What you see inside NASA's Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) is essentially the womb of America’s Space Program. Inside the VAB, NASA assembled its rockets from the Apollo program to the Space Shuttle. These days, most folks are familiar with the image of the Space Shuttle rolling out of this building, but it was constructed for the Saturn V rockets of the Apollo era. I grew up during that time, watching images of the space program and going over for every launch. The Saturn V was an awesome rocket. I still remember lugging along a tape recorder to capture the sound of a launch so I’d have to something to bring to my 3rd grade class for Show & Tell. For those of you who have never witnesses a launch, you don’t just see and hear it. You feel it. A launch vibrates through your body & soul.
Watching NASA Grow
When the first Space Shuttle launched, I was in my last year of high school. My Boy Scout troop was camping in the wilderness survival area of Patrick Air Force Base. We watched the astronauts arrive in their jets and do some practice runs. When it was time for the launch, the Air Force invited us all on a bus to go view the launch. We had already seen the new Space Shuttle and it was drastically different than any of the rockets we’d seen before, but we were excited to see a launch again. When Columbia (STS-1) launched, I remember we all had the same collective response – That’s it?
Compared to a Saturn V launch, the Space Shuttle seemed slow. Where the Saturn V was a drag racer, the Space Shuttle was a truck. We wondered if the damn thing would ever get out of orbit.
Over the years, we learned to love our shuttle missions. It didn’t start with the same pizazz of an Apollo mission. I mean, those Saturn V’s were going to the moon. The Space Shuttle didn’t really go anywhere until the International Space Station started assembly. Piece by piece, NASA built its missions and made the Space Shuttle seem a little more cool with every mission (except for those voice-over speeches upon launch – always sounded like a cheap infomercial).
Impressive Architecture for a Purpose
Before we could go to space, we needed a place to build our rockets. That purpose, much less its massive size, made the VAB seem so cool. It’s the birthplace of our rockets. Sub-assemblies may come from all over the place, but it’s not a space vessel until all those pieces get inside the VAB and joined together, loaded on a crawler, and prepared for rollout.
NASA hasn’t permitted visitors inside the VAB since the days between Apollo and the Space Shuttle assembly. Decades have passed and now I finally had the chance to fulfill a dream. A small group of friends were equally interested, so we all made plans to meet at Kennedy Space Center on Sunday and take the Up Close tour with a stop to get inside the VAB.
I think we all geeked out at the prospect. The tour itself wasn’t anything to get excited about. In fact, we only had a few minutes inside the VAB – ten minutes and forty seconds, according to my friend's timer.
Getting Bored Inside NASA's Vehicle Assembly Building
This is where the fantasy took a bit of a curve into the mundane. Remember, we’re on a tour, so we’re tourists. Tourists don’t use tripods for photos, but a few of us did. As soon as we entered the VAB, the tour guide wanted us all to move down to the far end behind a yellow line. Of course, that wasn’t a good place to setup for a shot, so I put my tripod right where you see it – then I moved down.
We all had to stay together, so it became very apparent that my opportunity to get this shot was about to be blown. In fact, the tour guide picked up a portable speaker system and started his speech right in front of my camera. Fortunately, I managed to get back to my spot and start taking my photos, because it was clear we weren’t going to be able to stay and take pictures once he finally stopped talking. I didn’t listen to a word he said. I just kept waiting for him to get out of my frame. He finally stepped aside – still in the frame – and I started shooting, thinking I’d have to use Photoshop to edit him out. Fortunately, he finally got far enough away that I could get this shot. Then it was time to pack up and move over to see Endeavour.
In typical NASA fashion, the orbiter was behind not one, but TWO fences. The first fence was to keep us in our place, and the other one was there to block the shot of the orbiter. It was a pathetic way to display a piece of history. NASA is good in that they allow photography all over the place. NASA is bad in that it puts obstacles in front of nearly every visually pleasing piece you’d want to photograph. That, combined with the short time in the building, put a bit of a damper on the experience. I was setting up for another shot when they said it was time to go. It was excitement and disappointment combined.
Still, I’m happy I went. Not only did I have good company with some friends, but I finally got to step inside a piece of history and make my own art from it. All in all, that’s a pretty good day for me. I got the shot I wanted, although with some panic. This one is getting printed on aluminum – big aluminum!