The Tour


OK, I’ve already posted photos from my trip to Florida and Kennedy Space Center, including some from the tour I went on yesterday, but I wanted to write one final post about the trip to talk about the tour, inasmuchas it was phenomenal.

I’ve been on tours of Kennedy Space Center before, both paid a paid tour through the Visitors Center and a specially chartered tour through an education conference I attended. But I’d never been on one like this before.

It was relatively short, as tours go — we really only saw three things. But those three things were incredible.

In reverse chronological and ascending coolness order —

We went out to Launch Pad 39B, going well past the usual tour visitor pad viewing stand and right up to the camera area near the pad, extremely close. I think, one time before, I had been this close to a pad, but it was made very cool this time by the fact that Endeavour was waiting there in case she’s needed for a rescue mission. Granted, we couldn’t see the orbiter herself, since she was covered by the Rotating Service Structure, but we got a very good view of the External Tank and the Solid Rocket Boosters.

The other cool part of the pad tour, for me, was that it was an opportunity to see how much things had changed since the last time I was there. Pad 39B is currently undergoing modifications to support the Ares program. Most notably, since Ares I will be so much taller than the shuttle, the lightning rod that had been at the top of the pad had been removed, since it would be shorter than Ares I and thus offer no protection. In its stead, three lightning towers have been erected around the pad. It was a great opportunity to actually see the modifications up close.

In addition to the pads, we also got to go inside the Vehicle Assembly Building. I have, of course, seen the VAB before, from the outside — it’s pretty much impossible to get anywhere near Kennedy Space Center without seeing the gargantuan structure, once the largest enclosed volume in the world. But I had never been inside the VAB, until yesterday. Obviously, the size and height were the main things you noticed, although, to be fair, it’s hard to get a sense inside of the full extent of either, since it’s so larger, and is somewhat modular.

Another really neat thing about the VAB tour was that there were pieces in one of the bays of the Ares I-X vehicle, a demonstration rocket that will fly later this year. It was very cool to see actual hardware associated with the next generation of rockets; even though I-X is only a partial test version of Ares, those pieces represent, really, something that NASA hasn’t done in almost 30 years — test-launched a new manned launch vehicle.

On a more somber note, we had pointed out to us a concrete block wall a story or two up inside the VAB. Behind that wall, we were told, were the recovered remains of the space shuttle orbiter Columbia. I knew that, unlike Challenger, Columbia had not been permanently buried, but I didn’t realize exactly where she was, in a place that workers would see every day while preparing the remaining orbiters for flight. A good reminder of the importance of vigilance, I suppose, but interesting nonetheless.

The other stop on the tour was the Orbiter Processing Facility, which proved to be probably the single coolest place I’ve been on any tour of any NASA facility. (I’m writing that off the top of my head; I reserve the right to change my mind.) Not so much for the OPF itself, though it was cool enough. The incredible part was that the OPF we toured happened to house at the time OV-103, the space shuttle orbiter Discovery. I walked underneath Discovery. I was close enough that I could have touched an orbiter. (This, of course, was strictly verboten.) This has been a long-standing desire of mine, to actually get to see one of the orbiters up close, but I’d pretty much given up on it happening until the fleet was retired to museums. Getting to see Discovery while she was being prepared for her next flight was an incredible opportunity that I never thought I would have, and an amazing experience.

And she’s beautiful.

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