Travel The USA

Northstar To NASA – Kennedy Space Center

TCM visits NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida, camps at Jetty Park, and almost gets run over by three cruise ships.  Look out Potato Sack!

Kennedy Space Center, Camping With Northstar Camper

In our house, I’m the grump.  I’m the guy who almost always says, “No” to going on a trip, and generally has a negative attitude towards possible fun and adventure.  I know, it’s kinda shocking, until you get to know my lovely wife, Angela.

Angela is exactly the opposite.  She’s almost always positive, ready to go, and would probably jump out of a plane tomorrow if she had the chance, and a parachute.  She’s the one who said, “While we’re in Florida, let’s go to Kennedy Space Center!”  I’m the one who replied, “Maybe.  What does it cost?” and, “Is it on the way?”  Like I said, I’m the grump.

So imagine Angela’s delight when I had more fun at Kennedy Space Center than I’ve had in a long time.  Angela was right!  Kennedy Space Center is absolutely amazing, but I’m getting ahead of myself here.


Above: Jetty Park Campground was the location of Operation Whisker Sneak

There’s another story behind this story.  It starts with a certain animal, going to a certain campground, in what would certainly not be approved by said campground.  Get yourself to a secure location where no one can possibly see what you’re reading.

Is the cone of silence down?  Okay, good.  Let’s begin.

Operation Whisker Sneak

Some areas of Jetty Park do not allow pets.  After reading their literature and various signs around the park and campground, we weren’t sure if that included the Inlet RV Camping area where we wanted to stay.

Lucky for us – Cough! – we don’t have any – Ah hem! – pets.  Our Harley is more of a fur baby, a fuzz child, or a hair kid.  Heck, I don’t know what he is, but he’s certainly not a “pet”.


Above: Using the sliding and pass-through windows of the Northstar Arrow U during Operation Whisker Sneak

Naturally this situation called for the utmost discretion.  To transport the package (code name Potato Sack) from truck to camper, we utilized the electric rear sliding window in our truck and the removable pass through window on the Northstar.  In a completely unrehearsed maneuver, we snuck Potato Sack from truck to camper in one fell swoop.

For the next 24 hours we went dark; no texting, email, or phone calls were permitted in or out of the camper.  The Northstar’s black out window shades were pulled shut and only the range hood light was permitted.


Above: Potato Sack keeping things on the QT

Potato Sack was instructed to keep his ears down, paws planted, and tail tucked.  For this to work, everything would have to go purr-fectly.

Ships That Pass In the Night

One of the main attractions of Jetty Park Campground is the parade of cruise ships that pass through Port Canaveral into the Atlantic Ocean.  Every Sunday evening, folks line the shore to watch these enormous ships pass a stone’s throw away from the campground.

We were unbelievably lucky to (1) be staying at Jetty Park on a Sunday, and (2) get a campsite right on the water where the cruise ships pass.  On that particular Sunday, there were three cruise ships scheduled to sail starting at 4:00pm.

As departure time approached, the unmistakable sound of a ships fog horn roared and echoed repeatedly across the campground.  With each horn blast, more people lined the jetty rocks waiting for the first ship.  Finally, the Carnival Sensation slowly made its way toward us.


Above: The Carnival Sensation and the Disney Dream (click to enlarge)

It’s quite the sight when these monstrosities sail by; music playing, people laughing, and the announcer announcing, “You’re on vacation!”  As the ship gained speed, I kept thinking about the endless buffet just a couple hundred feet away.  Maybe I could dive in, swim across, climb on board, sneak a hot dog or three, and come back before Angela noticed.  Am I the only person who has these thoughts?


Above: The Disney Dream going past Jetty Park

About an hour later, the Disney Dream pushed through the channel towards the ocean.  True to Disney form, the Dream played loud Disney music.  Then the Disney cruise director called out on the ship’s PA system, “Hey kids, yell if you’re skipping school!”  From shore you could hear children scream from stem to stern.  Then the director said, “Hey parents, yell if you’re skipping work!”  The noise that resulted was probably heard by their employers coast-to-coast.

With the Dream safely at sea, Angela and I settled into our usual truck camper evening routine; we made dinner, ate dinner, washed the dishes, put the dishes away, and then crawled into the cabover to watch television or a movie.  Downton Abbey was on and Angela was quite pleased that the Northstar’s antenna picked up the program in crystal clear high-definition.  Potato Sack and I were less smitten, but we can’t always watch Animal Planet and Star Wars.


Above: The Royal Caribbean Freedom of the Seas at night (click to enlarge)

Fifteen minutes into the post-Edwardian aristocratic drama, another ship’s horn roared.  When I opened the rear door, there was the Royal Caribbean Freedom of the Seas.  In the dark the ship looked like a city block at night, reflecting its neon lights onto wet streets.  It was a notably calmer ship.  No announcer rallied the passengers.  No music filled the air.  Just the dull swoosh of water passing the hull, and the voices of hundreds of people excited for the adventure before them.  If I swam out quickly…

Kennedy Space Center

The next morning we woke up at dawn, quietly packed the camper, and set out for Kennedy Space Center.  Operation Whisker Sneak had been a success, and Potato Sack went back to his former name sake.  Harley was relieved.

