I have no idea why, but I always get emotional when I watch a rocket launch. Whether it’s on TV, a Youtube clip, or in a movie. Every time. There’s something very inspiring about watching the work of thousands of people, perhaps millions if you count the engineering and science from all of human history we rely on to get to this point, all culminate into a singular point in order to propel ourselves to a place that’s extremely dangerous, unfamiliar, and thrilling. It also helps to watch a ridiculous amount of explosions occur in order to propel the spaceship out into space. (The Saturn V rocket, for example, which was used for Apollo missions to get men on the moon, creates 7.5 million pounds of thrust at liftoff, and burns through a little less than 2 million liters of fuel, a combination of kerosine and liquid oxygen in 2 minutes and 42 seconds.)
Before you enter the exhibit hall for the Space Shuttle Atlantis at Kennedy Space Center, you go through a couple of theaters that show you the “making of” the Space Shuttle. We watch the conception of the program in 1972, when the idea to create a reusable spacecraft was formed. A spacecraft large enough to carry big heavy payloads to the orbit, which ultimately made it possible to build the International Space Station and to service Hubble Telescope. We also watch the disasters the program endured, with 2 different space shuttles destroyed, and 14 casualties. After grieving for the lost astronauts, the engineers build again, redesign, figure out better ways to improve and prevent such disasters.
So when we are led into a big standing room theater with giant screens that surround us 360 degrees and they show the space shuttle launch again with booming explosion that can be felt under our feet, we understand not just the hard work and sweat that went into this endeavor, but also the sacrifice, the courage, and the endurance of our willingness to venture into the unknown. Then the screen rises to reveal the actual Space Shuttle Atlantis that is on display.
To help us answer any questions, a former engineer for the Space Shuttle was present. He was responsible for the Thermal Protection System for the space shuttle, which needed to withstand temperatures from −454 °F of outer space to the re-entry heat of up to 2,910 °F. It’s not everyday you get to meet the actual NASA scientist who figured out some genius solutions for ridiculous problems.
Speaking of meeting the real deal, we met Wendy Lawrence, an astronaut who flew 4 missions on the space shuttle. She told us about her childhood dream of being an astronaut after watching Buzz and Neil walk on the moon, what it’s like to feel 3 G of force during liftoff, (which we got a taste of around 2.5 G at the EPCOT ride Mission: Space. Which, we agree, felt exactly as if a giant bear just plopped down on our chest.) and her view on the end of the space shuttle program, due to budget cuts made by George Dubya. 🙁
On our bus ride to the Saturn center, where the Saturn V rocket was housed, as well as the Apollo 13 command module, we got a great tour around the entire complex. We saw the Space X launch pad, where they’re working on reusable rocket system that can land itself. There was also the crawl transporter, which is a giant tank that moves the rockets and the space craft to its launch pad. Surrounding all this technology is wild life. You can see warning signs to watch out for gators, tons of birds, and a bald eagle’s nest.
As we exited the Kennedy Space Center, we walked through the Rocket Garden. Seeing all the rockets and capsules of history reminded me of the videos we watched of the early failures: the ones that exploded, the ones that didn’t launch properly, the countless times we failed that have now been eclipsed by the successes we have achieved. I can’t imagine what it must have been like to hear the skeptics’ voices during those times. What’s the point? All this money, all this resource, also the danger? All for what?
At the Hall of Heroes at Kennedy Space Center, where the lost astronauts are commemorated, there is a quote from President Ronald Regan: “The future doesn’t belong to the fainthearted. It belongs to the brave.” I guess when I watch the rocket launches, I’m thankful for being part of a human race. There may be those who are cynical, ignorant, and even cruel. But those who are courageous, curious, relentless, and understanding, help our humanity take the next step forward.