Maxwell: Kennedy Space Center opens new worlds for grandsons

The Rocket Garden at the Kennedy Space Center Visitors Complex features Redstone, Atlas and Titan rockets that carried astronauts into space. SCOTT KEELER   |   Times (2009)
The Rocket Garden at the Kennedy Space Center Visitors Complex features Redstone, Atlas and Titan rockets that carried astronauts into space.SCOTT KEELER | Times (2009)

After my 6-year-old twin grandsons graduated from kindergarten last week, I took them and their mother, my daughter, to the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex to celebrate. I wanted them to have fun and learn in a welcoming, safe and inspiring environment.

What better place than the space center, where more than 1.5 million visitors come each year from around the world? At the outset, in the parking lot and in the ticket line to enter the 70-acre complex, we could hear the world around us through languages we didn't understand and see it in attire that was unfamiliar.

The boys immediately realized that many other kids were headed to the Children's Play Dome, which has slides, nooks and crannies and a climbing wall. I watched as the boys befriended kids from India, Japan, Poland, Bolivia, Jamaica and elsewhere.

And I watched as my grandsons and their new acquaintances, all sweaty and exhausted, said goodbye. One of my grandsons and an Indian boy held hands and exchanged parting words and smiles. I was moved by their innocence, immersing themselves in the universal act of simple play.

After a cold drink and a few minutes of rest, we visited the Rocket Garden. The boys were awed by the sight of a real Atlas, Jupiter and Titan II rising above everything else around. Both ran to a replica capsule, climbed inside and pretended they were roaring into space.

Next, we went to one of the IMAX theaters and watched A Beautiful Planet, the 3D documentary narrated by Jennifer Lawrence. I thought the boys would be bored, but the 3D experience — with stars, mountains, oceans, forests and other images traveling at high speed toward us — kept them on the edge of their seats.

The Space Shuttle Atlantis Zone was extra special. One grandson and I did the Shuttle Launch Experience. It is a motion-master ride, complete with thundering sound effects and the violent shaking approximating what astronauts experienced on the shuttle Atlantis.

While the boys enjoyed the Shuttle Slide with other kids, I found a seat and observed. When I saw a science teacher with a group of high school students nearby, I eavesdropped like any good journalist would.

The discussion was about NASA's Technology Transfer Program, how space exploration and inventions impact our daily lives. The teacher discussed, among other NASA contributions, Light-Emitting Diodes (LEDs), artificial limbs advancements, anti-icing systems for airliners, improved radial tires, land mine removal, enriched baby food, freeze-drying technology, water purification and powered lubricants.

Several people sat and stood next to me, and I chatted with some of them. They hailed from Germany, Ireland, China, South Africa, Iceland, Russia, Columbia, Denmark and Australia. All seemed awed by what they were experiencing. My question to each was simple: Why did you come? For each, the space center was a destination, and each saw palpable evidence of America's multifaceted uniqueness, especially our multiculturalism.

The Chinese man, his first time in the United States, said the space center is the "ultimate in human diversity." He said he had never been served by a black person in any capacity. He hadn't known that blacks were astronauts and scientists at NASA. He was surprised that Charles F. Bolden, who's African American, had been a NASA administrator.

My biggest surprise at the space center came when I turned my attention back to my grandsons and saw a Buddhist monk, in a signature saffron robe, zooming down the Shuttle Slide. He stood, adjusted his robe, took a photo of the slide with his phone and walked out of the building.

Later, as we walked to the Moon Rock Café for lunch, we saw the monk from the slide sitting on the ground in the shade with six other monks. My grandsons stared at these bald men in saffron robes. I was afraid they were going to ask loud kids' questions about the monks.

But they said nothing and kept walking. Over lunch, I used my phone to learn that Buddhists believe in science, that Buddhism isn't a "religion" at all but rather a way of looking at the world.

I am ashamed for not knowing this simple fact. While I came to the space center with my grandsons to celebrate their kindergarten graduation, I serendipitously learned important lessons about another group of people. I will teach these lessons to my boys.

Although I've been to the space center countless times to cover shuttle launches, I will return often with my grandsons. One said he might become an astronaut.