The Southern States: Florida's Kennedy Space Center

Fancy a ride on a shuttle? Florida's Kennedy Space Center offers would-be astronauts the next best thing. Hester Lacey blasts off
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The Independent Travel

If the cliffhanger of Discovery's return to earth has left your yearning to be an astronaut a little subdued, this could be the perfect solution. The Kennedy Space Center in Florida allows spaceheads to take their own great leap for mankind without the determination or the qualifications required to do the real thing. This surprisingly authentic visitor experience includes replicating the gravity you'd feel on the moon, meeting an astronaut and being shaken up in a contraption that gives the sensation of a shuttle spinning out of control (not pleasant). Best of all, you get to go on a simulated mission, either playing a role on the flight deck of a shuttle or at mission control down below.

Just as the Discovery had more male crew members than female, the group I joined for the Astronaut Training Experience, or ATX, was weighted towards the chaps. Among the 24 of us, there were only six women. Several wives and children had been diverted for the day towards attractions such as Sea World or Animal Kingdom, which feature rather less emphasis on multi-purpose logistics modules, lithium hydroxide filters and how you brush your teeth in space. They missed out. This might sound like space-geek heaven: in fact, it is indeed space-geek heaven. But even those who don't know their Apollo 13 from their USS Enterprise will find it surprisingly easy to get swept up in the general space-race excitement.

First off, to get everyone in the mood, we astronuts wandered round the museum's Hall of Fame. One of the exhibits is Kitty Hawk, the three-seater Apollo 14 command module. This ridiculously weeny little tin can flew to the Moon between 31 January and 9 February 1971, with three men crammed into a space less roomy than the interior of my old Volvo. And I wouldn't go to the Moon in that.

But some measure of the determination and enthusiasm involved became evident when John Blaha came to introduce us to the day's events. Blaha is a genuine astronaut: a softly spoken, laid-back Texan, he spent four months on the Russian Mir space station and during five space missions logged 161 days in space. Blaha talked us laconically through the launch-day routine, and the amazing, eight-and-a-half-minute, ultimate rollercoaster ride that takes a space crew to an orbiting speed of 17,500mph. "That ride uphill is incredible," he says. Once you're up, the views are extraordinary. "The US unrolls like a huge map as you make an orbital pass from Seattle towards Florida and you can see the different cities go by," says Blaha.

"No Hollywood space movie is anything like the real thing; they can't do it."

We ask questions. Everyone's favourite is how astronauts answer the call of nature: the reply is that their facilities have built-in suction to ensure everything heads in the right direction. Also we discover that an astronaut's most important culinary accessory is a pair of scissors: most of their food comes freeze-dried in plastic bags that need snipping open after they've been reconstituted.

Then on to a poke around a life-size model of a shuttle before our VIP tour of the real-life Nasa shuttle launch facility. This we travelled round by bus and an unexpected bonus of visiting Kennedy became apparent. The place is built on a massive swamp, which is also a wildlife reserve and it's absolutely heaving with animals. We spotted alligators, a fat furry raccoon, several gopher tortoises, a bald eagle's nest the size of a king-size bed and, best of all, three manatees sloshing along in a road-side bayou. These were a welcome diversion, as the tour guide was nothing if not thorough, and absolutely determined we were to miss nothing on our trip to the restricted areas behind the scenes.

The coach tour is an easy ride compared to the Multiple Axis Space Test Inertia Facility, or Mastif. This suspended seat was developed to spin astronauts on three axes, simultaneously, pitching, rolling and yawing, which corresponds to the feel of a shuttle that has spun out of control as it re-enters the earth's atmosphere. Some serious strapping-down is involved. In a genuine scenario, you'd not only have to open your eyes, but also wrestle with some complicated controls.

I settled for simply hanging on tight, and came off feeling a bit wobbly and noticeably pink-faced (this, apparently, is due to internal fluid shifting once gravity is no longer an issue: not a good look). We also had a go in the gravity chair, which hangs from the ceiling on long pieces of elastic and cuts the earth's pull to one-sixth of normal, as it would be on the moon. This is much more fun and means you can make those giant leaps for mankind with very little effort.

