KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, Fla. — You know what it feels like to be in space? Like you’re sick.
Think head cold.
“Like you’re riding on a train with square wheels,” he said. “It’s noisy, bumpy and busy. You’re too busy to enjoy the ride.”
It was a recent Tuesday afternoon in a Kennedy Space Center banquet room on Florida’s salty-aired, sun-kissed Atlantic coast. Forty visitors and I were there for the daily “Lunch With an Astronaut,” and for an hour, Carr, still lean in his gray NASA jacket, was our astronaut.
The two pads from which every shuttle mission has launched sat a few miles away. So did the control room where the United States first sent a man into space, and the site of the 1967 Apollo 1 fire that killed three astronauts during a training exercise. I would be seeing all those.
For the moment, my NASA visit was chicken with mushroom sauce, vegetable medley, pitchers of Tang (a reference seemingly lost on youth) and Carr, a former Skylab commander who visited space in the mid-1970s.
But for all his tales from orbit, it didn’t take long to take up the issue at the forefront of Space Coast minds these days: the end of NASA’s space shuttle program.
The once-proud program is coming to a close, almost 50 years to the day since Alan Shepard became the first American in space, igniting a nation’s imagination and giving central Florida an international tourist attraction 10 years before Disney World popped up 50 miles west.
The end of the shuttle program means at least two things: The United States, at least in the short term, will send astronauts spaceward through the space programs of other countries, such as Russia, an archrival in the space race not so long ago.
“For many of us, this is not very palatable,” Carr told us. “But it’s the decision that has been made.”
The other is that for the first time in decades, NASA and its partner agencies have no clear mission. Layoffs are expected, and a question is raised: What will become of tourism at the sprawling Space Coast beyond the occasional unmanned rocket launch?
Though pilgrimages to watch shuttle launches obviously will disappear — nearly like spring break in their ability to fill hotels and restaurants — the two days I spent on the Space Coast demonstrated that NASA and the Kennedy Space Center remain well-positioned to attract those fascinated by America’s history of space exploration.
There are tours, simulations, history lessons, lectures and, yes, lunches with astronauts. And where else are you going to stand beneath the wide, black-tiled belly of a life-size training shuttle? Or walk the same orange metal bridge that Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins and Buzz Aldrin crossed to enter Apollo 11 for the first moon landing?