Yes, we saw a space launch at Cape Canaveral. It was super. The Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex is my number one attraction in Florida. I don’t have a bucket list, but if I did, seeing a space launch would be near the top. As far as Florida goes, most people think of Disney World. I think of Cape Canaveral first. I Dream of Jeannie is second. Disney World falls somewhere south of the Everglades, Key West, and alligators.
Kennedy Space Center
The Kennedy Space Center is at the north end of Merritt Island. Cape Canaveral is one island further east, toward the ocean. Both have multiple launch pads, runways, and work together on the space program. Cape Canaveral just got a new name it is now the Cape Canaveral Space Force Station.
Most people don’t know that you can get tours of Cape Canaveral including seeing some launch pads and the lighthouse. The Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex next door is an amazing facility dedicated to showing the public the space program.
Future space launch programs will be shared between the Kennedy Space Center and Cape Canaveral. Multiple space launch programs are scattered around the world, including California and Russia. If you want to see the best exhibits and real spacecraft the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex is the place to go.
I am going to outline some of the exhibits at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex and a brief history of the space program. After that, I will get to the story of seeing our launch (and tell you about the picture at the top of this post).
Near the main entrance of the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex, and you can see it from the parking lot, is the rocket garden. These are real NASA rockets all on display.
We watched a Falcon 9 rocket launch (not exhibited in the rocket garden or on display for photos). The Falcon 9 is about three times taller than the Redstone Mercury.
Allen Shepard was the first American to successfully ride a Mercury/Redstone rocket to space in 1961. John Glenn made the first three laps around the earth in orbit, alone riding in the Mercury capsule in 1962. I was too young to appreciate these accomplishments. I started taking notice of the space program when the swimming pool in Boulder was named after the Mercury Astronaut Scott Carpenter.
I started taking more notice about the space program with the Gemini sending two astronauts into space on the same Atlas rocket. In the Gemini program, the Astronauts were able to exit the capsule in space and in their spacesuits move around the outside of the capsule. The media called this a spacewalk although perhaps a spacefloat would have been a better description.
A really good place to see stories about the astronauts is at the Heros and Legends exhibit. This especially goes for the Mercury and Gemini astronauts.
Other than a couple of exhibits, most of the Apollo missions are at Apollo/Saturn V Center. This exhibit is at the halfway point of the bus tour. This trip to the Apollo/Saturn V Center is a must-see attraction. Don’t skip it. After admission, we went straight to the bus and were one of the first to arrive at the Apollo/Saturn Center on that day.
Inside a huge, very long building is a full-size Saturn V rocket. As you first enter the building you see the rocket engines mounted at the tail end. The Saturn V engines are the largest rocket engines successfully used — ever. These engines are much more powerful than the Space Shuttle engines. They also lifted the most weight of any rocket engine ever made. The record stands at more than three hundred thousand pounds lifted into orbit (and beyond). In comparison the Mercury/Redstone weighed less than seventy thousand pounds.
A much bigger rocket engine was created in the Soviet Union but failed on each of five launch attempts.
The Saturn V rocket which carried the Apollo missions to the moon is nearly five times taller than the Redstone/Mercury rocket. It hangs horizontally from the roof inside the building. In front of the capsule is a needle-like tip that precedes the capsule. Behind the capsule is the payload section that includes the lunar lander (and lunar dune buggy used on later trips). Everything behind these sections is rocket and fuel.
Other than the first stage of the Saturn V that is jettisoned at about 42 miles above the earth, everything other than the space capsule (pictured above) is discarded farther into space. This includes the lunar lander. Beginning at takeoff, the only purpose for a used space capsule is as a museum exhibit.
It takes an entire team to launch a moon mission and most of the people never leave the earth. This picture is of the Apollo Mission Control Room. NASA moved the control room here from Houston and rebuilt it at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex.
Another don’t miss exhibit at the Saturn V / Apollo Center is the Lunar Theater. This is a replay of the actual communications between Apollo II moon landing when Niel Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin first landed and then walked on the moon. During the replay, a real full-scale lunar lander descends to the moon’s surface, and then as you watch as Neil Armstrong in a full space suit fades into view along with the Stars and Stripes planted forever on the moon’s surface.
The Space Shuttle, even though it doesn’t have the glamor or history of the moon landing, has one feature that every space program, in every country can’t match. In a Space Shuttle, the astronauts fly the landing and touch down on a runway.
