One of the most disappointing moments of my life is also one of the most memorable.
I was 16 and sitting on a cool beach directly opposite from a Space Shuttle standing upright on a launch pad illuminated with huge spotlights that cut across the night sky like laser beams.
Thousands of people were packed on the beach and nearly everyone there had a radio tuned to the NASA frequency. The suspense was incredible as the echoing voice of the launch controller counted down the clock.
‘T minus 40 minutes…’
I was about to see a Space Shuttle launch into the sky – at night – the sort of thing I’d been dreaming about since I first noticed the stars in the sky.
‘Abort. Abort. Abort. Mission clock stopped at T minus 30 minutes…’
You could have heard a pin drop. Then a wave of disappointed chatter swept over the beach and carried everyone to their cars.
‘Oh well,’ my grandfather said. ‘Time to go. Our flight to New York leaves early tomorrow.’
Sure enough I eventually did see the Space Shuttle launch into the sky trailing a brilliant tail of fire and smoke… on TV.
Going back to space
My first wish and one of my final acts for our road trip across America was to go back to The Kennedy Space Center in Florida where you can see real life NASA space work and some of the best museum exhibits on the planet.
We crossed the border into the Gator State and drove down to Orlando where we spent two days doing Disney World and Universal Studios. For digs we stayed in an Airbnb with a young couple and over dinner one night mentioned we were heading over to Cape Kennedy next.
‘You know my Dad was a senior engineer on the shuttle programme,’ the man of the house said. ‘Also, there’s going to be a rocket launch when you’re there.’
I nearly punched the air in joy!
It got better though. Our Airbnb host arranged to let us stay with his NASA veteran parents who were keen to try Airbnb hosting for themselves.
Meeting a veteran NASA engineer
Rich Millang and his wife welcomed us to their beautiful home near the Florida coast – a stone’s throw from the Kennedy Space Center where Rich worked for over 30 years on the space shuttle programme.
We sat down to a delicious roast beef dinner with them and chatted about our travels and the good time we had with their son and daughter-in-law in Orlando.
Then Rich regaled us with some tales from his days a senior engineer for the Space Shuttle Discovery – he knows every nut and bolt on that veteran space ship and he was good enough to let us capture a few of his stories on video – see below!
Seeing the most powerful rocket ever made – The Saturn V
In the morning we went to the Kennedy Space Center – a must do if you’re in America.
Even if you don’t like machines and technology there is something very cool about having a long look at a real life space port – the place where the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo moon missions were launched from – and where NASA continues its work to explore space.
The best thing to do is get a ticket for the tour of the Saturn V museum which gets you a bus ride around the entire complex before taking you to see one of the greatest machines ever built.
The drivers are all pro tour guides and know the facts and figures about the place. The coolest thing you’ll see is The Vehicle Assembly Building which is so big it has its own weather system inside!
The VAB is so large because all of NASA’s rockets are assembled inside before being taken to the launch pad and shot into space. They get from the VAB to the pad on a huge tracked vehicle called ‘the crawler’ which moves at 2 mph!
After the tour of the space centre the bus drops you off at The Saturn V centre where you get to see the actual launch control room from the Apollo missions of the ’60s and ’70s – including a simulated launch that shakes the room.
Then the exit doors open and you walk into one of the longest rooms I have ever seen. There before you, laying on its side, is a Saturn V rocket – the most complex machine ever built!
The rocket has three stages with the Apollo space craft comprising the Command Module and the Lunar lander sitting on top.
The stats are amazing – the Saturn V had a peak thrust of 7,650,000 pounds and was so loud the minimum safe distance for a person during launch was 3.5 miles!
Seeing one of these babies tear up through the sky and into space must have been amazing. Imagine riding on top of one… Check out the video:
Rocket launch at NASA – The Maven
So we’d talked shuttle launches with Rich and seen the most powerful rocket ever built.
Now it was time for us to see a real life rocket launch at NASA.
The Maven is a probe that will study the atmosphere of Mars and it was due to be blasted into space on top of an Atlas V rocket on our second day at Cape Canaveral.
NASA will cancel a launch if there is bad weather within a certain distance of the launch pad. Safety first.
So we checked every weather website we could and saw nothing bad on the horizon and outside the day was hot and bright and clear. Rich told us the launch had a very good chance of being a go so we set off to the coast to find the best vantage point we could.
We settled on a park on the coast that offered a north facing view of the launch pad and we lugged our folding chairs to an area where hundreds of other launch watchers were counting down the minutes.
I had a real feeling of deja vu as radios all around us echoed out the launch controller’s robotic voice. ‘T minus 1 minute….’
10,9, 8, 7,6,5,4,3,2,1…
‘We have liftoff!’
I couldn’t see it though. A huge bank of white scudding clouds had swept in at the last minute and blocked our view of the launch pad.
‘There it is!’ cried a rocket spotter and pointed to a gap in between the clouds. For a few seconds I saw a tiny white speck flying up trailed by a flickering red tail.
When the sound wave hit our ears I felt the rocket’s power in my teeth. The rumbling of the engines was tremendous and seemed to shake the very air with its surging power.
Then it was gone. A few people clapped while the rest packed away their chairs and trudged back to their cars.
‘Would have been better at night,’ a crestfallen man said to me as I passed by.
‘Yeah. It would have,’ I agreed. ‘But at least we saw something!’
Please note: We received complimentary tickets from the Kennedy Space Center. But as always, our opinions are our own.
What you need to know:
When to go: For their list of hours, please check the Kennedy Space Center website.
Cost: Tickets cost US$50 for an adult ticket and entry into the Kennedy Space Center. You can buy them in advance online. Parking also costs US$10 per car.
How to get there: For driving directions, please click here.