Thursday, May 24, 2007

Kennedy Space Center, Florida: A Thinking Travelogue, Part I

We choose to go to the Moon, we choose to go to the moon …, not because it’s easy, but because it’s hard.” That impassioned entreaty from JF Kennedy, which he made on a day in 1962 from the campus of Rice University, continued to resonate in me after we left Kennedy Space Center (KSC), FL, last evening.

Nestled between Indian River and the Atlantic Ocean as shown in the image below, KSC occupies a sprawling marshland (used to be anyway and a sizeable of which is still preserved as a seashore and wildlife refuge) one fifth the size of the State of Rhodes Island. It’s operated by National Aeronautics and Space Administration, aka NASA, to further US’s space exploration.

Leaving our Tampa home at around 7.30am, we arrived at the KSC Visitor Complex about 10 past nine, a journey equivalent to a trip to Gainesville, but via Orlando. It being a weekday, we were able to park at the first row just in front of the complex.

In addition to the various exhibit halls featuring different themes germane to space exploration, there are two IMAX theatres. But the highlight of the visit should belong to the KSC Bus tour that would take visitors to the LC-39 Observation Gantry, the Apollo/Saturn V Center, and the International Space Station (ISS).

But first the IMAX movie offering, to which we first gravitated. It was IMAX 2, featuring Space Station 3D, which we watched with a pair of orange goggles.

Narrated by Tom Cruise (yes, the Top Gun who only managed to skim the edge of our earthly atmosphere), it recounts a multi-national effort to explore the outer space. Specifically, it’s a 16 country effort comprising USA, Russia, Japan (the lone rep from Asia), Brazil (the lone rep from South America) and member countries of the European Space Agency (Italy, Germany, UK, Holland, France, Denmark, Sweden, Switzerland, etc.), constructing the International Space Station (ISS) modularly. For a time, the various astronauts/cosmonauts forget their national affiliations and coalesce together to sustain the international project. They work together, eat together, sleep together (but in separate sleeping bags), and yes, dream together that their efforts, 250 miles about us, would come to fruition for humanity.

Occupying an area about twice the size of a football field, Tom told us that it can be seen from earth as it passes over us. But the living/work space is, eh, claustrophobic to say the least. They sail effortlessly from one part of the ISS to another through conduits seemingly large enough for a person’s girth. They become Hercules, moving great weights with a casual push of the arm, a feat made possible by zero gravity that would otherwise be a physical impossibility back on earth.

Food is practically captured by the mouth, the consumer timing its course with the trajectory of the food traveling path. Water moves in near-spherical droplets, the most efficient shape in terms of energy minimization in the absence of gravity, which are gobbled up.

And they exercise by working out on stationary bicycles. They need to keep fit as each stint in space would last about half a year, doing what they are set out to do: researching every aspect of life/object response to a zero-gravity environment. The film shows a sprouting green onion plant kept in a plastic bag with soil and all, indicating that germination is possible.

Sometimes, they have to perform space walk, doing repairs to the external façade of the ISS, which invariably will experience damage. They have a body contraption controlled by a hand-held device that could kind of propel them back to the Mother ship if they become adrift.

As one astronaut noted, from space, it’s hard to see where USA ends and Mexico begins, a truly borderless world. It’s a perspective that would pale our earthly differences, and enable us to see the destiny of humanity as one, one that is linked intricately and inseparably to the environment as a whole. Perhaps those who wage wars and inflict hardship on others, driven by their parochial sense of “us versus them”, would benefit from a space trip, and become “unplugged” and work toward the inclusion of all, instead of the exclusion of some.

Since we started our visit with IMAX, it seems fitting to end with IMAX as well. That’s what we did, but reverse in order in the interest of time efficiency. For the sake of continuity, I would present the offering of IMAX 1: Magnificent Desolation first, and leave the bus tour and our interactions with the various exhibits to the next blog.

Narrated by Tom Hanks of the Apollo 13 movie fame, the film is about all the Apollo missions, and the US obsession with landing the first man on the Moon, a space race triggered by the two Russian firsts: Sputnik, the first satellite in space; and Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space. The montage below displays a mix of the old (the Eagle has landed) and the new (Mom and son posing in front of a scaled model of the Saturn V rocket, and a replica of the moon buggy).

From the film, I know that there are 17 Apollo missions in all, the first few ending in abortive efforts or outright disasters with fatality. As our selective memory for the good would have us, we tend to remember the successful missions, the most memorable of which is Apollo 11. Who can forget the famous words of Neil Armstrong, “That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind” on July 21, 1969, as he first set foot on the lunar surface? The whole world was enthralled by that unprecedented achievement, though no unparalleled as we would learn from the subsequent lunar conquests.

I was pleasantly surprised to learn that six more Apollo missions were launched, but only five were successful (yes, the Apollo 13 movie was based on actual events, highlighting the precarious nature of space travel where everything needs to be checked, and rechecked, and rechecked, and yet things can still go wrong).

So, on record, there have been 12 moonwalkers, minus Michael Jackson (sorry, I can resist taking a swipe at that), the last one being in December, 1972. So there has been a hiatus of 35 years, and perhaps more. As the last man on the Moon, Eugene Cernan said as he stepped back into the lunar module, "As we leave the Moon at Taurus-Littrow, we leave as we came, and God willing, as we shall return, with peace and hope for all mankind. As I take these last steps from the surface for some time to come, I'd just like to record that America's challenge of today has forged man's destiny of tomorrow. Godspeed the crew of Apollo Seventeen."

Perhaps there is a chronological rationale to the order of the two IMAX movies, the Apollo mission having preceded the ISS. But there is also a more important consideration, from national aspirations to international cooperation, a logical departure from the race mentality. The next step is perhaps leveling the playing field, so that space pursuit is not seen as the exclusive domain of the advanced countries by dint of their technological superiority, nor is it the playground reserved solely for the rich, as the widely reported travelogues of the two space tourists would suggest, each trip costing more than $20 millions.

Dubbed the next ocean frontier, I’m confident that space travel, or even interstellar travel, would vacate the realm of fiction in time to come. What I’m not so confident, though, is the ocean within us, or rather understanding the infinite mindscape within us. While the former is beyond us, at least most of us for now, the latter is not. Let’s, then, begin a journey of space exploration in each of us, and may we all succeed in this inner conquest.

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