America's Space Coast: Prepare for lift-off

Forget theme parks – the biggest thrill to be had in the Sunshine State is witnessing a space launch

Click to follow
The Independent Travel

Cape Canaveral is home to a healthy population of herons, alligators and sea turtles. And in a few minutes they are going to get the shock of their lives.

"Red line monitor?"

"Go!"

"Range co-ordinator?"

"Clear to proceed."

"Mission director?"

"You have permission to launch."

Say what you like about holiday price rises during school half-terms, but allow me to doff a Kennedy Space Center baseball cap in the direction of the education chiefs who selected the last week in October as the autumn break. Because this year a rocket launch was scheduled from the Florida Space Coast right in the middle of it.

Orlando airport is a popular destination for British families at half-term, reflected in the fare of £3,000 that I paid for transatlantic flights for the four of us. But rocket launches that coincide with school holidays are slightly rarer than blue moons, so my MasterCard went off on a mission to explore the outer reaches of its credit limit.

Most families turn west out of Orlando airport, and end up in a city overflowing with make-believe. Go east instead, and within an hour you reach the final frontier. The Sunshine State subsides to a conclusion with a patchwork of low-lying islands. And man's journey into Outer Space begins.

The "Space Coast" is a made-up name for the middle slice of Florida's Atlantic shore. After the Second World War, it was chosen by the military for rocket propulsion experiments. The aim was to be able to obliterate the Soviet Union rather than to travel to other worlds. The site was ideal because of the sparse population, indigenous wildlife excepted. There was also the pragmatic consideration that the Earth's rotation meant launches that went awry would likely end up in the ocean rather than someone's back yard. So, while Houston was the home for Nasa mission control, the business end was handled at Cape Canaveral and the adjacent Kennedy Space Center on Merritt Island.

If you are 41 or younger, you will not have been alive at a time when man has visited the Moon. Between July 1969 and December 1972, the Apollo programme made walking on the Moon seem as routine as walking into Walmart (except for one unlucky mission). But when trillions of dollars were diverted in the unwinnable Vietnam War, Houston had a problem: Washington's dwindling appetite for space exploration. With the Shuttle grounded in 2011, man's only presence in space these days is the International Space Station.

Re-supplying the ISS is an expensive business, and trickier than popping into Walmart. On the day we arrived in Orlando, a routine despatch had barely left a launch pad on the Virginia coast when it, and the astronauts' packed lunches for the next few months, disintegrated over the Atlantic. Which heightened the tension of the next two days.

Nothing in Orlando can compare to a Florida space launch for thrills. Plan to be there both on lift-off day and the day before. But be prepared for the launch to be called off. Anything from 1,001 technical glitches to bad weather can cause a postponement by days or weeks. However, there is much to engross you at the Kennedy Space Center even if you don't see a rocket. The Center deftly combines the twin roles of theme park and museum of cosmological adventures.

Arrive at opening time (9am) on Launch Day Minus One, and head straight for the Shuttle Atlantis exhibit. I can't tell you everything of the show about the last Shuttle in space, for fear of spoiling the surprise, but you will gasp. And then you can play to your human heart's content on the slides used by the astronauts to exit a Shuttle in a hurry.

Outside, stride along the same gantry that Neil Armstrong used to board Apollo XI en route to the Moon. The Center also has a collection of astronaut fashion and space hardware, now ridiculously retro. Reaching another heavenly body with that kit looks more a matter of witchcraft than spacecraft.

As you explore the Sputnik-to-Space Shuttle story, you settle into the presentation technique: dramatic music underpinning soundbites – many of the "One small step …" variety, but also the voices of past, present and future workers in the space industry.

As a theme, "We were great, and we hope someday to be great again" could pall, so sign up in advance for the KSC Up-Close Tour. Board a vehicle only one step up from a US school bus, and rattle off for a tour of the island from which man reached for the Moon. The sub-tropical surroundings show that nature has not been blasted to oblivion. "Gator on the right," says the driver/guide, as a prehistoric snout and pair of eyes peers out of the swamp. As it is still a restricted military site, you can get out only at a few locations, but to see where the Apollo missions blasted off on a booster and a prayer, and where the Space Shuttles landed, is to connect with the cosmos.

Another optional extra is to eat with an astronaut, but on an earlier mission to Washington DC's marvellous Air and Space Museum we chatted to a cosmonaut free of charge. And from what we tasted of the Kennedy Space Center fast-food offering, it is better at astronomy than gastronomy. So, we returned to our B&B at Titusville and prepared for the next day's mission by feasting on a Cuban dinner the size of the Sea of Tranquility.

That night, the International Space Station was due to fly directly over south-eastern Florida. When it makes an appearance, the shiny orbiting science lab is the third-brightest object in the night sky, after the Moon and Venus. You need to be beneath its trajectory, with clear skies, just after dusk or just before dawn so that it catches the Sun's light. The ISS is the only object you can see moving perceptibly through space, and contains the swiftest humans anywhere – travelling at 17,100mph above their spiritual home on the Space Coast.

