Monday, November 19, 2012

Saturn V

A slideshow of the enormous Saturn V rocket on exhibit at Kennedy Space Center. The rocket has its own building, off by itself away from the main KSC Visitor Center. You arrive by shuttle bus, and sit through a multimedia extravaganza about Apollo 8 before you're ushered in to see the rocket itself. The rocket lies on its side, suspended in midair above you; you enter at the base of the rocket, beneath its five F-1 engines, and can gaze up at it as you walk along over to the top. Historical displays detail all the Apollo and Skylab missions, and a side gallery includes some space suits and assorted hardware, plus the Apollo 14 capsule, almost as an afterthought. Naturally there's a gift shop and a snack bar, and I spent money at both while I was there. The Mars Science Laboratory launch was definitely the high point of the trip, but I did bring an ultra-wide angle lens along specifically to take photos of the Saturn V. You might notice that in several of the photos, the entire rocket fits in the frame. I just wanted to make sure everyone was aware of that, mostly because it makes me feel slightly less guilty about blowing all that money on a new lens.

This is one of three complete Saturn Vs on display; the others are at Johnson Space Center in Houston, and the US Space & Rocket Center in Hunstsville, Alabama. Additionally, the Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans has a S-IC first stage by itself. That Wikipedia page mentions the astonishing fact that not one but two ground-test copies of the first stage -- 138 feet long and 5 million pounds -- seem to have been misplaced somehow. One was last seen in Huntsville, but the current whereabouts or fate of both are unknown. Most likely they were quietly scrapped, as they weren't actual flight hardware. But it's fun to imagine them gathering dust in a huge forgotten warehouse somewhere, like the one at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark, just waiting to be rediscovered.

Kennedy's Apollo Saturn V Center is an amazing sight, but a disconcerting one too; they seem to have been aiming for a "holy cathedral of engineering" effect, and they certainly pull that off, but the giant, nearly half-century-old rocket suspended in midair also reminds me of dinosaur bones on display at a natural history museum. Which is probably not something they were aiming for. I should note that I was there just a few months after the last Shuttle flight, and both KSC itself and the surrounding region reminded me of an Oregon timber town whose sawmill had just closed. Hopefully things will turn around in a few years as the SLS/Orion program starts to ramp up, although that's far from guaranteed given the ongoing federal budget shenanigans. Interestingly, one proposal for the second generation SLS booster would resurrect and update the old F-1 engine as a side booster engine. I'm kind of rooting for that proposal out of purely sentimental reasons.

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