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Take off on a shuttle vacation

© By Pat Brennan
  Launching a space shuttle can be expensive. Just ask those who lined up on three separate days with their $25 tickets to see Canadian astronaut Steve MacLean and his fellow crew members get the shuttle Atlantis off the ground in September. They don't get their money back if the fuse gets wet and won't light.
     In contrast, the town next door to the Kennedy Space Centre offers a more economical and practical way of witnessing the earth-shaking spectacle of a shuttle launch. At Space View Park in Titusville, you can be as close to the launch pad as those sitting in the public bleachers at the Kennedy Space Centre for $25 a head on launch day. And it's free. Plus, there's a good chance you will be standing beside a guy who used to pump rocket fuel into those big orange tanks attached to the shuttle's belly or has had some other interesting job on Cape Canaveral.
     This town is full of space workers, and many of them come down to Space View Park - only six kilometres across the water from launch pad 39B - to watch launches.
     The shuttle, Discovery, is scheduled to blast off on Dec. 7, and this time, spectators get a bonus: it's a night shot. A night shot lets you watch the shuttle in flight for at least 10 minutes, until it becomes a faint star moving across the heavens. With a daytime shot, you see the bright, fiery plume of the shuttle for two minutes before it blends in with the bright sky. Only the smoke trail lingers. A daytime shot lets you see the shuttle itself as it rises into the sky; at night, you'll see only a huge ball of fire rising into the sky and reflecting off the Indian River, which separates Titusville from the launch pad.
     The shuttle rises silently on a plume of fire for the first 20 seconds or so - and then the shock wave that has been racing across the water hits you in the chest. It rattles your bones and sets off car alarms in the parking lot.
     Titusville residents have witnessed more than 100 shuttle launches from their waterfront park, plus thousands of rocket launches. That means you will hear a lot of interesting stories in the park, unless you strike up a conversation with a snowbird from Goderich watching his first blast off.
     Anyone going to the big show is advised to arrive early. There is a lot to do and see in Space View Park. The history of America's space exploration is told in various plaques and statues. The monument to the Mercury program was unveiled by astronauts Scott Carpenter and Gordon Cooper, assisted by comedian Bill Dana (Jose Jimenez), who was considered the eighth member of the original seven astronauts.

   

     A plaque with the palm prints and signature of Neil Armstrong, first man to walk on the moon, is already in the park and will be added to the $1 million Apollo program pavilion when it is built. You can buy souvenirs with proceeds going toward finishing the park. Or you can buy souvenirs at the Kennedy Space Centre where the money goes up in smoke - or at least to NASA.
     The $25 admission fee to the space centre allows you to walk through a life-size shuttle and see how astronauts live in space. You can have lunch with a retired astronaut and hear stories about looking down on the planet Earth. There's an astronaut lunch each day at noon and such famous astronauts as John Glenn, Wall Schirra, Jim Lovell and Gene Cernan have broken bread with visitors.
     Our group in September had lunch with Col. William Pogue, a retired astronaut who holds the record for the longest stint in space. For 84 days in 1973, he lived on Skylab. He later wrote a book about the experience called How Do You Go To the Bathroom in Space. The title is the most popular question he gets from kids. His Skylab home eventually tumbled out of space and burned up on re-entry to the Earth's atmosphere.
     At the space centre, you can walk through Rocket Garden, a forest of rockets - the Titan, Redstone, Atlas, plus Russian rockets - that carried those brave pioneers into space in the '60s.
     And for an additional fee, you can climb aboard a bus and be taken out close to the launch pads to see the vehicle assembly building where the shuttle gets married to its booster rockets and external fuel tank. It's one of the largest buildings in the world.
     You will see the crawler, a huge platform on tracked wheels that carries the shuttle the four miles out to its launch pad, at one mile per hour. And you'll visit the original control room, full of monitors and buttons, where engineers and technicians sweated out the countdown on the Apollo missions that eventually landed man on the moon.
     When you leave the control room, you bump into the biggest, most powerful rocket ever made - the Saturn V. It's 363 feet long, 33 feet wide, weighs 6.7 million pounds at launch time and has a thrust of 7.7 million pounds to get off the ground before second and third stage rockets take over. It's often called the moon rocket because it's the one that took Armstrong and the others to the moon.
     Despite the noise and activity and fireballs on Cape Canaveral, the place is a wildlife sanctuary. On your bus tour, the driver may point out a tree that is home to an eagle's nest that weighs more than 700 pounds and has survived hurricanes, rocket launches and thousands of low level fighter jet passes to be a cozy home for a family of eagles for more than 20 years.
     Launch dates and other information are available at www.nasa.gov/missions.

Patrick Brennan is a veteran travel, business writer/photographer based in Guelph. His credits include writing for a chain of 60 newspapers with 1.6 million readers. He was a staff writer/photographer at the Toronto Star for 32 years.

Photo Credits
Pat Brennan

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NASA Kennedy Space Center: http://www.nasa.gov/centers/kennedy/home/index.html
Titusville: http://www.titusville.com/index.asp
Titusville Chamber of Commerce: http://www.titusville.org/
Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Titusville,_Florida
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