6.29.2008

my pilgrimage

Yesterday marked a high point in my life-- that fulfilling of a Childhood Dream to visit Cape Canaveral.   Starting in approximately 5th grade (release date of Apollo 13: June 15, 1995), I became absolutely obsessed with the early space program, devouring every book I could find and drawing diagrams of Command-Service Modules, LEMs, Saturn V rockets, and lists of astronauts on a particular green binder.  

This love has always been bubbling along since then-- through other obsessions, it has remained-- and nourished every once in a while.  A new documentary ("In the Shadow of the Moon") a new book ("Moondust"-- absolutely wonderful, incidentally), or a friend (Josh) that shared my love so much that he brought me back oven mitts shaped like astronaut gloves.  I got him an inflatable Saturn V.

So of course, my trip to Cape Canaveral was not just a trip.  It was a pilgrimage.  

As a result of this being a bit of a historic trip, this is a long post.  Consider yourself warned.  I've linked to some of my photos, but the rest are here.  

My main goal was to visit the historic launching pads.  Apollo 1, for some inexplicable reason, has always had a tight hold on me, and I came with the almost express purpose of visiting Pad 34.  That was where, during a routine check the day before the launch, a fire swept through the full-oxygen environment of the Command Module, and killed the 3 astronauts inside: Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee.   Grissom had been one of the "Mercury 7," and the second American in space, and was one of the prime candidates for the first walk on the moon.  White had been the first American to walk in space, and this was Chaffee's first mission.

Of course, this event sent shockwaves--that is, of course, putting it lightly-- through NASA, and caused a total (safer) redesign of the hatch, a new nitrogen/oxygen atmosphere, less flammable velcro, insulated wires, and more.  What boggles my mind is that it was difficult to find even a mention of this at the Kennedy Space Center.  Frankly, it was difficult to find Apollo or previous missions.  

What saddens me is that those are the missions that are truly on the bleeding edge, always innovating and reaching further towards the moon.  I realize now we are in a time of complacency, because we have no Cold-War competitor like the USSR that is capable of overtaking us in a new Space Race, and perhaps that is why we should look back still.  There was complacency after we had landed on the moon, and now that seems implausible; we had landed on the moon, a feat that we have not yet repeated, and yet America was bored.  America is bored now, not because the Shuttle missions couldn't be interesting, but because the focus is on ant farms and science projects that have no foreseeable future as theories for lunar bases and life on Mars are thrown about, but have looming budget cuts and a disinterested government to compete with.

But I digress.  It was Mercury, Gemini and Apollo that originally captured our imaginations, and it is those missions that are relegated to off-site museums and hidden exhibits, in the shadow of Shuttle Launch Simulators and space-themed eateries.

There is, in theory, a "Apollo / Saturn V Center" on the premises.  It does, amazingly, contain the original Firing Room for Apollo -- the desks in Florida where they monitored the spaceship prior to liftoff and give the official go/no-go for launch.  They even simulate a launch, turning on all the bells and whistles that make it come to life--- complete with rattling windows in the back, presumably, to simulate what it would sound like were a Saturn V lifting off nearby. 

However, as I walked out from that room, after taking copious amounts of photographs, I was expecting to be confronted with an extensive exhibit on the Apollo program.  Instead, I walked into a long hall the length of a Saturn V, with the eponymous rocket hanging above, the space decorated in cartoonish primary colors and smelling of french fries from the "Moon Rock Café" located at somewhere around the second stage.  In truth, the Apollo / Saturn V Center was little more than a glorified café/giftshop, with large versions of Apollo patches hanging from the ceiling, to use up dead space.  It was, in truth, profoundly disappointing.

In such a state, I returned to the main Visitor's Center, with the intent to visit a few more things.  The gift shop was on the way, and I poked my head in, only to be boggled by the sheer amount of things that can be only termed "space kitsch."   Slogans like "Failure is Not an Option" (never actually said) and "Let's do Launch" are emblazoned on everything from shot glasses to mousepads, and in ways that are in no means aesthetically pleasing, but look amateurish at best. 

