A blast into NASA’s past at the launch of a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from Cape Canaveral

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      I’m standing on a small grassy hill outside the Kennedy Space Center’s front gates, squinting into a bright blue sky where an inch-long flame streaks upward.

      I’ve arrived just in time to witness the launch of a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from Cape Canaveral, Florida, that will send an unmanned Dragon cargo spacecraft to the International Space Station. It’s a wild feeling, taking me back to childhood. Families around me point their cameras toward the heavens.

      The rumbling gets louder as the rocket soars higher, miles away over the southern horizon. A giant plume of smoke shaped like a question mark appears. Seconds later, there’s a smaller puff. Then it’s gone, vanishing into the infinite blue.

      I’m exhilarated, but only temporarily. Minutes later, I learn that the launch failed. Investigators will establish that the rocket exploded due to helium leaking into an oxygen tank. As a layman watching from afar, I was clueless. Good thing I’m not in charge of the U.S. space program.

      Following the glory days of the 1960s and ’70s, image problems have plagued the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). January 28, 2016, marked the 30th anniversary of the Challenger space-shuttle disaster. Seven crew members perished in that 1986 explosion, which occurred one minute and 13 seconds into the flight. (In fairness, SpaceX would regain some prestige in December by successfully landing a Falcon 9 rocket upright at Cape Canaveral after sending it into space, marking a significant advance toward reusable rockets.)

      As I stroll around the Rocket Garden today in brilliant sunshine, my impulse is to immerse myself in a different kind of remembrance. Gleaming vintage spacecraft, some more than 30 metres tall, represent the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo programs that climaxed with Neil Armstrong setting foot on the moon on July 20, 1969. That triumphant image, of course, is what NASA would prefer the 1.5 million visitors who tour the Kennedy Space Center each year to take away.

      Inside the packed Astronaut Encounter theatre, Tom Jones—who looks more like the 1980s Chevy Chase than the singer of the same name—aims to spark children’s dreams of joining NASA, using humour and adventurous anecdotes.

      The 60-year-old holder of a PhD in planetary science did four space flights, including a record-setting 1996 mission with almost 18 days in orbit aboard the Atlantis shuttle. “After being up there for two weeks, I was ready for a cheeseburger and a shower, neither of which you can get in space,” he quips.

      Unimpressed that NASA got just 0.4 percent of the federal budget last year ($17.7 billion out of $3.7 trillion), Jones emphasizes the practical value of the agency’s work. “Research at the space station contributes to advances in biomedicine,” he says. “And remember the meteor that exploded over Chelyabinsk, Russia, in 2013? An asteroid that size could wipe out Orlando. NASA is working on ways to nudge those asteroids away from Earth.”

      However, yesteryear is where it’s at when I board a bus to the nearby Apollo/Saturn V Center. En route, we pass the Vehicle Assembly Building—the world’s largest single-storey building, at 160 metres—with a huge U.S. flag on the side.

      Inside the center, a video montage on huge screens puts the space race in historical context, with tumultuous images of women’s liberation, the Doors, and the Vietnam War. A newspaper headline that reads “Oh, What a Flopnik!” alludes to the U.S.’s early struggles to catch up after the Soviet Union’s groundbreaking 1957 Sputnik satellite launch. (Ironically, in recent years the Americans have relied heavily on Russian rockets.)

      I’m fascinated by the decision to re-create the Christmas 1968 Apollo 8 mission in the launch control room instead of focusing on the more famous ’69 moon landing. (Perhaps NASA simply wants to give all its alumni equal time.) Countdown clocks, footage of technicians, and TV clips from CBS, ABC, and NBC recapture the drama of the first manned mission to orbit the moon.

      In the huge adjoining hall, I’m awed by the Saturn V rocket, which looms sideways overhead, weighing 2.8 million kilograms fully loaded. Showing that NASA employees are lifers, retired aerospace engineer David Henson, who worked here from 1970 to 2012, is available to answer questions. He thoughtfully chats with me about the differences between American and Russian approaches to commanding space missions.

      After lunching on a tuna-salad wrap at the Moon Rock Cafe, I reboard the bus and head off to the Atlantis space shuttle. It completed 33 missions in 26 years, travelling more than 200 million kilometres in space, before being put on display in 2013. I view its monstrous yet graceful bulk from all sides. Then I take a face-bending ride on the Shuttle Launch Experience, which simulates the roar of takeoff and the G forces as the cabin tilts upward.

      Meanwhile, though, I can’t help thinking about a joke my bus driver made over the PA. “Who wants to go to the moon?” Scattered cheers. “Who wants to send someone else to the moon?” Much louder cheers.

      I came away feeling like space exploration still has its place—but we’ve got a long way to go before colonizing Mars, especially as most of us aren’t superfit math whizzes, like astronauts. While NASA continues to shoot for the Red Planet, it’s well worth taking better care of our own considerably more hospitable planet.

      Access: The Kennedy Space Center is an hour’s drive from Orlando, Florida. The writer visited courtesy of the center and Visit Florida.