A month ago or so, I took a day trip to the Kennedy Space Center on the Florida coast east of Orlando. Besides photography and all things outdoors, I’m a big history buff with a special interest in the space program. When I was a very small child, I cut the back fabric off my parent’s couch because “I wanted to see what it looked like inside.” I went on to college and studied mechanical engineering, so I guess it is not terribly surprising I think NASA’s space program is one of the most significant accomplishments of man kind (and therefore really, really, cool). Seeing the launching point for the entire space program up close is truly inspiring whether you’re a big space nut or not.
Because NASA’s complex at Cape Canaveral and Cape Kennedy is so large, to see the sites, you have to take guided bus tours that take you to different areas of the complex. Being the nerd that I am, without hesitating, I signed up for the “mega tour.” The mega tour starts at the visitor center complex and takes you the Vehicle Assembly Building, the Space Shuttle launch pads, and then to an exhibit of the Apollo Saturn V rocket.
To call the interior space of the vehicle assembly building, or VAB for short, vast would still be an understatement. Nearly 530′ from the floor to the ceiling, the VAB is the fifth largest building in the world by volume.
Launch pads 39 A & B were used as the launch site for the manned Apollo missions and were then outfitted and used for the duration of the shuttle program. Ten seconds before launch, the entire contents of the water tower in the right of the above image, were dumped onto the launch tower and platform to help protect it from the immense heat of the rocket engines.
On the launch platform, the shuttle (and moon rockets that came before) sat directly above two trenches that, to prevent damage to the launch facilities, direct the flames of the rockets away from the surrounding infrastructure. Still, during a launch, the area surrounding the platform is anything but a friendly environment. Even with the flame trenches, the heat from the launch would kill anyone within 400′ of the platform. Within 800′ of the platform, the sound of the rockets firing would be so deafening, your heart would stop!
About a minute after the space shuttle was launched the main engine (big orange tank in the middle) had to be throttled back to slow down the space craft’s acceleration. If the shuttle continued to accelerate at such a rapid pace, the thick lower atmosphere of earth would have crushed the spacecraft. Only once the space craft was much higher in the atmosphere, where the air is much thinner, could the main engine be brought back to full throttle.
The diameter of each nozzle on the five rocket engines on the Saturn V rocket is more than twelve feet in diameter.
When the first stage of the Saturn V rocket was lit, the resulting noise was the loudest man made sound ever produced. Also worth noting, the VIP viewing platform for Apollo rocket launches and also during the shuttle program was three and a quarter miles away from the lunch pad. Why so far? When fully fueled, if the rocket (or space shuttle) were to malfunction and blow up on the ground, the minimum safe distance from the launch platform was three miles! In fact, there was as much explosive energy in the fully fueled space rockets as an atomic bomb!
With walls so thin, a man could easily punch through them, the lunar module carried two astronauts and landed them on the moon. The lunar module was notoriously unstable and extremely challenging to fly.
When viewing the Saturn V rocket as a whole, it is incredible how small the main space vehicle is compared to the rest of the rocket. The command module was the only part of the space craft designed to return safely back to earth (although it was not reusable). The command module was built to carry three men to and from the moon and did so with the the computing power less than a modern day simple scientific calculator.
My day at NASA was incredible; I was literally like a kid in a candy store and could have easily spent several days exploring the complex at Kennedy Space Center. As our space program continues to evolve, with the Special Launch System (SLS) in development, along with the rovers we’ve sent to mars, and satellites and probes we’ve sent into space, the story that is the United States space program is far from complete. I’m sure I will be back to visit again…