Starting Nov. 1, NASA will offer tours of its gigantic Vehicle Assembly Building to visitors at the John F. Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla. It will be the first time in more than 30 years that the general public will be granted access inside the building.
Visitors will be able to purchase tickets for the special "Up Close" tour, which will take them via bus (a regular tour coach, not the Astrovan seen above!) from the Kennedy Space Center Visitors' Center to the launch area and working facilities, and ultimately to the VAB itself, where they will get an opportunity to tour the inside.
The $25 tour tickets are in addition to the regular price of admission to Kennedy Space Center. Eight tours are scheduled each day, and reservations are currently required.
In my opinion, this is something well worth the price.
I've been lucky enough to visit the VAB on two occasions this summer, once in July during the launch of the STS-135 Atlantis shuttle and again in August when the Juno spacecraft launched. Both occasions were part of Tweetup events at KSC, when NASA provided press site access to 150 randomly selected Twitter followers. (I was fortunate enough to be one of those 150 each time!) The NASA folks did a fantastic job coordinating our groups and organizing the events, and as part of the tours, we were allowed an unprecedented look inside the VAB.
Built in 1966, the 52-story VAB literally dominates Launch Complex 39 at KSC. Its massive white-and-gray exterior shines brightly under the Florida sun, its facade featuring an enormous American flag on one side and the NASA "meatball" insignia on the other.
It's said that a 6-foot-tall person could stand inside one of the stars, and that 10 school buses could line up within the length of a stripe. And after seeing it, I believe it.
The VAB's cavernous interior is like the largest warehouse-slash-body shop you can imagine. It's where all the space shuttles were joined with their solid rocket boosters and enormous fuel tanks, and where the titanic Saturn V rocket was assembled during the Apollo program. To do work like that required a lot of space — no pun intended — and space is exactly what the VAB has in surplus.
It is the largest single-story building in the world, and the fourth-largest building by volume. Until 1974 the VAB was the tallest building in Florida, and it is still the tallest building in the U.S. outside an urban area. It measures 526 feet tall, 716 feet long and 518 feet wide. It covers 8 acres and encloses 129,428,000 cubic feet of space.
The VAB is, in a word, huge.
It even has its own weather. Despite its having an enormous air conditioning and circulation system that can completely replace the air inside every hour, on particularly humid days clouds have been known to form below the ceiling, even going so far as to rain onto the floor below!
Four doors allow space vehicles to be moved in and out of the building. At 456 feet high, these are the largest doors in the world.
There's something amazing about the VAB, something that transcends just being in a very large workspace or machine shop, although the VAB is very much those things as well.
This is a place where vehicles were made that took humans off the planet, where skilled people worked hard to achieve very lofty goals. Perhaps the loftiest of goals. Despite the steel beams, warning signs and concrete floor, the VAB has an air of reverence to it … That's something that I and all of the Tweetup participants felt very intensely as soon as we entered. And now that the public will be able to tour the VAB starting next month, it's definitely one of those things that everyone should experience for themselves.
At the risk of sounding overly metaphoric, the VAB really is a cathedral of space exploration.
As a special treat, I'm including a short video I shot with my Nikon dSLR on July 7, after entering the VAB for the first time. While it's very difficult to portray the actual scale of the place adequately enough, and the lighting was rather low, it does give some sense of the "starship-like" enormity of the interior:
Visitors in the coming few months will also be able to catch a glimpse of one of the remaining three orbiters — either Endeavour, Discovery or Atlantis — while they await transportation to their respective museum locations. This is something not to be missed, so I'd advise anyone interested to try to get to KSC before April 2012, when Discovery is slated to depart.
I had a chance to see the Discovery orbiter in August on my second tour of the VAB, as it was undergoing processing for final display, and it was quite impressive.
These machines — literally the most complex ever made — are, like the VAB, symbols of a very important part of our modern heritage and are, in my own opinion, national treasures. Not to mention very, very cool to see in person!
You can read more about the VAB tours on collectSpace.com.
Images and video © Jason Major.