When was the last time you peered east, hoping to catch the contrail of a launch of the space shuttle?
It has been almost 28 years since the first shuttle mission lifted off. After more than 110 launches — and despite two horrific accidents — many of us have grown blase. (Though time to pay attention is running out. The space shuttle program may end next year.)
Still, something about mankind's efforts to reach farther into the universe brings more than 1.5 million visitors to the Kennedy Space Center each year. At the Johnson Space Center outside Houston, about 700,000 visitors annually get a different mix of education and fun.
Each site offers documentaries, artifacts, interactive games, even low-level thrill rides. But at both, I found the human voices to be the best part.
Kennedy Space Center
About 155 miles from downtown St. Petersburg, "the Cape" was designated America's rocket-launching facility by President Harry S. Truman, shortly after World War II. The first launch involved a captured German V2 rocket — the kind fired on London.
This is the sort of trivia offered during narrated bus tours that are included in the admission price. The basic tour stops at a launch pad viewing tower and for a photo op outside the 525-foot-tall Vehicle Assembly Building. Passengers stop at the International Space Station Center where, from an enclosed catwalk, they watch technicians preparing components to be delivered to the station via the shuttle.
The extra-cost bus tour I took, NASA Up-Close, includes these stops and drives by nondescript administrative buildings including the "Astronaut Hilton," where the crews live and suit up for their ride to the launch pad. But this tour also brings visitors within a few city blocks of one of the two manned-spacecraft launch pads. It is being rebuilt to handle much larger rockets intended to return astronauts to the moon — and beyond.
NASA Up-Close also makes a photo stop within 3,000 feet of the other launch pad, within view of the shuttle if it is on the pad.
(Because the Houston operation has no launch facilities, visitors don't get the same views.)
All tours stop at the Apollo/Saturn V Center, where passengers watch an 8-minute film about early efforts in the space program and then enter a room filled with computer consoles at which technicians and scientists sat during early Apollo flights. The room, however, is a re-creation.
A multimedia presentation counts down the three minutes before ignition of the massive Saturn V engines (they generated 8,000 times more horsepower than the combined field of cars in a Daytona 500 race).
After this liftoff, an overhead screen plays a video of former astronaut Jim Lovell.
Relaxed in a blazer and sports shirt, Lovell says that the Saturn V "is still the most powerful, most complex machine ever built. It could take you to another planet, I guess. I know, because I got to fly it to the moon, on Apollo 13. But that's another story," he says, smiling.
It's a disarming reference to a mission marked by a mechanical failure that threatened to doom Lovell and two colleagues to death in space.
Lovell tells his audience to exit toward the right. As the first viewers step through the doors, they stand almost beneath the engines of a Saturn V. Those visitors still in the theater can hear their cries of "Wow!'
Measuring 363 feet tall, this rocket is now horizontal and suspended high enough that visitors can walk beneath it.
This building also holds a moon rock that visitors can touch, a Lunar Rover and an Apollo command module.
All the roundtrip tours start at the visitors center, which has a double IMAX theater that alternates different 45-minute films. Also here are a kid-oriented, multimedia play area, and educational exhibits such as what the Hubbell telescope has photographed.
There are two other major attractions:
• The Shuttle Launch Experience took years to develop, with input from numerous astronauts, to simulate a liftoff. Walking through the familiar "back-and-forth" line, visitors see videos of space veterans — they totaled more than 20 shuttle and two Apollo missions — offering comments such as:
"After the launch and everyone has run through their checklists (of chores), we all fight to get to the windows to look out."
"You're in this little tin can, sitting on top of a million pounds of thrust."
The five-minute liftoff simulation involves lots of shaking — you must wear a seatbelt — and noise and then, after the engines have shut down, overhead doors open to show a simulated view of Earth from orbit.
For the sake of comparison, Epcot's Mission: Space attraction uses centrifugal force and animation to provide more thrill.
• You can meet a real space traveler at the Astronaut Encounter. Twice a day, a former astronaut relates his or her experiences, narrates slides and film, takes questions and poses for pictures with visitors.
I was able to sit in on the 35-minute presentation by Jon McBride, a former Navy combat pilot who later was among the first 35 people selected to be shuttle crew members.
McBride piloted one mission, in orbit for more than eight days. He was to pilot the mission that would have followed what turned out to be the Challenger's fatal flight. But his mission and several others were postponed by the safety investigation, and McBride retired before getting back into space.
He told his audience that the shuttle is flying "faster than 18,000 miles per hour within 8 1/2 minutes" after liftoff.
Without gravity compressing the vertebrae, an astronaut "grows" 1 1/2 inches, McBride explained. But that same zero gravity allows excess fluid to gather in the face, so that the astronauts appear bloated.
"The first 24 hours back on Earth, you feel terrible, your head is spinning and you have to remember to walk and to hold on to things so you don't fall."
Johnson Space Center
"The astronauts train in Houston, but they launch at Canaveral," the Kennedy Space Center guides proudly inform visitors. That translates to: You won't see any VAB or shuttle on the launch pad here in Houston. But you might happen upon an astronaut in a special suit in an indoor pool, learning about weightlessness.
What you will see are two authentic Mission Control rooms. The first stop on the basic tram tour is a room filled with computers and huge monitors, first used in June 1965 for a manned Gemini mission.
Engineers at Mission Control consoles also monitored the Apollo flights — including Apollo 13, when Lovell radioed back: "Houston, we have a problem."
Retired NASA veterans such as Milt Heflin recount those days for the visitors:
"You have entered a cathedral," former associate director Heflin told my group. "Back then, it was only men, in white shirts with skinny black ties — and lots of cigarette smoke."
Heflin, who began work at NASA in June 1966, told us: "I was chief of the flight directors on Feb. 1, 2003, when we lost (the shuttle) Columbia. To this day, I'm haunted by some of the things we should have done, and some of the things the crew should have done."
The next tour stop is the current control room in which experts are communicating with the astronauts aboard the space station and are monitoring its systems. Closed-circuit monitors may show those astronauts at work, but the only briefing comes from tour guides, not a Milt Heflin.
These stops are included in the admission. The trams also drop visitors at an observation area above a large room holding mockups of space station and shuttle sections, in which astronauts practice. Visitors also get to see Houston's Saturn V.
The trams deliver visitors to a building called Space Center Houston — dubbed an "edu-tainment" facility by its operators. It has moon rocks, astronaut-at-work suits and items used in the various manned space missions.
Areas within this building offer interactive displays, video games (can you land the shuttle or dock with the space station?), a liftoff simulator theater and two theaters showing various films. Among my favorite attractions:
• A zero-gravity chair that visitors try to maneuver to perform simple tasks (think of floating on a giant air-hockey table).
• The amusing and informative Living in Space presentation. Typically using a child from the audience as the demonstrator, a guide explains how space station residents prepare food, sleep, shower and, yes, use the "microgravity" toilets.
Robert N. Jenkins is the former Travel editor of the Times.