Editor’s note: This article about Cape Canaveral, The Kennedy Space Center, and the space program is part of WRAL TechWire’s weeklong contribution to the Triangle’s “Lift Off NC: Apollo + Beyond” celebration which features events throughout 2019.

CAPE CANAVERAL – One thing you notice at the Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral: size. The immense size of the giant Saturn rocket that blasted astronauts out of Earth orbit to the moon contrasted with the relatively tiny Mercury Redstone rocket that first launched Alan Shepard and Gus Grissom into space.

The huge Saturn rocket that lofted men to the moon filled the enormous exhibit hall and dwarfed tourists. Photo by Allan Maurer. Copyright Capitol Broadcasting. A.R.R.

Then, of course, there is the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB), more vast than three Empire State Buildings, the biggest single story structure in the world, so large it has its own indoor weather.  

The VAB is the largest single story building in the world.

Another thing you notice is that the manned space program had strong connections to the Triangle from the start.

Anyone who grew up during the first era of human space exploration will never forget the panic that ensued in America when the Soviet Union orbited the first manmade satellite, Sputnik, with its eerie space “beep-beep” in 1957, followed by the first animal, the dog Laika, on Sputnik 2, and then, still ahead of U.S. efforts, the first man, Yuri Gagarin in 1961.

Meanwhile, although the U.S. accelerated its own efforts and introduced the famous Mercury astronauts in their silver space suits, American rockets kept blowing up on the launch pad or in flight. Then, in May, 1961, Alan Shepard, said after an hours long wait on the launchpad, “Let’s light this candle,” and became the first American in space aboard Freedom 7 for a 15-minute flight. The space race was on in earnest.

Mercury astronaut Alan Shepard, America’s first man in space, made only a 15-minute suborbital flight, but is memorialized in this statue at the Kennedy Space Center. Copyright Capital Broadcasting

Personally, I will never forget the excitement of those first years. When John Glenn, in Friendship 7, made three orbits of the Earth, doubt emerged about whether his heat shield would survive re-entry. The seven minutes of suspense while he was out of communication during a flame-drenched return to Earth was more dramatic than any movie climax I’ve ever seen.

The space capsules that the Mercury and Gemini astronauts rode into orbit took a fire bath returning to the atmosphere. John Glenn’s is in the Smithsonian, but several are on view at the Kennedy Space Center. Photo by Allan Maurer. Copyright Capital Broadcasting. A.R.R.

Who can forget the Christmas message the Apollo 8 astronauts read from space as they orbited the moon in 1968, or the moon landing in July 1969, or the doomed and aborted Apollo 13 mission with the suspense over whether the astronauts aboard would return safely?

Those pioneers and the astronauts who came after them certainly had “The Right Stuff.” They were featured in lavish pictorial articles in Life, along with human interest stories about their wives. In one much told story, the astronauts forced their German-American engineers to put a window and manual control in the space craft by telling them, “We’re Buck Rogers and no Buck Rogers, no buck!”

They inspired a whole new category collecting globally, including U.S. and International stamps and First Day Covers, memorabilia, mission patches, toys, and many books, films, documentaries, TV shows, and thousands of magazine and newspaper articles.

“The First Man,” a slightly fictionalized version of Neil Armstrong’s life as the astronaut who became the first man to set foot on the moon, is just the latest major motion picture about their exploits, following Ron Howard’s “Apollo 13” and Phillip Kaufman’s “The Right Stuff,” about the Mercury astronauts.

The Mercury Seven in 1960. Back row: Alan Shepard, Gus Grissom, Gordon Cooper; front row: Wally Schirra, Deke Slayton, John Glenn, Scott Carpenter. This was the only time they would appear together in pressure suits. Slayton and Glenn are wearing spray-painted work boots. Creative Commons license, no restrictions.

The Mercury astronauts learned their space navigation skills at the Morehead Planetarium in Chapel Hill, lessons Gordon Cooper learned so well he manually brought his capsule back to Earth closer to target than most who relied on automatic systems. The other astronauts, including Neil Armstrong, first man on the moon, trained on celestial navigation at Morehead until 1975.

Other NC ties to the space program include Cary company Horizon Performance, which helps select astronaut candidates for specific missions, including a potential Mars mission, and several current and past astronauts have strong NC ties.

Now, with private space programs such as Blue Origin, SpaceX, and Virgin Galactic as well as a new giant NASA rocket under construction, interest in space exploration and commercialization is once again high.

The entrance to the Kennedy Visitor Center with the Rocket Garden in the background.

The Kennedy Space Center certainly draws crowds to its bus tours, exhibits, 3D movies, artifacts, rocket garden and other attractions.

You’ll stand in long lines for most attractions, although if you wait until mid-afternoon, you may find it much less crowded and even avoid lines to see some of the major exhibits.  Wish we had known that when we visited.

The Space Coast itself, which has had its ups and downs as the space programs waxed and waned, is lively as well. You can have a cocktail at the Moon Hut, where the astronauts once breakfasted, although it’s now a Mexican restaurant. The back dining area is full of photographs, mission patches and mementos collected by the previous owners from decades of space exploration.

Enjoy a blue margarita at the Moon Hut.

Seafood fans will find plenty of restaurants in Port Canaveral serving a variety of ultra-fresh fish, lobster, crab, clams, and oyster dishes, some just off the boats docked out back. It’s a great place to get pictures of seabirds, fishing boats, and enormous cruise ships, or to watch a rocket launch, increasingly frequent as space travel gets back up to speed.

Fishing boat docked behind a popular seafood restaurant on the Space Coast. It was crowded even at mid-afternoon. Photo by Allan Maurer. Copyright Capitol Broadcasting.

Seabirds perched on the dock behind a popular Space Coast restaurant. Photo by Allan Maurer. Copyright Capitol Cities. A.R.R.

Previously on WRAL TechWire:

Lift Off NC: Apollo + Beyond events in North Carolina

‘First Man’ to the moon: Celebrating UNC Planetarium’s NASA contributions

Cary company helps evaluate NASA Mars mission candidates

Two NASA astronauts headed for the space station have NC connections