Get up close on rare space center tours

By John Couwels, CNNUpdated 15th August 2012
Wearing a floppy hat, 3-year-old Thor does his best rendition of a rocket launch countdown, "three, two, one, zero -- blast off" and jumps up in the air next to a Florida launchpad where NASA rockets have blasted off for more than 50 years.
Apollo missions took the first men to the moon, space shuttles carried the Hubble Space Telescope and the International Space Station into space -- all on rockets taking off from two launchpads at Kennedy Space Center, an hour east of Orlando.
Thor, his twin brother, Espen, and his mother, Diane, are on a tour inside launchpad 39A's security fence at Kennedy -- something that has never been allowed in the history of the space center -- until now.
The Launch Pad Tour, introduced in July, is one of three new rare-access tours being offered this year to celebrate Kennedy Space Center's 50th anniversary. In addition to getting an up-close look at the launchpad, visitors can also tour the Vehicle Assembly Building and the Launch Control Center with a space expert guide.
"Are you a space nut or were you forced to accompany one?" a tour guide asks laughing guests on a bus taking them to the space center recently for one of the new tours.
Space nut or not, you'll be amazed by the size of the Vehicle Assembly Building -- or VAB, if you want to sound like a NASA aficionado. The rocket hanger is one of the largest enclosed spaces in the world. The 525-foot-tall building with the huge NASA logo and American flag painted on the side can be seen for miles on the ground and in the air -- look for it while flying over central Florida.
Built in the 1960s, the hanger was designed to handle the assembling of huge Saturn V rocket segments during the Apollo missions. Later the space shuttle program used the assembly building to attach the shuttles to a large orange external fuel tank and two white rockets used during launch.
Once inside the large cavernous building, look up to the ceiling where shuttle mission banners filled with the signatures of the personnel who worked on those missions hang from support beams.
As an added bonus, the shuttle Atlantis is parked inside the Vehicle Assembly Building just behind a fence only 25 feet away -- for now. The retired Atlantis is waiting to receive final preparations for public display.
"It's awesome to see it in real life," said Chris Finlay, 30, from New Castle, England, who was on vacation in Florida for three weeks. "It's not something you get to see every day."
NASA says Atlantis will be moved to a shuttle hanger on August 16 -- switching places with shuttle Endeavour, which will remain inside the assembly building until mid-September when it will be transported to the California Science Center in Los Angeles for permanent public display.
Atlantis will be back in the VAB briefly before it moves to its new permanent home at the visitor complex. Still under construction, the new facility is expected to open to the public in July 2013.
Next to the tall Vehicle Assembly Building is the much smaller Launch Control Center with large windows looking to the east toward the launchpad. The control center is open to visitors for the first in more than 30 years.
Control center tours visit Firing Room 4, where Apollo and shuttle managers directed launches.
"There's a lot of responsibility in this room. It's not just one person who launches a space shuttle," said tour guide Rob English, pointing to a photo of the launch room that describes how the team works together.
"You'll feel the energy when you walk in this room," said English as the security officer opened the door.
Inside, workstations line the room with labels for each position's area of responsibility on top -- from Main Engines to Electrical Systems. At the front, overlooking the room, is the workspace labeled Launch Director.
Don't expect to see a launch button. Computers have launched rockets for years, though managers can override them. Next to work spaces for the launch director and the public affairs officer are large windows overlooking the launchpad.
"This is the window on mankind's future right here," says English, the guide, as we look out toward the launchpads, which appear much closer than three miles from the control center.
During the Launch Pad Tour, guests step out of a bus inside the last high barbwire fence surrounding the launchpad. The massive jumble of metal service structures used during the shuttle program sit on top of a white concrete mound.
Bill Jackson, a middle school science teacher who just moved to Florida from St. Louis, was glad for the opportunity to see the space center up close.
"Finally getting to see all the things that I told the kids about and my own children about for 50 years ... it's amazing," said Jackson.
His friend Lila Steinhoff recalls watching launches as a girl on small black and white televisions.
"I'm seeing it in person. It's wonderful," said Steinhoff.
Jackson agreed, "It's better, you saw those grainy black and white pictures and something over Walter Cronkite's shoulder and now it's real."
The new tours are expected to run through the end of December 2012 and possibly into 2013. Each of the three tours costs an additional $25 for adults and $19 for children ages 3 to 11 beyond the entrance fee to the Kennedy Space Visitor Center, which is $45 for adults and $35 for children.