Here, we have the Saturn V rocket, housed inside the Apollo/Saturn V Center at Kennedy Space Center near Titusville, Florida, just a few miles from Launch complex 39, where these beasts once roared into the sky.

     When we look at the enormous first stage of the Saturn V rocket, called an S-IC, we think “spaceship”. Truthfully, the Saturn V first stage never actually made it into space. The stage only burned for the first 150 seconds of flight, then dropped away from the rest of the rocket, all while remaining totally inside Earth’s atmosphere. The S-IC stage is merely an aircraft.

     Even more truthfully, the S-IC stage displayed here at the Apollo/Saturn V Center at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, never flew at all. It is a static test article, fired while firmly attached to the ground, to make sure the rocket would actually hold together in flight. Obviously, these tests were successful, (e.g. she didn’t blow up), and she sits on our Apollo museum today. I wrote more about this particular stage in a previous post, (click here to view.)

     The rest of the rocket, the second and third stages, called the S-II and S-IVB stages, did fly into space. The S-II put the manned payload into orbit, and the S-IVB was responsible for initially propelling that payload from earth orbit to the moon, an act called “trans-lunar injection” (TLI).

     The particular rocket in this display, except for the first stage, is called SA-514. 514 was going to launch the cancelled Apollo 18 and 19 moon missions.

     The command/service module (CSM) in the photos is called CSM-119. This particular capsule is unique to the Apollo program, because it has five seats. All the others had three. 119 could launch with a crew of three, and land with five, because it was designed it for a possible Skylab rescue mission. It was later used it as a backup capsule for the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project.


January 28th 1986: Challenger Disaster

On this day in 1986, the US space shuttle Challenger exploded 73 seconds into its tenth flight, killing all seven crew members on board. The craft had taken off from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, but never reached orbit as it disintegrated over the Atlantic Ocean, just off the Florida coast. The crew compartment and various fragments from the vessel were recovered from the ocean floor in the following months, and several of the crew are known to have survived the initial breakup and died upon impact with the ocean surface. One of those killed in the disaster was schoolteacher Christa McAuliffe, a civilian selected for the flight as part of a NASA project to send the first teacher to space and inspire ordinary people with space travel. McAuliffe’s involvement meant that the Challenger’s take-off was widely watched across the nation, and thousands watched in horror as the disaster unfolded. The cause of the craft’s break-up has been put down to technical malfunction, caused by mistakes made by NASA in the design of the vessel and the organisation of its flight. This incident damaged the illustrious administration’s reputation, and halted the Space Shuttle programme as safety measures were revised. The tragedy occurred the same day President Ronald Reagan was due to give his fifth annual State of the Union speech to Congress, but he postponed the speech and instead gave a national address on the disaster. The two-term President later called January 28th, 1986 “one of the hardest days I ever spent in the Oval Office". In was on this day that, in one of the most famous speeches of his presidency, Reagan mourned the Challenger crew and quoted the poem ‘High Flight’ by John Gillespie Magee Jr., a young American pilot killed in World War Two.

“We will never forget them, nor the last time we saw them, this morning, as they prepared for their journey and waved goodbye and ‘slipped the surly bonds of Earth’ to ‘touch the face of God.’”


     After 306 days, 14 hours, 12 minutes and 43 seconds of flight, over the span of 33 missions, Space Shuttle Orbiter Atlantis, OV-104, on display at Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex in Titusville, Florida, is now the centerpiece of the most breathtaking aerospace museum presentation I’ve ever visited.

     This orbiter flew many relatively important missions, including the final Hubble Space Telescope servicing mission in 2009. STS-125 performed five EVAs during the mission, and restored the important telescope, extending its life well beyond original design spec.

     It’s truly surreal to walk up right beside this enormous rocket plane. I found it difficult to take the whole thing in at once. It’s overwhelming in a really good way. I wrote more about the experience, and shared several more photos in a previous post (click here to view).

(July 1970) — Astronaut Alan B. Shepard Jr., commander of the Apollo 14 lunar landing mission, participates in lunar surface training at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC). Shepard is adjusting a camera mounted to the modular equipment transporter (MET). The MET, nicknamed the “Rickshaw”, will serve as a portable work bench with a place for the Apollo lunar hand tools and their carrier, three cameras, two sample container bags, a special environment sample container, spare magazines, and a lunar surface Penetrometer. Shepard is wearing an Extravehicular Mobility Unit (EMU).

Launch of STS-30 (Archive: NASA, Marshall, 4/4/89) by NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center on Flickr.