The big thing that is missing from the above picture is the Space Shuttle. It is inside the building on display. The large orange cylinder in the middle is the fuel tank. On each side of the fuel tank are two solid rocket boosters. The boosters provide the extra thrust required during the launch to lift the shuttle and fuel tank on their way through the atmosphere. The fuel inside the orange cylinder is liquid hydrogen. A separate tank of liquid oxygen is inside the fuel tank. These two elements are ignited together in the Space Shuttle engines at the same time as the boosters are providing liftoff. The hydrogen/oxygen combination creates tremendous thrust. After burning, the “smoke” is water vapor.
Even though the shuttle is massive and very powerful the combination doesn’t match the enormous power of the Saturn V rocket. The difference is obvious, with the shuttle the goal is to orbit the earth, just like the Mercury program. The Saturn V rocket had the goal of orbiting the moon which is much further away.
The space shuttle is designed to take heavy objects into orbit. This includes the International Space Station and satellites like the one in the following picture is at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum in September.
Landing the Space Shuttle
As we all know the space shuttle landed like an airplane (actually a glider). The pilots used all the fuel to slow down while still in space. As the shuttle reentered the atmosphere all the fuel was already expended. The last drop of fuel was expended to slow the shuttle down and this caused the altitude loss needed to reenter the atmosphere. From there, they glided halfway around the world to arrive over Florida at about 37,000 feet at 345 miles per hour. This was the first time the astronauts saw the runway.
Simulator and practice
I think everyone knows that I am a Naval Aviator. After retiring from the Navy, I taught Navy pilots in simulators for the next twenty years. Each astronaut has practiced landing the space shuttle more than 1000 times. They practice takeoffs and landings in simulators. They also perform approaches in a specially modified Gulfstream jet that also descends just like the space shuttle.
The Gulfstream used to train the astronauts, flies the shuttle approach profile with its engines in reverse. This requires a very nose-low approach to the runway to keep the speed high enough to match the decent profile of the space shuttle. Passing through 37,000 feet the shuttle pilot starts his approach profile. Think of it like an airline pilot announcing his descent to make his landing and turning on the fasten seat belt light. Commercial airliners also use the mid-30,000-foot altitudes for mid-flight cruising.
The shuttle pilot will then make a maneuver that every Naval Aviator learned before he was ever allowed in an airplane. To do this you make a gentle wide turn while descending to align yourself with the runway. Just before touchdown you reduce the speed and lower the landing gear. After that touch down gently just like an Airforce pilot.
Since the shuttle has short wings, it doesn’t really make a very good glider. After passing through 37,000 feet and beginning his approach, the shuttle touches down on the runway in a little less than three and a half minutes. The shuttle then lands at 225 miles per hour Compare that to your last airplane flight.
The Future of Space Flight
The future of space flight doesn’t include pilots landing spacecraft on runways. Instead, they are going back to the original capsule design. Instead of reusing the space capsule, they are starting to land the rockets back on recovery pads. SpaceX has taken off and reused the Falcon 9 rocket booster, that we saw during our space launch, eight previous times.
This Orion capsule will sit on top of the Space Launch System (SLS) rocket. The SLS will provide heavy-lift duties for future missions back to the moon and to Mars. Space Launch System has scheduled a first test flight for an SLS rocket on February 2022. Our plan is to be in Orlando at about the right time. If it looks like a go, we will drive back to Kennedy and try to see it. Why? An SLS rocket is going to be more powerful than a Saturn V.
Our Space Launch story
Our Space Launch story starts with a two-week disappointment. Since our visit to the “Space Coast” was planned nearly six months ago, I guessed wrong. The week that I scheduled to be closest to Kennedy didn’t have any launches scheduled. I had hoped to get a picture of a space launch with our RV in the picture.
I planned several stops along the Space Coast that we would be in driving range for a space launch. Two weeks after we departed our closest location we got lucky. We drove for more than an hour, back to Cocoa Beach for a 6 pm space launch. We parked on I Dream of Jeannie Lane. Fifteen minutes before takeoff we set up on the beach south of Cape Canaveral.
Space Launch photo
As you can see in the picture (also at the top of this page) a few people were on the beach closer to the launch than we were. For this launch, the Falcon 9 rocket took off heading toward the east and then turned north. It was carrying 48 satellites. The report is that the mission was a complete success. The success included the return of the booster section to a recovery pad nine minutes after takeoff.
Here is a video of a Falcon 9 rocket landing. Youtube SpaceX
As for the picture, I knew that I wasn’t going to get a fire trail leading across the sky because I don’t have that level of experience shooting space launches. Instead, I got pretty much what I expected. I am very happy you can make out the rocket. Getting a picture of the fireball was easy. As for the people on the beach, that was luck, all because the rocket was low enough to include them in the picture. Just after this picture, the rocket turned north and all we could see was the fireball.
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