The Lonely Apollo Pioneers

Apollo 11 moon rocket

Returning last week from a trip to Florida, I have to say the highlight of my trip was seeing, at last, Kennedy Space Center. For a child of my generation this was a place that gained its initial familiarity on B&W TV screens (or color, in wooden consoles, if you were well-off or indulgent) with the news broadcasts of trips to the moon. It seemed a small, straightforward place on that long-ago screen. Like a football field, perhaps, with bleachers to watch the proceedings. In the years since, with continued broadcasts though the shuttle years, and my own research, the reality of it was not so compact; yet still, as a real-life visitor I was unprepared for the vastness.

The place is BIG, and sprawling, and very alien. Merrit Island, where Kennedy Space Center is located, is also a wildlife refuge where I saw gators, manatees, flamingos, spoonbills, dolphins, and wild parrots. The terrain is flat, the vegetation semi-tropic, the soil pale and bleached. Growing up in a decaying city of the U.S. Northeast, and later living in the lush but cool emerald-green Northwest, it was very alien to me. I couldn’t help but think if those same pioneers thought it alien as well. Of course, they were military test pilots, stationed and training in many different areas of the US, and so might be assumed to be used to changes of locale. But they still must have carried within them the local prejudices of their childhood homes, for a certain climate or terrain. Coastal Florida might have been an unworldly experience for them, a preparation for the unworldliness of outer space, and the moon itself. In effect, it was a subtle preparation.

Being shuttled around the place on an air-conditioned bus as I took the special tour, I saw for myself its vastness and loneliness. Strapped into a capsule at the apex of the Saturn V rocket, they must have been very lonely as the support personnel deserted them for the launch. That’s another thing I found out. Everyone cleared out of the vicinity for a certain radius, less the whole thing explode, like this:


Note the melted cars.

Seeing the place, for the first time I truly understood the immensity of the American space program, the sacrifices it required, and its dangers.

The visit was pricey, coming to around $120 for the basic admission and the enhanced tour, but that was par for the course for Florida attractions, and well worth it for the history. I also fulfilled a bucket list item.

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