Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Kennedy Space Center, Part 1

My brother, despite his struggle with mental illness, has always had an intense curiosity about electronics and mechanical things. You could never enter his room barefoot, because the floor was always covered with a clutter of resistors, capacitors and vacuum tubes.

It’s hard to get him to talk about his interests these days. He takes antipsychotic medication that causes him to stare into space with his mouth open until you ask him a question. If the topic of the discussion interests him, he can often participate with energy and wit, but once the conversation lags, he’s off in another world again.

I decided to take him to Kennedy Space Center. He hadn’t expressed an interest in seeing it, but I figured that something there would stimulate him. On the drive over, we talked a little bit about the space program, and I was shocked when he named all of the rockets used by NASA from the Mercury launches through the Apollo program.

Kennedy Space Center has a visitor’s complex that is loaded with the unpleasant hallmarks of a theme park.



Mixed in with the tourist crap are some impressive displays, including these full-scale mockups of a space shuttle and its booster/fuel tank assembly.


The displays are very detailed. The underside of the shuttle is covered with thermal tiles, each of which is numbered. This is because they’re all slightly different sizes and shapes, to fit the contours of the spacecraft.



Buses run from the visitor’s complex, depositing guests at various stops along the way. The first stop was a large viewing tower, from which you could see the enormous Vehicle Assembly Building.


Not too far away was the shuttle launch pad.


Off in the distance was another launch pad that is no longer being used for shuttle launches. Rather, it’s being refitted for the Orion program. Note the double-lane gravel road curving towards the gantry. That’s the road used by the massive crawling Mobile Launch Platform that carries rockets from the Vehicle Assembly Building to the launch pad. NASA is currently replacing all of the gravel, because the incredible weight of the Mobile Launch Platform has pulverized the gravel into dust, which hampers its operation.


As we climbed the tower for viewing these massive objects, my brother spied an exhibit of a shuttle engine.


“Oh wow!” he exclaimed, as we walked towards it. He then began naming parts of the insanely complicated rig, as though he worked on them in his spare time. But he had a bigger thrill later that day, as I’ll explain in my next post.

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