All this might seem an odd way to spend one's honeymoon, but newly-weds Craig and Caroline from Vancouver were loving every minute. "We wanted to do something cool and we looked at the website and decided to try this," explained Craig. "It was really great talking to John Blaha - he was so passionate." The trip, adds Caroline, is much more personal than any other tour she had been on. "You aren't herded like cattle and you have the chance to ask questions. It's really excellent."

Frank from Sydney had come even further. "Ever since I was a kid I've followed the space race," he says. His hero is John Young, the first shuttle commander. "He was in charge of a new breed of machine that had never flown before." Jonathan from Wolverhampton's ATX day was a surprise gift from his wife. He has tried in the past to get to Florida to see an actual launch; at least today he managed to see Discovery on its pad. "The tour is brilliant, very good, very different with a lot of depth."

Then it was on to the absolute highlight of ATX: the mission itself. Names for all the key jobs on board were pulled out of a hat, in a democratic spirit of absolute randomness that would probably shock the real Nasa selection board: but authenticity can only go so far. Frank from Sydney triumphantly draws Pilot: "See you on the flight deck!"

I am the Environmental Electrical Consumable Systems Engineer, aka Eecom, not bad for someone with a mere O-level in physics. This means that, sitting in front of an authentic mission control console, I am responsible for the navigation and environmental systems. I get to say things like "Cabin pressure holding at 14.6lb per square inch, cabin temperature 72 degrees, no orbiter leaks, all gas flows are normal, all systems look good." Our script, based on the transcript from an actual mission, takes us through restocking the International Space Station using the Leonardo Multi-Purpose Logistics Module (which is rather like a supply truck that can go into space) and bringing the crew safely back down. We have all seen space mission films so, down in mission control, we all know the appropriate controlled-but-excited tone of voice as we check screens and monitors and watch the others fiddling about on the flight deck.

Unfortunately, just as we're all still finding our way around the console screens, someone on the flight deck presses the wrong button and the shuttle blasts off with the payload doors still open. There is a slightly stunned silence as the implications of this sink in. Good thing this is all virtual and we can simply start again.

Which we do, only slightly daunted by the fact that our Spacecraft Systems Officer can't make head or tail of the flashing columns of figures in front of her and our so-called mission specialists on the orbiter somehow manage to stand up all the way through take-off. The mission specialists in fact prove something of a liability all the way down the line. Two of them disappear off on a spacewalk to construct a solar panel and are never seen again: the other two are conducting an on-board experiment when it explodes. Happily it's only a small explosion. Our real problem comes when an alarm rings out and none of us can work out what's going on. Our instructor has to point out the flashing red light on my console. An engine has failed to shut down and we have to look up how to deal with the problem and talk the crew through the manual procedure. Frank from Sydney may not be Tom Hanks but he manages to shut down the recalcitrant engine. Whew!

Apart from this, everything goes fairly smoothly. Finally, in my best Eecom voice, it's time to say, "We are go for re-entry." And down comes our crew, all alive and well, as we watch from "below", glued to the monitors.

Even though it's only pretend, there is a genuine sense of suspense as we watch our shuttle touch down. The triumphant cheers and whoops from all the team that crackle through our headphones are pure Hollywood and none the worse for that.

Give me the facts

How to get there

The writer travelled as a guest of Travel City Direct (0870-950 5015; www.travelcitydirect.com), which offers 14-night, two-centre holidays inclusive of seven nights at Universal Orlando's Royal Pacific Resort Hotel and seven nights at the Longboat Key Hilton Beachfront Resort from £599 per person, based on two sharing. This includes return flights, room-only accommodation and two weeks' car hire.

What to do

Admission to the Kennedy Space Center (001 321 449 4444; www.kennedyspacecenter.com), starts at $30 (£17) per adult and $20 (£11) for children (aged three to 11). A maximum access pass costs $37 (£21) per adult and $27 (£15) per child. The centre opens daily from 10am-8pm.

The Astronaut Training Experience costs $225 (£130). Spaces are limited so advance booking is recommended. Candidates must be 14 and over. Tickets can be booked through Travel City Direct.

Further information

Florida Tourism (01273 486472; www.flausa.com).

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