Wednesday morning was a bit of a space race. Anyone within 100 miles of Cape Canaveral, and with any sense of theatre, planned to witness the launch. Lift-off was scheduled for "17:21 Zulu" – Nasa-speak for 5.21pm GMT, or lunchtime in Florida. We had been warned of heavy traffic on A1A, the Space Highway, so arrived at what Elton John called "zero hour" – 9am – in "Rocket Man".

The Kennedy Space Center, belonging to Nasa, is part of an organisation entirely separate from the launch location: Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, home to the "Air Force Space Command's 45th Space Wing." But from the KSC viewing site on the edge of the water, you get an enthralling view of the launch pad. The rocket pierces the horizon four miles away, rising from the mud through a low-rise clump of trees.

The organisers helpfully put up bleachers – a touchingly amateurish grandstand, given the hi-tech surroundings. As you wait for zero hour, a commentary gives information on the mission.

We were watching the launch of a military GPS satellite. It was hitching a ride on an Atlas rocket, which I call the Ford Cortina of Outer Space. Atlas first entered service in 1962, the same year as the Cortina, and has continued with a few tweaks since. Both Cortina and Atlas reached Mark V versions, but only the latter is still in active service.

"T minus one minute and counting," barked the commentator. "Once the rocket lifts off, it will take approximately 78 seconds to reach Mach 1, the speed of sound." For most of the next minute, south-east Florida seemed the ideal location for wildlife to idle the afternoon away. As the sun shimmered on a lagoon and the reeds whispered in the breeze, the countdown continued.

"Three. We have ignition. Two …. And lift off."

Before you hear the roar, flames erupt as though from a volcano and engulf the rocket – which lifts off so slowly that for a moment it seems to be levitating. As the ground starts to shake, a tsunami of noise sweeps across the swamp and the loudest sound you are ever likely to experience slams against you. Can you hear me, Major Tom? Not with this racket. However often you have seen a launch on screen, as you perch on the edge of heaven the real thing is one of those rare occasions when it is legitimate to use the word "awesome".

The mission controller says: "The vehicle is now supersonic, 10 miles in altitude." The rocket soars into a deep, deep blue. The audience bursts into spontaneous applause. And the Calder family feel oddly proud to be members of the human race.

Since that sunny, noisy afternoon, space has rarely been out of the headlines. Two days later, Sir Richard Branson's SpaceShip 2 suffered a catastrophic malfunction over the California desert. This month, we have learned how tricky it is to park a fridge-sized object on a speeding comet; a British enterprise promises to take your DNA or holiday snaps to the Moon, at a price; and the film Interstellar has brought a galaxy of stars to the screen.

At the start of December, stand by for a giant leap. "The journey to Mars starts NOW," yells the Kennedy Space Center publicity machine, promoting the next launch on 4 December.

Don't worry, you haven't missed something; manned space flight to the Red Planet will not begin a week on Thursday. But Cape Canaveral is hosting the first (and unmanned) launch of the Orion spacecraft, "built to take humans farther than they've ever gone before". As the countdown to interplanetary travel begins, a trip to the Space Coast is one small step everyone should take.

space_map.jpg

Getting there

The closest international airport to the Space Coast is Orlando. Fly from Gatwick on British Airways (0844 493 0787; ba.com) or Virgin Atlantic (0344 209 7777; virgin-atlantic.com); Virgin Atlantic also flies from Manchester. Public transport to the Kennedy Space Center and vicinity is non-existent, so a rental car is essential. Simon Calder hired a Ford Focus from Avis (0808 284 5566; avis.co.uk) for £65 for three days, with no extra charges except for fuel used.

Staying there

A family room at the Casa Coquina Del Mar B&B, a 1927 "Heritage House" in Titusville (001 321 268 4653; casacoquina.com), costs $143 (£89), including breakfast and Wi-Fi.

More information

Kennedy Space Center: 001 866 737 5235; kennedyspacecenter.com. Open 9am-5pm daily, admission $50 (£31); for two days or more, buy an annual pass at $75 (£47), which also gives free parking. Up Close tour: $25 (£16). Child rates (3-11) are about 20 per cent lower. For more on the 4 December launch, see bit.ly/321Orion.

Five fun facts

* The first launch from Cape Canaveral, in 1950, was of a V2 rocket (yes, the very same model as previously pointed by Nazi Germany at London's East End).

* The Space Coast has a personalised telephone area code of 321, as a tribute to a launch countdown.

* Space rockets are unlikely to feature on any list of Russian imports to be embargoed in the dispute over Ukraine. Vladimir Putin's nation has the upper hand in the production of 21st-century propulsion systems, even for launches in the US.

* Two out of five of the early astronauts, on missions from Mercury to Apollo, were left-handed – that's four times the rate in the population at large.

* The last words spoken on the surface of the Moon are widely believed to have been: "Let's get this mother out of here." But the official Nasa transcript shows Apollo XVII Cmdr Eugene Cernan actually said: "Okay. Now, let's get off."

Comments