We were given a sneak media preview the day before the official opening and, while there were still a few minor finishing touches being done, it was clear this is a major new attraction packed with the Space Center’s breathtaking modern ‘Wow!’ factor.
Just to back-track a touch, Heroes And Legends is basically a splendid new showcase for the US Astronaut Hall of Fame, which previously resided in a separate building across the NASA Causeway from the KSC’s Visitor Complex. Now more seamlessly located inside the Space Center itself, it makes for a spectacular exclamation mark at the end of a journey through the history of space exploration.
But don’t just take our word for it. Jim Lovell, Commander of Gemini 12 and Apollo 13, is notably quoted about the new attraction:
“The heroic spirit of these astronauts lives on in you. Their stories tell the story of humanity: embracing the legendary in all of us.”
It’s a lofty ambition from the home of American space flight, but they pull it off beautifully, with a three-part sequence in the ‘Heroes’ section before you reach the ‘Legends’ in the Astronaut Hall of Fame.
It is all set in a stark but striking two-storey building, swathed almost completely in white, with the figures of the Mercury Seven, NASA’s first astronauts - Scott Carpenter, Gordon Cooper, John Glenn, Gus Grissom, Wally Schirra, Alan Shepard and Deke Slayton - cast in huge bas relief on the side. On one corner of the building is the silhouette of an X-15 rocket-powered aircraft, which was used to test early sub-orbital space flights.
Visitors enter via a gentle ramp that winds between two towering exhibits of the Rocket Garden up to the first-floor entry. “It is classic architecture in all its post-modern 1960s glory,” Eric Stiles, NASA’s Design Specialist, told us as he conducted the media up the walkway. “It is embracing and imposing, it is pushing the limits, and it is saying something larger-than-life is about to happen.”
Indeed it is! The 3-D glasses at the entrance are the first clue as you pass into the Discovery Bay, a circular room centred on a collection of 10 rockets that have powered NASA’s programme at different times. It is not the rockets but the walls of the room that come to life, though, providing a kaleidoscopic explanation of [i]What is a hero?[/i]
The seven-minute presentation explores the concept of what it takes to be a hero via the experiences of the early astronauts themselves and what they went through in taking part in the Space Race with Russia, out on the very limits of human exploration.
Then it’s time to don the 3-D glasses and enter the custom-made cinema-in-the-round (well, 220-degrees of it, anyway) that is Through the eyes of a hero, a startling seven-and-a-half minute film that literally comes right at you, with the sights, sounds and even some of the sensations of four genuine space heroes, Shepard, Glenn, Lovell and Neil Armstrong.
The inverted cinematic dome experience is staged on three slightly different levels (we suggest taking the back one for the best effect) and the special effects are enhanced by the intense sound system and 3-D images that really put you at the centre of the action.
The ultra-dramatic movie concludes with a journey out past the International Space Station and into the outer reaches of our solar system, with the ringing tones of Lovell insisting, “I can’t wait to see where YOU go.” It’s the ultimate challenge to the next generation of space explorers, and it ensures the KSC maintains its ability to excite and inspire at the same time.
Exiting the theatre brings you down into the ‘Heroes’ section, with a series of stories under the title, [i]A Hero Is…[/i] Here, the question has been sub-divided into nine categories under characteristics such as Courageous, Passionate and Principled.
Guests are left to explore on their own, with numerous interactive, touch-screen experiences and eye-catching memorabilia both large and small, including Gus Grissom’s spacesuit from a sub-orbital flight in 1961; a Buck Rogers comic-book collection; Schirra’s elaborate certificate from The Society of Experimental Test Pilots; and original flight helmets from many of the ‘Legends’
Other exhibits include the fascinating Mercury Command Centre, imported lock, stock and console from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Base, and a clever recreation of Gene Cernan’s heart-stopping spacewalk in June 1966 from Gemini 9, when he struggled to get back into the capsule and lost 13lbs in two hours.
Over the whole section hangs a rebuilt Mercury-Redstone rocket, topped by its one-man capsule, with cut-aways into the interior that show how primitive space technology was in the early 1960s. The rocket – put back together by local company Guard-Lee – has an amazing back-story in its own right, as the company’s Gerald Jones told us.
Formerly on display on a back-road, it was toppled in the hurricanes of 2004 and lay battered and broken for some time. When the H&L project was approved, Guard-Lee were called in to make the broken rocket a usable exhibit, and they had to completely re-shape it. During the course of the repairs, previously undiscovered papers were found inside the hull, showing the rocket had been prepped for a launch mission that never got off the ground, and no-one knew the Redstone rocket had been technically ready to go!
We also spoke to Melissa Ruminot, from Orlando’s Nassal company that fabricated most of the 40 interactive exhibits within the attraction. It turns out, Nassal also worked on the Harry Potter worlds at both Universal theme parks, as well as the Mako coaster at SeaWorld. Melissa told us: “We bring the same touch that we have in the theme park business to what we’ve done here. It is a matter of blending actual artefacts with real story-telling, so we have to make sure it works for this audience, from the youngest child to veterans who grew up with the space programme.”
The final part of the exhibit is the real-life Legends section, the Hall of Fame that now highlights almost 100 astronaut inductees, from Mercury trailblazers Carpenter and Glenn to this year’s veterans, Karol Bobko (Skylab) and Jerry Ross, who flew a record seven Space Shuttle missions.
The impressive presentation includes numerous ways to explore the back-stories of the astronauts, as well as neat interactive touches, like being able to take pictures with them. There is also a special photo opportunity with the Mercury Seven, and the Hall concludes with a look at the work of sponsors Boeing, who are actively involved in today’s space programme.
For Simon in particular – who vividly recalls the Apollo missions, and maintains his own tribute to the tragic crew of Apollo 1 – this is a hugely powerful and emotive finale that adds immensely to the Space Center’s appeal.
We remain convinced that the KSC is one of Florida’s must-see attractions – and that is even more the case now thanks to Heroes And Legends. The drama is as real as it gets.
If you have questions about the Kennedy Space Center – or anything else about the wonders of Florida – be sure to go online and ask Susan and Simon on the ATD forums.
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