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On May 4, 1989, the Space Shuttle Atlantis (STS-30) lifted off from Kennedy Space Center. The crew consisted of pilot Ronald J. Grabe, commander David M. Walker, and mission specialists Norman E. Thagard, Mary L. Cleave, and Mark C. Lee. The primary payload for the mission was the Magellan/Venus Radar mapper spacecraft and attached Inertial Upper Stage (IUS). The Magellan spacecraft, which arrived at Venus on August 10, 1990, collected radar images of 98 percent of the planet’s surface, with resolution 10 times better than that of the earlier Soviet Venera 15 and 16 missions. NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala. held overall responsibility for the Space Shuttle’s external tanks, main engines, and solid rocket boosters.

Image credit: NASA

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On this day in history July 20, 1969: At 10:56 p.m. EDT, American astronaut Neil Armstrong, 240,000 miles from Earth, speaks these words to more than a billion people listening at home: “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” Stepping off the lunar landing module Eagle, Armstrong became the first human to walk on the surface of the moon.


     On May 22, 2014, I met a legend - Atlantis Space Shuttle Orbiter. Atlantis, or OV-104, was the fourth shuttle orbiter produced by Rockwell. She started her operational flight career on October 3, 1985, launching the STS-51-J mission, carrying a U.S. Department of Defense satellite into orbit. Her final flight, STS-135, concluded the American Space Shuttle Transport System Program. On July 21, 2011, I watched her land after that final, conclusive mission. I felt a lump in my throat as the program ended once our bird’s landing gear grazed the tarmac of the Shuttle Landing Facility at Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

     After Atlantis’s final flight, I was filled with mixed emotions, saddened that this program that I’d grown up with was actually over. But these feelings were purely fueled by nostalgia. We mustn’t dwell on frustration with regards to the passing of the Shuttle Program, like so many of us do. Instead, it may be a better use of energy to talk about the amazing things are on the horizon of space travel, like NASA’s SLS and the work of SpaceX.

     Our space shuttle orbiters cease to fly, but they continue to fill what I believe to be an equally important role, inspiring millions of museum visitors all over the country. And inspire, they do. Frankly, I may be biased, but when I first walked into the room that houses Atlantis, and finally laid eyes upon this giant spacecraft that I’d been seeing on TV my whole life, I cried. The sheer size and enormity of it all is overwhelming. Not just presence of the structure of the spacecraft, but knowing the distance that she traveled, 126,000,000 miles, always safely returning her crew back home to our fragile Planet Earth. If causing visitors to feel these emotions doesn’t help the field of space exploration, nothing will.

     This exhibit causes individuals to take ownership of Atlantis, and rightfully so. When you visit a shuttle orbiter, know that as an American taxpayer, she truly belongs to you. No, scratch that. As a member of the human race, she was created for you, to explore the edge between what is known and unknown, which is a practice we call “science”, all to benefit you. Yes, you. We may learn the most about ourselves once we breach the bonds of gravity, but we must remember that we’re all truly in this journey together here on Planet Earth, and this is our bird, and our continued space exploration.


     The Atlantis Space Shuttle Orbiter, on display at Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex, is the most breathtaking museum piece on Earth. I say this because Atlantis wasn’t always on Earth and I have the photo to prove it. The final photo in the set shows Atlantis in orbit around our planet during STS-117. I photographed her from my front yard on the night of June 21, 2007, at the age of 17. I was blessed to live in the southeast corner of Idaho, an area with absolutely no light pollution. When Atlantis came overhead, I snapped this four second long exposure, getting the streak of light that you see in the lower-right corner of the frame. Seconds later, she had moved across the entire sky, over the horizon and out of sight. A few hours later, she reentered our atmosphere and landed safely back on earth. I’ll never forget that chilly night. Years before that, Atlantis dragged a sonic boom across my childhood home in Georgia while on approach to Kennedy Space Center. This was the first sonic boom I’d ever heard, and it scared the living hell out of me. When I see Atlantis up close, it’s surreal to think that this is the same object that I photographed before, the same ship that sonic boomed me. Every time I visit, I fondly remember these moments. It’s like seeing an old friend.

The first Space Shuttle vehicle destined to fly in space inches out of the Vehicle Asembly Building on its way to Pad A at Complex 39, where it will be launched. The STS-1 vehicle - consisting of America’s first reusable spaceship, Columbia, the external propellant tank and twin solid rocket boosters - was assembled on a Mobile Launcher Platform in the Vehicle Assembly Building. A six-million-pound tractor, called the Crawler-Transporter, is used to carry the Space Shuttle from the VAB to the launch pad, about 3.5 miles away.

Climate change is putting space exploration at risk

NASA’s Kennedy Space Center is the country’s busiest space port, with about 30 launches scheduled so far this year. It hosts commercial companies like SpaceX and United Launch Alliance, and sees over one million yearly visitors who come to watch launches and learn about space and climate science. How climate change could utterly disrupt it.

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