It was JFK who famously set America on course for the stars. Even in retrospect, there was something deep, and quite soul stirring in the oratory and ambition in that famous speech. One that preceded his own, fatal destiny by just a couple of years.
That the Moon landings were made, and history changed forever, is as much a part of Kennedy’s legacy as all the hopes and dreams embodied in that brief flowering, between the last days of Eisenhower, and the full scale blood bath of Vietnam.
As a kid, I grew up watching the first Moon expeditions day after day. I saw the launch of Apollo 11, and ‘the Eagle has landed’ has stayed with me forever. I stayed with the Apollo 13 debacle as it veered between almost certain death and final, merciful salvation.
All of these events formed a huge part of my backdrop. So, when I got the chance to tour Cape Canaveral, it was like calling to like. Something that simply could not be passed up.
And it lived up to expectations in every way. Now as much a theme park, devoted to the space race as anything else, the entire complex is a sprawling, quasi nature reserve. Giant alligators and vast, vaulting rocket ships live in uneasy mutual proximity. The ancient and the modern, and each as deadly as man’s stupidity permits.
There was a vast, upended Saturn Five rocket in the main building. The rocket motors on the tail alone were each the size of a small wading pool. The huge, beautifully tapered beast seems ready to go at any minute; a massive, exquisite statement in black and white. On its great bulk are emblazoned the Stars and Stripes, and the vast ‘USA’ letters so familiar to millions. An all American dream made manifest.
Erm, not quite….
The Saturn Five was the ultimate successor to the V2 rocket, originally designed for the Nazis by Wernher Von Braun as a means of flattening enemy cities. After the war, he and his team of scientists managed to get themselves captured by the Americans who, quite sensibly in light of the encroaching Cold War, put them to work in America.
Von Braun was as complex and charismatic as he was controversial; possibly the only man to ever shake hands with both JFK and Adolf Hitler. But the Saturn Five would never have existed without him, his team, or his wartime expertise. And that is a fact.
The exhibits are scattered in what seems a random order. A diminutive, claustrophobic Apollo capsule that still bears the scorch marks of it’s re entry into the atmosphere. The angular, aggressive tin can that is a Mercury module. In a respectful nod to their Russian rivals, there is even a stout, doughty Soyuz capsule, dangling from the roof like a startled dragonfly.
Out here, set against the stunning natural canvas of a duck egg blue Florida sky, a ragged, petrified gaggle of ancient rockets and missiles point at the sky like random exclamation marks. Here, in what feels like an almost silent garden of remembrance, is the entire, amazing history of America’s lunge for the stars.
It is all incredibly moving, but nothing prepared me for the moment that I walked over the same docking bridge that Neil Armstrong, Edwin ‘Buzz’ Aldrin and Michael Collins used to board Apollo 11 in July of 1969.
It is now, mercifully, at ground level. But even stepping onto it is spine tingling; it’s a potent, all too accessible talisman to another time and place. The original Stargate. You would have to be made of stone to remain unmoved.
There is also a life size mock up of a space shuttle on display that will leave you amazed at its actual small scale on the inside. For all its apparent size and power, spending a prolonged period of time on one of these babies was assuredly no joyride. When they talk about ‘the right stuff’, this is it, made manifest.
To wander this amazing complex was a rare, special treat. For this is as much a piece of social and human history as it was once about cutting edge science and incredible courage. Coming to Canaveral will not literally take you to the stars but, as a far braver man than I am once said, it truly is ‘one small step’…..