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?
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.)
Remember when you were a kid and you wanted to ride a rocketship to space???
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…
Eventually, 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,
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….
Once the video ends, you walk into the big (really big) room that contains the Saturn V turned on its side…
It’s hard to explain just how enormous this thing is.
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…
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.
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:
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!
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, 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.