The Boston Diaries

The ongoing saga of a programmer who doesn't live in Boston, nor does he even like Boston, but yet named his weblog/journal “The Boston Diaries.”

Go figure.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

A Day in Space

[That small building?  Four shuttle launch assemblies could fit in that small building …]

Ah, the Kennedy Space Center!

Nothing here is small, which makes photography somewhat vexing.

That picture above? The full image I have is actually two pictures stitched together, and is just a small sample of a much larger panorama of the Kennedy Space Center.

Even this picture of the business end of the solid rocket boosters and external fuel tank:

[Some very expensive Roman Candles]

required three pictures.

As a consequence, I don't have many pictures of actual rockets. Oddly enough, the shuttle chase planes (pictured here in front of a full-scale mock-up of the Space Shuttle):

[One (1) Space Shuttle Chase Plane] >

are small. They're tiny little things.

[I think my car is bigger than that plane]


Anyway, the Kennedy Space Center.

Why is it in Florida, of all places?

On the NASA Up Close Tour, three reasons were given, but I suspect the fourth one was also a consideration:

  1. Florida is close to the equator, and by launching eastward, rockets gain an additional 900mph boost, which, given that over 90% of the mass of a rocket is fuel, can help.
  2. And while Hawaii is closer yet to the equator, and surrounded by even more water, Florida has the advantage of
    1. being attached to the rest of the United States, thus making it cheaper to ship men and equipment than out to Hawaii;
    2. Cape Canaveral was already a missile testing site and
    3. it was already a state at the time, unlike Hawaii.
  3. Launches out towards the east go over the Atlantic Ocean, which isn't inhabited by anything that votes in politicians. If something goes wrong, wreckage isn't spread across a thousand miles of population centers.
  4. It was cheap land with not a lot of neighbors who would complain (I suspect this had something to do with making Cape Canaveral a missile testing site). Remember, this was back before A/C was ubuiquitous here in Florida, and you either had to be insane, or forced, to live here year round.

Now, that little building in the top picture? It's the not-so-little Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB—NASA just loves their TLAs), 52 stories tall and covers the area of your typical baseball field.

[It's probably the largest building without windows]

The grey pillars on the left hand side are doors that open up and allow the fully assembled rocket to be rolled out to the launch pad. The Saturn V had only 6′ of clearance when the doors were fully opened; the doors only need to open half way for the Space Shuttle to clear. There are actually two doors on either side of the building, enough for four rockets to be assembled at once. Nowadays, only two of the bays are used.

The rockets are rolled out on a large vehicle (this building in the middle of this divided highway? That's not a building but the vehicle used to move rockets—like I said, nothing but the planes are small) that moves at a speedy ½mph.

And speaking of the Saturn V, The Space Center has one on display:

[It just keeps going and going and going …]

363′ high. 6.7 million pounds of mass sitting fully fueled on the launch pad. 7.6 million pounds of thrust. One of the displays around the Saturn V mentioned that 91% of the mass of the Saturn V was fuel, compared to the 4% mass fuel of a Corvette (favorite car of the astronauts), which prompted a rather unfortunate thought: the Saturn V is the ultimate symbol of our disposable society. Only 3.7% of the mass of the Saturn V returns back to Earth intact (unfortunate because getting off this planet is so darned difficult—and because I think the Saturn V is one of the most beautiful rockets ever designed).

[Lots and lots of blinken lights at the Apollo 8 Mission Control]
[IBM must have been a sponsor]

After the NASA Up Close Tour, Bunny and I headed off to the Shuttle Launch Simulation Facility, a new exhibit at the Space Center. From what I understand, the astronauts that have been on this simulation have felt it to be better than the simulations they were trained on (as far as a Space Shuttle launch is concerned) and having been on it, it's rather good.

[It's only five minutes, but it's a bumpy five minutes]

The “conceit” of the ride (if you will) is that you are one of perhaps three dozen passengers going up in the Space Shuttle. You enter a large pod, sit down and strap in. The pod is then rotated into a vertical position (and yes, it is) and “loaded” into the Space Shuttle. A few moments later the launch sequence is initiated (they kind of skip the whole “waiting for hours” and get right to the “sheer minutes of terror”). I'm not sure how they actually pulled off the 3G of accelleration, but I think they did a decent job of it.

After a few minutes of being in a heavily vibrating vertical position, the “accelleration” stops and you can feel yourself tugging up against the straps (“freefall”). Again, it's quite well done.

After that, there wasn't much time left to much else, as the Space Center was closing for the day.

Obligatory Picture

[The future's so bright, I gotta wear shades]

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