Grant Bradley

Aviation, tourism and energy writer for the Business Herald

Florida: Mission for flight fanatics

Grant Bradley gets a lift at a museum that celebrates the right stuff.

The Saturn V rocket is one of the most powerful machines ever built. Photo / Grant Bradley
The Saturn V rocket is one of the most powerful machines ever built. Photo / Grant Bradley

The first picture I ever remember drawing was of Buzz Aldrin on the Moon. It stuck in the memory because my chalk rendering of the second man on the lunar surface won me a prize from the local Gisborne radio station in a footpath drawing contest during the summer of 1969-70.

I got to meet Buzz for a seven-minute interview four decades later. He gave me the shorthand version of the mission - one he'd told once or twice - while working his smartphone.

So a family holiday to Florida had to include the Cape Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral as something of a pilgrimage for me and my flight fanatic son, then 14. For my wife and 11-year-old daughter it was more of an enjoyable detour between theme parks and the Everglades.

You don't have to be a space nut to to enjoy the Cape. Here are 10 reasons to go.

10. It's an easy drive of just more than an hour from Orlando, home of Disney World parks and Universal Studios which are an easy family experience if you allow enough time.

There are plenty of good-value hotels and outlet shopping, and the sprawl that surrounds the centre of Orlando is thick with fast-food joints. It may not be pretty but it's a convenient place to base yourself.

9. The variety of wildlife is remarkable. Cape Canaveral (as it was known before being renamed in honour of the slain President) is a 23,500ha national wildlife refuge. There are 5000 alligators, some of which we saw sunning near massive crawler units used to transport rockets around. It's a twitcher's paradise and among the 500 species of wildlife are manatees or sea cows.

8. You'll learn why astronauts don't want a road named after them. Driving into the centre, you see roads named to memorialise some of the 24 men and women who have died in flight or training for a space flight.

7. The gleaming Corvette Stingray on display in the Apollo/Saturn V hall is a reminder of an era when The Right Stuff was a magnet for groupies. The cars were standard issue early in the space programme, and a reason that astronauts attracted admirers dubbed the "Cape Cookies" by the long-suffering astronauts' wives.

6. There's a fund of material to feed your conspiracy theory. If you think the Moon landing was done in a sound studio in Burbank, the centre's homage to the space programme will really get you going. On hop-on, hop-off buses around the site you're guided by knowledgeable and enthusiastic retirees from the tens of thousands who have worked there, and they're not about to give any game away. They said scrub fire producing enough smoke to block out the sun the day we visited was a "controlled burn-off". A local news channel that night said it was caused by a lightning strike.

5. You can experience the sensation of a space shuttle launch in a simulator. In the Space Shuttle Launch Experience, you go through a pre-launch briefing and are taken through the launch sequence before feeling the power of a lift-off that takes you into orbit. It is included in the day pass - US$50 ($59) for adults plus tax, and US$40 ($47) for kids. Multi-day passes cost US$75, a good option if you're able to come back because you won't have time to get to everything you want. There are numerous other options if you want to pay more including lunch with astronauts, kids' educational activities and getting closer to launch sites than on the bus route.

4. The gift shop has a terrific array of clothing, posters, model rockets, books and DVDs. Like the rest of the place, it's not too pricey.

3. You're in a working spaceport. It's maybe not working as hard as during its hey-day but if you time it right you may still see a satellite being launched from the site. The next crewed flight is timed for 2021: the Orion capsule is designed to fly into deep space.

2. You can touch the Moon, or at least a slither of rock rubbed smooth by the millions who have visited Kennedy. Between 1969 and 1972, six Apollo missions brought back 382kg of lunar rocks, core samples, pebbles, sand and dust from the lunar surface.

1. You'll stand beneath one of the most powerful machines ever built. The unused, 110m-tall Saturn V rocket lies on its side in a hangar, divided into three stages under which visitors can walk. When filled with liquid oxygen, liquid hydrogen and kerosene the rocket can hit speeds of 38,000km/h as it tears loose from Earth's gravity. It burns up to 15 tonnes of fuel a second and has the potential to produce a fireball half-a-kilometre wide if things go wrong and it hits what one astronaut calls that "big moose" of a launch tower. Apollo astronauts' cool demeanour slips whenever they recount the powerful emotion of lift-off. Stand beneath a Saturn V rocket and you'll sense why.

CHECKLIST

Getting there: Air New Zealand flies daily to Los Angeles from where local carriers connect to Orlando, Florida.

Further information: See Kennedyspacecenter.com and DiscoverAmerica.com.

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