New tours at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex give glimpses of NASA's past by allowing access to areas that have not been open to the public in decades. Last week, the Launch Control Center Tour, which brings guests into one of the famed firing rooms, was added to the lineup.
Upstairs in Firing Room 4, the atmosphere is eerie. There's a time-capsule vibe to it, as if no one has been working there in decade. In fact, the room was full of NASA officials for the final shuttle mission last July.
This space now is populated with dozens of work stations and high-back office chairs, grouped into pods divided by high consoles. The décor is primarily gray and wood grain. The work stations have an array of monitors and keypads that look a little dated with a more modern-looking phone.
Large nameplates indicate responsibilities handled in each area: "Payloads," "Liquid Hydrogen," "Purge, Vent and Drain," "Flight Surgeon" and so forth. That signage was the same as in the room's shuttle phase. (The look throughout has been unchanged with the exception of a few "employees only" signs that had never been needed before.)
Firing Room 4 also feels a bit like a movie set. Everything is bright and in its proper place. Maybe that's the big-screen "Apollo 13" effect or maybe it's from years of seeing the high-stakes room on television.
A tour guide leads guests through the room and up into the "bubble room," a glass-enclosed perch in the corner. This is where the management team watched the workers below. There's a better view of the countdown clock here — it's only a pretend launch now — alongside indication of "Universal time," better known as Greenwich Mean Time.
Better still, officials could look outside from here and see Launch Pad 39A, where shuttles left Earth and created vibrations that rattled the windows of the LCC.
In the bubble room, guests watch a video of the countdown of Atlantis' final flight. At blastoff, I gave in to the urge to look out the window at the launch pad. It's silly, but the history-in-the-making feeling caught up with me. I wasn't alone.
"I've got goose bumps," said a woman near me.
Near the bubble room is the chair for the launch director, the person who made the go / no go call for each mission.
The LCC tour costs an additional $25 ($19 for ages 3-11) on top of regular admission. For now, this tour and the neighboring VAB tour are completely separate, and the schedules don't allow for both to be done on the same day. Reservations are recommended.
The tours are part of KSC's 50th anniversary celebration and set to continue through the end of 2012. The firing room will be used for the new space launch system, our guide said.
"The future is now," he said.
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Launch Control Center Tour
Where: Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex, on State Road 405 in Brevard County.
When: 9 a.m.-6 p.m. daily
Cost: KSC admission is $45 general, $35 ages 3-11. The tour is additional $25 ($19 ages 3-11).