywhere in the museum was a simple explanation of the mission from launch to splashdown. It seemed the museum was so focused on the details, it forgot to show the big picture.

Not to worry, though! Here’s a video that explains it perfectly:

(And yes, to answer your question, I have spent a pandemic’s worth of time surfing YouTube to find videos for my blog.)

The point is the whole Apollo mission was amazing, and if you’re not impressed by the time you leave – either by the size of the Saturn V rocket, the complexity of the lunar landing, the speed with which the whole project came together, or the courage of the people who made it all happen, then you are super hard to impress.

Space Shuttle Atlantis

On our second day at the Kennedy Space Center, we spent several hours at the Atlantis Space Shuttle exhibit.

Entrance to the Atlantis Exhibit including full size shuttle fuel tank and boosters replica

This exhibit also starts with a couple movies to get you up to speed on the history and development of the shuttle program. Then, the curtain rises and you come face to face with the Atlantis, suspended on its side:

The Atlantis - cargo bays open and Canadarm extended at Kennedy Space Center
The Atlantis – cargo bay doors open and robotic arm (called the “Canadarm”) extended)

Once you’ve taken in everything about the shuttle itself, you can wander through the other exhibits – including summaries of various missions, a synopsis of the program’s role in launching and maintaining the Hubble Telescope, memorials to the astronauts lost in the Challenger and Columbia accidents, a launch simulator, and much more. We felt this exhibit did a fantastic job of pulling all the pieces together and providing a comprehensive review of the program. (Click on any photo for full picture and caption).

Kennedy Space Center Tips and Resources

First, a tip about visiting this spectacular facility. You can buy a one day ticket, a 2 day ticket, or an annual pass. There is A LOT to see and do. If you’re only visiting this place once, and you have any real interest in this stuff, it’s worthwhile to get the 2-day ticket. We didn’t see everything across our two days, but we saw the majority of it and really liked not having to rush around the whole time. If you only have one day to work with, get there early and be ready to spend the whole day!

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Second, we came close, but just missed being able to see a SpaceX rocket launch. They happen pretty frequently these days, so if you happen to be in the area, it’s worthwhile to check the schedule. I came across this website that details upcoming launches as well as where to go to see the launches – depending on which launch pad NASA is using. It’s an excellent resource. For some launches, NASA opens up special viewing areas at the Space Center. If you want to be notified of those opportunities, you can sign up for notifications through the Kennedy Space Center website a couple weeks before your visit.

Third, if you’re like us and love learning about this stuff, two new movies about the moon landing came out last year. “First Man” is a dramatic retelling of the life of Neil Armstrong starring Ryan Gosling. It sucked. Don’t watch it. Seriously, it was terrible. “Apollo 11,” on the other hand, was a documentary that relied entirely on archival footage of the mission to tell the story. The movie is fabulous… Fascinating, gripping, and well worth your time. Promise!

Fourth, while we always suggest stopping by the visitor’s center when you arrive at a new place, it is especially worthwhile here. The center publishes a daily schedule of assorted tours, speeches, and programs, many of which are very helpful. We caught guided tours of both the rocket garden and the Atlantis, both of which were excellent.

Next Up….

Next up, we wrap up our time in Florida with a visit to a small conservation-focused aquarium in Orlando, we spend a fun week in Pensacola Beach, and we check out one last gorgeous Florida state park before heading to New Orleans for Mardi Gras.

More on all of that soon.

41 COMMENTS

  1. Yup! Wiping down all groceries is the most stressful thing – especially for someone who was already a germophobe!! Welcome to my world….. Great post on the Kennedy Space Center. We loved our visit there. I still get goose bumps when I think about the โ€œrevealโ€ of the shuttle. Itโ€™s just so well done! We were lucky to be able to talk to a gentleman who worked on building it. He was fascinating. Iโ€™m so glad Dad was able to get down there and experience it, too. And just think – at that time we thought getting him on a plane by himself was the most stressful thing….. how times have changed!!! Stay well. We miss you!!

