Tuesday, May 27, 2008

17. Stennis and Kennedy Space Centers

While visiting Mississippi in April, we stumbled across the John C. Stennis Space Center near Bay St. Louis. We had never heard of it, so we looked into it and took the free tour of the facility. It was very interesting.

The Stennis complex was established in 1963. This is where NASA tests the large rockets that carry things into space and send astronauts to the moon and the space station. All the space shuttle engines are tested here before the launches. Because of the noise involved in testing, a huge amount of land was acquired and cleared of human habitation. A small town or two had to be relocated outside the noise buffer area.

As you might imagine, rocket engines are very loud and powerful. They burn a mix of liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen at a temperature of about 6000 degrees. The three Space Shuttle main engines develop just over 37 million horsepower. One engine weighs one-seventh as much as a locomotive engine but delivers as much horsepower as 28 locomotives. It also has a high-pressure oxidizer pump that delivers the equivalent horsepower of 11 more. We got to see some of the test facilities, which look much like regular launch pads, but without the full rocket apparatus. There's lots of noise but nothing shoots into the sky (hopefully).
Lots of people work here. More than 30 other agencies conduct business at Stennis and the Naval Meteorology and Oceanography Command operates a world class oceanographic and meteorological center here. It was surprising to learn that more oceanographers work at Stennis than any other place in the world.

The Stennis facility has an impressive visitor center. We could walk through a mock-up of the International Space Station, get a close look at a Space Shuttle Main Engine and much more. As you can see, Bonnie took the controls of a Space Shuttle mock-up. It’s also a great place for kids to learn about space travel. School bus loads of kids arrive every day for tours.
After our eye-opening visit to the Stennis facility in Mississippi, we looked forward to a stop at Cape Canaveral in Florida to see the Kennedy Space Center where the rocket engines are put into action. Again, we were not disappointed. It was even bigger and better.

We got an early start and arrived at the Kennedy Space Center in time for the 10 am 2-hour bus tour of the site. We couldn't help but feel the history and importance of this place. This is where, on May 5, 1961, astronaut Alan Shepard became the first American in space and where John Glenn became the first American to orbit the Earth a year later. It took him only about five hours to go around three times. All NASA human space missions and Space Shuttle missions have lifted off from here, including those that failed. The following photo is launch pad 39-B where the Space Shuttle is launched. It's much larger than it appears on TV.
The two wide paths leading up to the launch pad are gravel tracks for the huge "crawler", which is a very heavy tracked vehicle. It's job is to move the rocket, in its upright position, from the assembly building to the launch pad. It moves very slowly and burns a gallon of diesel fuel every 42 feet. And we thought our RV was getting bad mileage!!! Next shuttle launch is on May 31.
We had hoped to see a launch pad and some buildings, but were blown away by the tour and the visitor center presentations. The space center is a huge sprawling complex of 140,000 acres of land, swamp, Atlantic beaches and waterways. It has two launch pads, one of the world’s longest runways (for shuttle landings), and the rocket assembly building (below) is the third largest building in the U.S. About 16,000 people work at the space center and, judging by the cars in the employee parking lots, they're paid very well.
The facility isn’t quite like Disneyland, but it does have a “Shuttle Launch Experience” ride that provides the feelings, sounds and experience of being launched (we didn’t do that one). The visitor’s center also includes museums, two IMAX theaters, a rocket garden (photo), lots of displays and hands-on things for kids and adults, restaurants and, of course, gift shops.
One of the most popular exhibits was a huge Saturn V rocket. That’s the one that sent 27 astronauts to the moon, including the first humans to land on the moon . . . Neil Armstrong and “Buzz” Aldrin in 1969. The rocket is enormous. It’s 363 feet long and, when loaded, weighs as much as seven Boeing 747s. It’s hard to visualize how something that big could get off the ground. The earlier visit to the Stennis facility helped us comprehend the power of the engines.
We were surprised that such an intense, loud and dangerous facility was so closely integrated with the natural environment. But the center shares its property with the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge and nearly half of the Center is within the nationally designated Canaveral National Seashore. Throughout the base we saw heron, ibis and other birds, alligators, wild pigs and bald eagles. The tour guide pointed out a very large eagle’s nest that has been high in a big tree near the main road for 40 years. Even though a shuttle launch could blow the feathers off a duck a mile away, it seems that most wildlife survive and aren’t adversely affected by the occasional loud noise. Most of the time the area is very quiet, public access is restricted and most work is done indoors. It’s an amazing facility and a great place to spend a day.

The NASA space program has a very respectable safety record, but accidents have happened and lives have been lost over the years. It was good to see that the astronauts that lost their lives to fires, shuttle disasters and other mishaps were honored in a special memorial to their service.