Kennedy Space Center is located just twenty minutes from Jetty Park, across the Banana River in Titusville, Florida.  The gate opens at 9:00am, so we arrived around 8:45am to get Harley settled and beat the expected crowds.  We were somewhat surprised by the parking attendant who charged us $10 as an automobile instead of $15 as a motorhome/RV.  It’s good to be a truck camper.


Above: Parking Lot D at Kennedy Space Center

We were directed to parking lot D where we found news vans freshly set-up with out-stretched antennas, satellite dishes, and cameras.  When we asked the NASA folks why the news crews were there, they told us some congressmen and women were attending a NASA presentation and the news was going to broadcast their post-meeting comments.

I was tempted to flash my esteemed Truck Camper Magazine media credentials to see if we could get press passes, but Angela gave me a, “Don’t even think about it” look.  How can she read my mind like that?

Nothing Is Simple Anymore


Above: The fountain at the entrance moves to music

Getting back to me being a grump, Angela will tell you that I have more pet peeves than LP record albums, which I dispute, and then I proceed to buy more records just to make sure I’m right.  One of my biggest pet peeves is how almost everything is becoming needlessly more complicated.  For example, the ticket options at Kennedy Space Center reminded me more of a SAT math problem than theme park ticket choices normally do.

Thankfully, general admission was clearly marked at $50 per person.  In addition there were multiple extended tour opportunities at $40 a piece.  These tours were given by NASA veterans and gave in-depth access to the iconic buildings and facilities of Kennedy Space Center including the Vehicle Assembly Building and the launch pads.  At first blush, I was ready to put down the credit card and go for the full experience.

In previous moments like this, Angela and I have “cheaped out” and walked away from pricey things we now regret missing.  Yes, these prices seemed relatively high.  And yes, many times these opportunities aren’t worth the prices folks are asking.  That’s part of the “being a tourist” game.  We have learned to give these choices a second thought, especially if there’s a chance we may never be at that place again.  This lesson was running through my mind as I stared at the multitude of ticket and extended tour choices before us.

The crowds we had been concerned about had yet to show up and we were one of a couple dozen folks in line.  When we got close enough to the booth to hear the conversation, we learned that the extra tours were sold out, at least until the next day.  Well, that solves that.

“I’ll take two General Admissions for $100, Alex.”  I could buy a lot of record albums for that kind of money.  This had better be good.

Rocket Garden to Atlantis


Above: Angela checking out the map of the complex

Angela and I tend to be very goal oriented.  We only had a day to explore Kennedy Space Center and we were determined to get our Benjamin’s worth.  Before we even stepped foot inside the complex, Angela asked which features were the most popular.  She wanted to hit those attractions first and beat the possible rush.  That information sent us directly to the Space Shuttle Atlantis building.


Above: The entrance at Kennedy Space Center

Map in hand, we B-lined past the Rocket Garden, IMAX theater, and Astronaut Memorial and went straight to the Atlantis Building.


Above: Gordon (on left) in front of the Atlantis building

I don’t want to spoil the surprise for you, but I can confidently say the $100 million 90,000-square-foot Atlantis building is one of the most impressive indoor facilities I’ve ever experienced.  Opened in June of 2013, it’s easily up there with the Gettysburg National Military Park Museum and Visitor Center – another absolute stunner.  If all there was at Kennedy Space Center was the Atlantis building, I’d be praising it as a must-see.


Above: The reveal of the Space Shuttle Atlantis


Above: The Space Shuttle Atlantis (click to enlarge)


Above: Crawling around the space station (click to enlarge)


Above: As you can see Angela was quite high up off the ground


Above: Gordon thinks about truck campers in the mock-up space bathroom


Above: Payload and center of gravity are important to NASA, too! (click to enlarge)


Above: And we think a diesel engine is big!


Above: The inside, bottom floor of the Atlantis building

From the architecture, to the surprising reveal, to the creative presentation, to the exquisite exhibits and rides, the Atlantis building is a five-star home run.  For me it was by far better than anything we saw at Disney World.  I could go on, but I think you get the point.  I loved it.

The NASA Drive-By Tour


Above: Launch Pad A, taken on bus during the tour

After Atlantis, we boarded a Kennedy Space Center bus for a drive-by tour of the Vehicle Assembly Building and launch pads.  This was the only real disappointment the whole day as we literally drove past these historic facilities.  It was one of those, “On the left side you can see something really cool.  Oh look, there’s an alligator” kind of things.