    • It is bizarre to think about the things that “seemed crazy” just a few months ago. Little did we know… I agree with you on the Shuttle exhibit. Actually – all of the exhibits are really well done. Whoever designed them did a great job of bringing on the drama – lighting, music, introductory movies, etc – and keeping it all interesting. It’s a fantastic museum!

  2. We visited there and have been to the Johnson Space Center in Houston. I grew up on the TX Gulf Coast about 90 miles away, watched the moon landing on the neighbors’ black & white tv. When we visited Johnson a few years back, it was surreal to realize my phone was more powerful than all the computers combined that sent the men to the moon. On our way to rural IL to hide out for a while till our COE project opens up. Stay safe!!

    • Yes, I was reading an article the other day talking about the computers they used for these missions and it said the lander’s computers had 100,000 times LESS processing power than a modern day cell phone. Insane! All of it!

      Safe travels to Illinois. Hopefully things will start to improve soon and we can make something of the Summer. Fingers crossed!

  3. I was ten years old (no you don’t have to calculate how old i am ๐Ÿ™‚ when man stepped on the moon. We heard it on radio no tv in my hometown then and that was the biggest news in the world. Fast forward to our visits to both Johnson SC and Kennedy SC was like a dream come true. All the things I saw, rockets, Saturn V and all were more than I imagined it to be and was blown away, amazing and fascinating are just understated words.
    Anyhow, thanks for taking me back to one of my favorite educational and informative places. They really do a good job educating the young ones who have no clue what the Apollo missions were all about.

    • It must have been so awesome to see these things up close after watching/listening to history unfold as a child. We had the same experience the first time we saw the Space Shuttle in D.C.. It’s always shocking to see these things up close. I absolutely agree that they do a great job of getting younger people interested in this stuff. Any kid, no matter their underlying interest, is gonna be pretty blown away by something like the Saturn V.

  4. Wonderfully informative exciting post! Thank you for taking an enormous time to put it all together for us readers ๐Ÿ™‚ and by the way, I watched that descent and it was very nerve-wracking, cause all I could think about was if something doesn’t perform as it should, this could easily be a disaster that would reverberate throughout the USA.

    • Thank you, Terri! I agree. There were so many things that could have gone wrong throughout this whole mission, and if anything did happen, it would have been an absolute disaster for the entire country. Tensions were so high and the U.S. and NASA needed a win. Had the program been a failure, so much that we’ve done since, never would have happened. It’s truly remarkable.

    • It was great to have him with us, especially because he worked in the aerospace industry so this was all right up his alley (though, he insisted there were bolts missing from the bottom of the Saturn V exhibit and I am 100% sure he was incorrect. ๐Ÿ™‚

  5. We have not had a chance yet to visit the Space Center. Maybe when it reopens this year since we won’t be leaving FL any time soon. Thanks for doing so much research to write this! Very cool post.

    • Oh, that would be a perfect place to visit when everything settles down! It’s such an awesome, one of a kind thing to see while you’re in Florida. I promise, you’ll love it!

  6. I am so glad you loved KSC! It is so well done — the story of the space race and follow up missions is compelling, but the story telling and presentations really make it come to life. It’s MUCH better than Space Center Houston, in our opinion, as illustrated by the fact that at KSC even the human guided events like the rocket garden tour were much better than Johnson’s poorly guided components. I particularly love that you really took the time to spend two days seeing everything and digesting all the (voluminous) material. Our brains get full after about half a day in a museum, so visiting twice to take it all in is the perfect solution.

    • You guys definitely had the same thoughts as we did about both KSC and JSC. We were just not all that impressed by JSC’s exhibits, especially compared to this place or the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum. I will say we had a bit of a dud for our bus driver and, as you are well aware, the strength or weakness of any given tour is dependent mainly on the tour guide. But, other than that, it was great! And yes, if you’re someone who really wants to read all the various exhibits and everything, a 2 day ticket is the way to go. It took a lot of the stress away.

    • You can say that again! In one of the movies we watched, they noted that Neil Armstrong’s heart rate only went up to like 120 beats per minute during the moon landing… Just crazy!