Fortunately, as I left, things began to take a turn for the better.  I went to the Rocket Garden, which is a collection of old rockets, and not, to my friend Becky's dismay, an actual garden.  It's got Mercury/Redstone, a Gemini/Titan, and all sorts of neat early space rockets. 

At the back of the Rocket Garden was a building labelled Early Space in a new-Tomorrowland (I mean that in not the best of ways) font, with a Gemini capsule attached.   I headed back; it looked closed.  It was, however, open, and where all of the information about Mercury, Gemini and, to some extent, Apollo, had been relegated.   The exhibit was o-k.  Some neat space-age-era lunchboxes and playing cards and things like that, which I think are just fantastic, but not much to my recollection in the way of artifacts.  

Then, I turned the corner.   There, sitting in front of me, alone, behind glass, was Mission Control for the Mercury missions.  Mission.  Control.   I can't express how cool this was.   (This room!) Tiny Mercury capsule on the map, to chart the progress of orbital missions, Bakelite phones, all the switches and dials and computing power that is probably in a programmable wristwatch.  

The slight damper on this was in order to tell the story of Mercury Mission Control, the museum had a film with a woman who I'm sure was called "zany" that went back into Mission Control and spent 5 minutes being confused by assorted titles of stations in Mission Control.  I hasten to add that the positions are not that complicated, and the titles -- conveniently -- usually describe the job.  I rarely say this, but as a woman, and in particular, a woman fascinated by the space program, I was aghast and actually quite offended.  It came off as if these "complicated" areas of early NASA were too complicated for a woman, let alone a modern woman to comprehend.   I'm sure it remains alienating to children as well, who are then convinced that such things are too complicated and then turn all their attention to IMAX, which I'm sure delivers information in succint, bite-sized, boring chunks. 

So I left. 

I headed off Merritt Island (technically what that part of "the Cape" is called), west towards the "Astronaut Hall of Fame."  I still argue it is perhaps the dumbest name for a site, and I would have driven by, had Josh not insisted that I stop in.  

This was what I had wanted the Visitor's Center to be like.  I walked in, and the first step in the exhibit is an open copy of a first edition of Jules Verne's From the Earth to the Moon.  Illustrated!  Also Buck Rogers, and all sorts of olde-tyme texts and images that showed how people thought we would go to the moon. 

The next room had banners of all the Mercury 7 astronauts, and as I turned around, I saw a Mercury suit -- recognizable for the most part due to its uncanny similarity to my Mercury Astronaut GI JOE (who knew?) -- and looked closer, realized it was Gus Grissom's.   That is how this museum began.  

There was a timeline that kept you abreast of NASA events, panels that showed the different astronaut pools (Original 7, New 9, &c), LOTS of artifacts, and the whole time they have speakers overhead with newsreels from the specific years, spelling out what else is going on in America when these men are flying into space.  Fantastic!  Also:  Apollo 14 CM.  Neat.  A beautiful memorial hallway for Apollo 1, with a quote from Grissom that I had never seen before:
If we die, we want people to accept it.  We are in a risky business and we hope that if anything happens to us it will not delay the program.  The conquest of space is worth the risk of life. 
Wow.   

From there, I walked around, and since I was the only one (basically) in the museum, spent 10 minutes in a mock-up of a Mercury capsule (clearly not made for anyone with hips) and just stared at the instrumentation.   Apollo had always been the most interesting for me, but it was here, on my back, jammed into a seat staring at dials, that I finally had closure.  Even if the rest of the Center was terrible, this moment was worth it-- sitting there, knowing that you are in the same position, thinking about the same things:  the wonders of life, and the next steps in the exploration of space.   I didn't ever want to leave.

this is me in a mercury capsule

1 comment:

Joshua said...

Despite the disnification of Kennedy Space Center, it was still neat...It just could have been much neater. I think that I saw it in exactly the wrong order: Shuttle Launch, Astronaut Hall of Fame, and then the Visitor Center and externalities.

It needs more science, more history, more sci-fi, more promise & hope, and finally, a ticker tape parade.