Kennedy Space Center

A couple of days ago we visited the Kennedy Space Center (Cape Canaveral).  We last visited about 25 years ago and it is surprising how little has changed.  There are obviously a lot more video displays on all the exhibits, but it seems that the basics of launching rockets have not changed over the years.  There are still the huge gantries and flame deflectors at the launch pads.  Rocket engines are the same tangle of piping leading up to the exhaust cone. 
 
We got to see a space shuttle (Atlantis) at close quarters, now they are all grounded.  The others shuttles (that didn’t explode on take-off or burn up on re-entry) have been strategically distributed (LA, New York, Washington and Cape Canaveral) to drum up support for NASA.  The PR on the tour is all about the benefits of investment in space research – apparently $1 invested returns $12 in benefits from spin-off products.  I am not sure quite how they quantify this, since if the product would not have been invented except by NASA investment then it must be difficult to define a cut-off point for measuring the benefit in dollars?
 
Anyway, while the Hubble telescope was a great scientific project, it is good news that NASA has handed over near-orbit work to commercial organisations and is returning to what everyone really wants to see, manned space exploration.  This is based around a new rocket, the Space Launch System (SLS).  Test launches start in 2017 with an un-crewed lunar flyby, but we have to wait until 2021 for a manned lunar orbit.  Eventually the SLS plans go further than Apollo, with manned landing on Mars, although we will have to wait until the 2030s/40s for that. 
 
It does bring home how amazing was the achievement of putting men on the moon 45 years ago.  The Saturn V remains an incredible feat of engineering.  The new SLS will only have a 10% higher payload capacity.
 
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The heat-scarred Atlantis.  We all knew it had black thermal tiles on the bottom, but did you know about the white thermal blankets on top?
 
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The massive Saturn V, still the most impressive rocket ever built.
 
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And, of course, the space center was another opportunity to buy priceless treasures.