Travel Story 

Natural space Canaveral


Plenty of space to explore on environmental paradise surrounding launch pad

The folks at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center got back in the space shuttle business this week with the launch of the first space shuttle flight in more than two years. Next up is the Mars Orbiter.

Prior to Tuesday’s launch, the Space Shuttle Discovery completed its 3.5-mile crawl from the Vehicle Assembly Building to oceanfront launch pad 39B. The shuttle was transported atop two crawler transporters named Hercules and Hermes , each weighing six million pounds and guzzling diesel fuel at a rate of 35 feet per gallon as they crept to the launch site at a top speed of one mile per hour. Their success is one huge leap toward a safe return to space flight.

Although the countdown to a launch, and the thrill of lift-off always brings frenzied excitement to Florida’s space coast, this 72-mile stretch of shoreline (just 35 miles east of Orlando) also offers a very unexpected kind of space exploration. Although owned by NASA (and therefore acting as a perfect buffer security zone), the 180,000 acres surrounding Cape Canaveral is run as a vast, multi-eco system natural refuge. It comprises some of Florida’s finest beaches and, tucked in behind the protection of a low lying ribbon of land, a meandering network of inlets, brackish estuaries and lagoons. As fertile nurseries for clams, fish, oysters and shrimp, the waterways are abundant with 1,045 species of plants, 310 species of birds (from white ibises to southern bald eagles), West Indian manatees, alligators, the largest sea turtle nesting beach in America, and other wildlife.

Many areas in the natural refuge have specific highlights. For example, Mosquito Lagoon is better known as the Redfish Capital of the World (mosquitoes have long since gone; something to do with salt marsh mosquitoes being unable to lay eggs in fresh water); Pelican Island, the nation’s first wildlife sanctuary, is (no surprise), rife with territorial brown and white pelicans, each claiming their own side of the island as part of an aparthied movement; and Turkey Creek, a major stopover for spring and fall migratory birds, and a photographer’s Eden with its landscape of ancient sand dunes, saw palmetto and live oaks.

Whether exploring the region on horseback, by kayak or even air boat, a real treat is in store, in large part because what you’ll find amid the bromeliads, mangroves, and oaks draped with hammocks of Spanish Moss, is about as far away from galactic technology as you can get.

That stated, rockets are never too far away and certainly the megaplex Kennedy Space Center Visitor Center puts galactic adventure at your fingertips, albeit displayed Disney style. But this Disneyland has actual sky lab interiors (including a space bathroom); rides that include the G-Force Trainer, which simulates the pressure of four times the force of gravity; a 1/6th gravity chair to create the true-to-life feeling of walking on the moon; and Mission on Mars, an invigorating virtual ride across the Red Planet’s rocky terrain. Space buff or not, the collection of personal items from astronauts like Alan Shepard and Buzz Aldrin offer real insight into the space experience, as do displays of historic flown spacecraft. These include the Mercury Sigma 7 capsule, the Apollo 14 Command Module, Kitty Hawk, and the centre’s piece de resistance: a fully restored Saturn V moon rocket that lies horizontal to the ground and takes up the length of five football fields.

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