  7. Your descriptions of the Space Race, the logistics of building the rocket, and the moon landing are thrilling (and hilarious!) “Welcome to the moon, population YOU,” hahaha!! Seriously, WTH was Kennedy thinking when he promised that we were gonna put a man on the moon within a decade? And then we did it! My dad’s steel company fabricated the enormous folding doors for the Vertical Assembly Building and also the framework for the rocket launch pad, and I remember just that part of the project took years to complete and was incredibly complex. I cannot imagine what it took to build the rocket, but I think you’re right that they used a lot of tin foil and duct tape, LOL.

    This is a great post, Laura. We loved our visit to the Kennedy Space Center a couple of years ago, and I’m glad I got to tour it again with you through your blog. And how cool that you got to share the experience with your dad.

    • Thanks, Laurel! I kept wondering as we were wandering around what it would take to do a project like this today. It would cost hundreds of billions of dollars and you know it would be years, if not decades, overdue. I guess the closest proximity is SpaceX which has now been around for almost 20 years and is just about to start doing manned flights to the ISS. So, it’s taken them 20 years to do something that’s been done for years by multiple countries. NASA started in 1958 and by 1969 was putting humans on the moon. Don’t get me wrong – I think SpaceX is awesome, but when you think of how much NASA accomplished – things that had never been done before – and in such a short time period, it is truly remarkable.

      That’s so cool that your dad’s company was involved in building the VAB and launch pad – and how fantastic it must be to know they’re all still being used all these years later. As fast as the technology has moved, the infrastructure has remained much the same.

      We loved visiting the Space Center with my dad. It was the perfect thing to do during his visit!

    • It’s easy to forget sometimes, but we’ve done amazing things in the past. Hopefully, our scientists, and those around the world, will solve the current crisis sooner rather than later. And yes – YouTube is HIGHLY addictive. I can’t tell you how many space related videos I’ve watched recently. ๐Ÿ™‚

  8. You could be the spokesperson for the KSC! All the facts told with a fun, even hilarious, way that make them memorable.
    The day I had the chance to visit there was a Shuttle on the Crawler being taken out to the launch, that was my highlite.

    • Haha… If you could get KSC to pay me for this, that would be awesome. Wanna be my agent?? ๐Ÿ™‚

      It sounds like you had a pretty great day there! Not many people get to see any part of that process, so you definitely got lucky!

  9. Everyone remembers where they were when “we” first landed on the moon. For me, I was in Quang Tri, Vietnam…in a weather van. I was a meteorologist in Marine Corps Aviation and was leaning over a light table listening to the radio broadcast of the landing. Interesting trivia…Neil Armstrong wore a Omega Speedmaster watch at the time which became known as the “Moon Watch”. I have the same watch, which I purchased, immediately after the landing in 1969. Back then, you had to wind the stem, no batteries. I still have it, and it still runs…as long as I wind it.

    • Well, that sounds like a watch worth holding onto no matter what! What a cool connection to that time period, and to Neil Armstrong… And while I’m sure most everyone remembers where they were when it all happened, I can only imagine being on the other side of the world in the middle of a conflict that was directly related to the Cold War and space race. I bet that provided a jolt of positivity. Wow.

  10. That was a fun read! I have vacillated over the years about the necessity, expense, etc. of our space program, but when we think of how it has so often pulled us together as a country, the argument can certainly be made for maintaining it. I especially liked how you tied in its relevance to our current world situation.

    Please put me in the “no” column for the list of your friends who wish to travel into space. ????

    • I definitely think the space program has been well worth its costs. When you consider all the various tools and technologies that have come from space exploration, it’s incredible. I think the biggest issue is just one of awareness. I think our society goes through periods where it’s really paying attention, and others that no one seems to care. What can I say? We’re a fickle bunch!

  11. We just missed you. We were at Kennedy Space Center Feb 10, having spent the night before at Cocoa Beach to watch an Atlas rocket launch. Did you know just the American flag on the side of the Vehicle Assembly Building is 23 stories tall? How cool is that!