Above: Vehicle Assembly Building with 456 foot tall bay doors

Even with the drive-by narration, it was still amazing to see the unbelievably large – it’s actually hard to believe it’s as big as they tell you it is – Vehicle Assembly Building.  Suffice it to say, it’s big with 456 foot tall doors and 129,428,000 cubic feet by volume.  Space Shuttles can park in there.  I wonder if they have a giant garage door opener.


Above: The Space Shuttle crawler transporter

Also on the NASA-see-it, NASA-you-don’t driving tour are the famous crawler-transporters.  For forty-five years, these massive vehicles have moved rockets and shuttles from the Vehicle Assembly Building to the launch pads at a not so amazing one mile per hour.  I can hear the slighted NASA guy now, “Yeah, but the zero to one time is really something.”

The crawler-transporters support up to eighteen million pounds giving them the kind of payload capacity that would put this Chief of the Weight Police out of business.  Of course then some Space Shuttle manufacturer would come out with an octuple-slide model with granite counters and 100,000,000 gallons of fresh water pushing the limits of the crawler-transporters.

Perhaps what’s most impressive about the Vehicle Assembly Building and the crawler-transporter is that they’re still in use.  Both the Vehicle Assembly Building and the crawlers are being upgraded and up-fitted for future missions.  That’s right ladies and gentlemen, NASA is gearing up for a whole new round of space flight.

Apollo / Saturn V Center


Above: Inside the Apollo / Saturn V Center (click to enlarge)

Once we had spotted the last alligator, the bus dropped us off at the Apollo / Saturn V Center.  Inside we found another mind-boggling sight; a 363-foot Saturn V rocket mounted horizontally above our heads.

This is the rocket that launched twenty-seven men to the moon during the Apollo missions of the late 1960s and early 1970s.  If you’ve remember the moon landings, or at least saw the 1995 Ron Howard film “Apollo 13”, you have seen the Saturn V, but not like this.

NASA was two for two with the Apollo / Saturn V Center.  The presentation isn’t quite as modern as the Atlantis building, but it’s at least as dramatic.  When you see the thrusters on the Saturn V you begin to get a sense of the power and scale of the enormous machine mounted above you.  The rest of the building is wall-to-wall NASA history and exhibits.


Above: Gordon touching the moon rock

At the far end they even have a piece of Moon rock you can touch.  Have you touched a piece of Moon rock?  It’s so cool.

No Way In One Day

By mid-afternoon we realized there was no way to see all of Kennedy Space Center in a single day.  Sure, you could run through every building and exhibit, but you’d miss a lot of what makes this place special.  There were entire buildings and exhibits we never saw; Exploration Space, Astronaut Encounter, Early Space Exploration, and the Astronaut Memorial.  Just across the Indian River there’s the U.S. Astronaut Hall of Fame, which is included in the Kennedy Space Center admission fee.  We never even made it to the Angry Birds Space Encounter.

I was initially concerned that we were missing out by not opting for the extended tours.  In hindsight, I’m really glad we didn’t spend more for the tours.  There’s more than enough to fill two very full days at Kennedy Space Center with just the general admission fee.  For the true NASA enthusiast, I would recommend allowing for an entire week.  We could have easily spent three days there had we slowed down to absorb the incredible exhibits and see all the buildings and features.

I was also a little annoyed at the $50 general admission fee, but that concern evaporated in the face of the sheer quality and quantity of what NASA has to offer.  I can honestly say that general admission at Kennedy Space Center is something of a bargain.  The moment Atlantis is dramatically revealed, you’ll know exactly what I mean.  It’s incredible and makes you truly proud of what NASA and the United States has accomplished.

If you can’t tell, we’re definitely going back.  Next time we’ll have more time, and we won’t think twice about the $50 fee.  If everything in life offered this kind of quality, the world would be a better place, and I’d probably be broke trying to experience it all.  Bravo NASA!

Snow No!

At 4:00pm it was time to say goodbye to Florida and point our Northstar Camper rig north.  Work and other immovable obligations dictated our departure.  We seriously considered staying in Florida and telling everyone we joined the circus, but we chickened out.

By the time we reached northern Georgia, the outside temperatures had dropped from the mid-sixties to the low-thirties.  A few miles later, we were greeted by a blowing snow storm.  Once again the forecasters had it wrong and the weather window we had planned for was possibly closing before us.  Fortunately, we never saw ice and wound up driving out of the storm somewhere in Virginia.

All of this was yet another acute reminder of how amazing it is to spend the winter in southern Florida, Texas, Arizona, or California.  The below freezing temperatures cut right through me as we filled with fuel.  Shivering at the pump, I checked the weather in Okeechobee; 70 degrees, sunny, and warm.  These chickens should have stayed in Florida, and joined the circus.

Have you traveled to Florida in the winter with your truck camper?  Please share your story about snowbirding in Florida.

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