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February 21, 2013, United States

Space fantasy

Soak in the spirit of space exploration at Cape Canaveral in Florida

Winston Len

FLORIDA is known for many attractions: orange groves, Mickey Mouse, the entire posse of Disney princesses, the slam-dunking Orlando Magic basketball team. But for something different, consider a trip to Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, an operational facility run by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, or Nasa.

That’s where space history was made in 1969 when Apollo 11 lifted off and landed the first men on the moon. From where my wife and I stayed, just north of Orlando, it was a long drive there. For a breezy ride, we turned the music up and rolled the windows down to enjoy the luscious scenery and feel the sun’s warm kiss on our faces. Since the Sunshine State’s beauty is on display year-round, many beachcombers come here during summer, while crowds of northerners escape winter to visit during Christmas and New Year.

As we glanced at the silver light shimmering off the myriad lakes, we spotted a lazy Anhinga bird drying its wings.

Between long stretches of scenery, my wife looked up Nasa trivia while I drove. Established in 1958 by President Dwight Eisenhower in response to the Soviet Union’s launch of Sputnik, Nasa’s history is rooted in Cold War fear, yet it has transcended over time. From CAT scanners to water filters, Nasa’s scientific enterprise has benefited the world. And who is not inspired by Neil Armstrong’s moonwalk, which remapped the boundaries of the possible?

As we neared Kennedy Space Center, the highway was replaced by a wide road, which arrowed across a calm river. There were no cars around, only wheeling seagulls and a speck of a distant launch pad that reminded me of space, the final frontier.

“Can you imagine space travel?” I asked as the speedometer quivered over 120, then 130kmh. The last stretch of road that led to Kennedy Space Center was so straight, it begged me to rocket forward. The wind through the window crack fluttered and I imagined cruising past the sound barrier, faster and faster.

“Slow down!” my wife shouted above the roar of the wind.

Simulated space travel

Space travel is not for the fearful. Thankfully, one can have a safe, vicarious experience at the Space Center. Once inside, the silhouette of decommissioned rockets on display inside a garden impresses the recurring theme of the visit on visitors: the grandeur of an infinite universe and mankind’s attempt to explore it.

To kick off our tour, we took a free bus ride that shuttled us around the sprawling grounds. During the ride, the guide pointed out the gigantic factory that assembles the shuttles, titanic tractors to haul multi-tonne equipment and towering edifices that support the rockets pre-launch. Geeks can linger over the statistics on signboards and interactive displays at each stop — the place is a veritable nerd heaven — and people hop on and off the bus at will.

Our favourite was a moment of time travel: We sat in a launch control station and experienced a simulation of a historic shuttle launch, accurate down to the quivering window shutters, the taut voice of the on-site controllers, and the boom of lift-off. After that, we wandered about the Apollo/Saturn V display inside a cavernous warehouse, which showcased a dismantled booster rocket and patches of past Apollo missions — many successful, a few tragic.

Finally, inside an Imax theatre, Leonardo DiCaprio narrated us through the repair of the Hubble telescope by astronauts. After that, we drifted inside stunning 3-D views of deep space where we saw baby planets, swaddled in blankets of cosmic dust.

As we drove back, the moon was a slight sliver in the darkening sky, 400,000km away. I would never travel there in my lifetime, but to indulge in your own space fantasy, Cape Canaveral is a not-so-distant alternative.

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