"Who's the best pilot you ever saw?"
It's childish, sure, but on final approach to the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station I can't resist uttering that line made famous by Dennis Quaid as astronaut Gordon Cooper in "The Right Stuff." The uncluttered stretch of State Road 528 just makes it easy for the imagination to go back in time to the early days of the Space Race and the Mercury and Gemini programs.
Now, there's a new reason for anyone with nostalgia for that era to make the Cape Canaveral trek, a reasonable 50 miles or so outside of Orlando. The newly opened Air Force Space & Missile History Center, just outside the gates of the Air Force Station's south gate (at 100 Space Port Way) offers an assortment of photos, artifacts and videos from the days of Alan Shepard and John Glenn to present-day launches of commercial and military payloads.
The new museum, open free to the public six days a week, is an extension of the existing, on-base Air Force Space & Missile Museum, accessible only as part of the bus tour at the Kennedy Space Center Visitors complex or as part of monthly appointment-only tours conducted by the base.
Judging from my visit, one could cover the exhibit in the 3,200 square-foot center in roughly an hour or so.
For a Gordon Cooper wannabe, the Mercury and Gemini trinkets were a highlight: Next to a case of memorabilia of launch complexes 5 and 6, a TV screen replays archival clips of the suborbital flights of Alan Shepard and Gus Grissom. There's also a gantry light signed by Shepard.
Gearheads will want to check out the massive Atlas Sustainer Engine, a Titan 1 engine and a control console from the Launch Complex 19 block house. There's also a gift shop with patches, posters, books and other trinkets. Hours: noon-4 p.m. Sundays; 9 a.m.-2 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays; 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Saturdays; 321-730-0055.
Lunch? There are options at The Cove, a waterfront restaurant row outside the South Terminal at Port Canaveral. I'd suggest Fishlips (fishlipswaterfront.com), with its sports bar, tiki deck, patio and view.