    • Oh man, I am SO jealous that you got to see a launch! We were there the day of a scheduled SpaceX launch, but it got called off and rescheduled for a couple days later. So, it remains on our bucket lists. The thing about the VAB is it just doesn’t seem THAT huge when you look at it, but when you hear individual facts about it, or see photos from prior roll outs, you realize how enormous it is.

  12. One good thing is that like the space race, we are throwing a lot of resources at this and we will not only find a vaccine, there will be side benefits like improved masks, nbetter ventilators and other positive outcomes. Great post!

    • That’s a great point! In each of these huge scientific endeavors, scientists learn so much – much more than they were ever expecting. And it’s not just the biological scientists who will learn a lot, but also social scientists, economists, and industrial and supply chain experts. There will be so many lessons taken from this whole experience. I think, as a country, we’ll learn a lot of hard lessons, but, hopefully, it will lead to better days down the line.

  13. We had a blast (no pun intended! Lol) when we visited there in 2011. I thought for sure I wrote a blog post-nope, I started blogging a few months later. Reading yours refreshed my memory. We absolutely enjoyed every aspect of our tour. What you didnโ€™t mention was that we were able to meet an astronaut! He gave a wonderful first hand presentation and then we had a photo op with him. That was at the top of favorite things there. Weโ€™ll have to take our grandsons there when they get a little older. Wonderful history!

    • Ya know, I saw the “meet an astronaut” thing on the schedule, but we didn’t go. It was during the time we were at one of the other exhibits, and we were just trying to not put too much on the schedule. I would have loved to do it, though. I’m sure it would be fascinating to hear from them about their experiences directly. That’s the problem with a place like KSC – there is just So MUCH to see and do, you can’t possibly do it all. Even with two days!

      What a great place to take your grandsons! We saw a bunch of kids, of varying ages, all looking up at the rockets with their jaws on the floor. I mean, MY jaw was on the floor. I can’t imagine what it’s like for small kids! I’m sure they’d love every minute!

  14. We visited the KSC a few years ago and loved it. It was so much more than I had ever dreamed! Coincidentally, I am currently listening to the audiobook Into the Black. Those astronaut guys were so brilliant, plus all the others that made things work. Real brainiacs for sure.
    Take care, hope all is well.

    • Hey Tami!

      You know, my friend read this post and directed me to a podcast that she says is super interesting. It’s called 13 Minutes to the Moon, all about the various Apollo missions. It was produced by the BBC. If you’re interested in this stuff, you might want to check it out too! I hope you guys are doing well too. Crazy times, for sure.

  15. Fantastic exciting and interesting post with all sorts of “stuff” I never knew about… Such a good read. I was born and grew up in South Africa and I will never forget the day the American astronaut landed on the moon and the excitement that stirred across the globe. I kept the newspaper cutting about that because even though I was pretty young at the time, the history and momentous occasion did not pass me by. If I had not moved around the globe as much as we do I probably would still have that original cutting somewhere! I would love to visit the KSC one day. Thanks for such an interesting and informative post ….

    Peta

    • Thanks, Peta! Whenever your travels take you to Florida, it is absolutely worth a stop, especially given your interest in these events. They really do a fantastic job bringing all the excitement back, and seeing these rockets and landers up close is just so cool! I hope you get to see it at some point!

  16. I am such a space nerd, I loved this article! I was at KSC to watch the launch of Mars Curiosity and stood right by that countdown clock in use. And I got to to inside the VAB, which is massive (seriously!) and get up close and semi-personal with Endeavour, which was getting prepped to go to CA (her new home). I haven’t seen the Atlantis installation or KSC VC since they upgraded, and here i am 1.5 hours away and I can’t freaking go (yet). Sigh. So your article was a wonderful distraction in this time of pandemic lockdown. Hope y’all are doing alright where you are.

    • Wow! You really had the whole experience! How lucky is that? I would have killed to see a rocket or shuttle launch. And being inside the VAB must have been incredible. I am definitely jealous. I hope you get to visit at some point. They’ve really done a great job with these newer exhibits. There’s so much we wish we could be doing these days, but alas, it will just make us appreciate things all the more when this is all over. Hope you are well too!

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