As is so often the case with people who are portrayed on film, astronaut Jim Lovell says he’s often told he looks nothing like Tom Hanks. In 1995, that Hollywood actor thrust Lovell and the story of his ill-fated Apollo 13 moon mission into the consciousness of a new generation born long after Neil Armstrong landed on the moon in 1969.
So even though visitors to the grand opening of the Kennedy Space Center’s new Heroes and Legends hall may not have recognized his face, they certainly knew his name. At that event on Veterans Day in November, Lovell was the star attraction, a link to NASA’s glory days that paved the way for the space shuttle, the space station and, most recently, Mars exploration.
Despite his celebrity and inclusion in the Legends hall, Lovell waved off any adulation. “I don’t consider myself a hero like (Charles) Lindbergh,” said Lovell, who in 1969 escorted the flying ace around the space center prior to the launch of Apollo 11. “I did what I thought was right for my country.”
Instead of focusing on his celebrity status, Lovell prefers that visitors to Cape Canaveral be inspired by the achievements on display there. “One thing I’d like them to take away is that they’re viewing one of the milestones of American technology that occurred during the last part of the last century,” he said. “And they should be really proud of that.”
Those milestones are marked in various museums that make up the space center’s visitor complex, about a 45-minute drive east from the Orlando airport. They trace the history of the program back to its earliest days of testing various rockets that are on display in an outdoor “garden,” where visitors can get an up-close and jaw-dropping look at the power sources of space flight. The rocket collection is adjacent to the new Heroes and Legends hall that honors the contributions of astronauts, as well as others who worked behind the scenes.
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The outside of the building sports a 30-by-40-foot carving of the original “Right Stuff” team, the seven team members of the earliest Mercury missions: Alan Shepard, the first U.S. man in space; Gus Grissom, the second; John Glenn, the first American to orbit the planet; and Gordon Cooper, Scott Carpenter, Wally Schirra and Deke Slayton.
Inside, each of the 93 honorees has a place of honor with a back-lit photo and summary of the contributions he — or she, in more recent years — has made. As one might expect, the hall’s most impressive display is a high-tech one. Visitors grab a pair of 3-D glasses and enter a theater with multilevel viewing stands overlooking a 28-foot-tall, curved screen. The film captures the first-person stories of Shepard, Armstrong, Glenn and Lovell, interwoven with dramatic re-creations and original footage that gives viewers the sense of standing in outer space and observing the Earth.
The hall also features an impressive collection of memorabilia, from astronauts’ grade school report cards and Eagle Scout badges to Grissom’s Mercury spacesuit and a Gemini 9 capsule with a hologram of astronaut Gene Cernan climbing out of the top.
Beyond its latest attraction, the space center has so many other must-sees that visiting them all requires at least two full days on the grounds.
Plan to spend some time gaping at the retired Atlantis space shuttle on display in all its glory, bay doors wide open so it’s easy to see what’s inside. The enormity of the ship takes up four floors, and visitors start at the top and wind their way down, getting a different view on each level. At the bottom, walk beneath the behemoth and get about as close to the heat-shield tiles as a non-NASA employee can be. Other exhibits include training simulators, a shuttle toilet with all secrets to space bathrooms explained and a launch “experience” that straps visitors into seats for a takeoff simulation.
The Apollo/Saturn 5 building houses vintage materials from the space program’s earliest days. Touch a moon rock, check out the moon dust on Shepard’s lunar suit and see Lovell’s Apollo 13 space flight suit.
An enormous Saturn 5 rocket is displayed on its side with detailed explanations of how each section performed during a launch. It’s hard not to gawk at that tiny command module on the very top and imagine what it must have been like to sit atop all that fuel. As with most exhibits, this one starts with a film, too, and it’s a stunner. While the enhanced 3-D footage puts viewers front and center for the first moon landing, complete with the blue orb of Earth in the distance, the surprise is a mock-up of the lunar lander descending over a dust-covered stage and the appearance of astronaut figures before it ascends back into the heavens.
Another theater puts visitors in the viewing stands behind the control center during the launch of Apollo 8.
If seeing a real control center is a priority, reserve a seat on one of the space center’s “Up-Close Launch Control” tours that take visitors behind the very secured scenes to the building where engineers oversee launch operations. Guards escort the limited-space tours, and participants must leave all their possessions on the bus that shuttles them into the area. Once inside, they’ll get a quick overview of the work done on the site and visit a working launch center that sits about 3 miles from the launch pad. Films of actual launches provide some insight into what the team saw from its remote location.
Other behind-the-scenes tours explore the current rocket programs on the property, including the SpaceX projects; another is a bus tour of launch pads and the Vehicle Assembly Building, one of the world’s biggest with a height of 526 feet and a sprawl of 8 acres — all needed to put together the enormous rockets that fuel the spaceships.
Another add-on is a buffet lunch hosted by a working astronaut willing to answer any questions the guests come up with.
From the exhibits to the videos that run on the shuttle buses, it’s clear the current mission of the center is to inspire the next generation of space explorers. It’s a mission that ties into the legacy Lovell wants to leave as well.
“I hope in some small way,” he said, “I’ve taught the young people of this country and the world the value of science and a good education.”
Hop an affordable flight from Hartsfield-Jackson to Orlando International, pick up a reserved rental car (a must that allows you to skip the long lines at the agency counters) and take the 45-minute drive east to Cape Canaveral and the Kennedy Space Center. One-day admission is $50 for adults and $40 for children ages 3-11. Multiday tickets, good for one year, are $75 for adults and $60 for children. Admission covers entrance to the Heroes and Legends Hall, other exhibition halls and the Imax theater. Reservations are required for the special tours and astronaut lunches; prices average $25 for adults and $19 for children. 1-855-433-4210, www.kennedyspacecenter.com; www.visitspacecoast.com.
The center has four moderately priced restaurants and three snack bars, all with menus heavy on salads, sandwiches, wraps, pizzas and burgers.
About 30 minutes east of the center, the Cocoa Beach/Cape Canaveral area offers a variety of accommodations. The Hampton Inn Cocoa Beach, the Hilton Cocoa Beach Waterfront and the Resort on Cocoa Beach all offer access to the Atlantic beaches for a bit of sun and sand time.
Visitors will also find an array of dining options, from the family-friendly Zachary’s (8799 Astronaut Blvd., Cape Canaveral. 321-784-9007, zacharysrestaurant.com) to the intimate, upscale Pompano Grill (110 N. Brevard Ave., Cocoa Beach. 321-784-9005, pompanogrill.com), where seafood dishes and seasonal ingredients dominate the menu created by chef Christopher Morales, whose father was a NASA employee.