"Your face gets kind of puffy," said Gerald Carr, 78, who once spent 84 days orbiting the Earth, as I picked at a piece of NASA-made red velvet cake. "But you become used to it."
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"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 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?
"When we were growing up, this was all very real to us," said Tony Deliseo, 44, a software engineer from Sydney crossing that bridge with his family in the indoor/outdoor visitors complex. "It was a global event."
Though excited to be at the Space Center, Deliseo admitted that he would be less likely to visit without a shuttle program.
"This won't be news anymore," he said. "It will be history."
And that is exactly what looms: Unless a sexy new program, such as commercial space travel or something Mars-bound, comes along, the Kennedy Space Center likely will make the transition from a living part of history to a museum. But it will make a heck of a museum. Before my lunch with an astronaut, I wandered among America's earliest rockets, tall as buildings and well kept, even if they seemed borrowed from a 1950s movie set through modern eyes. A kid there, about 10, wore a mock white spacesuit with unself-conscious pride.
Later that afternoon, I headed out on the two-hour "Discover KSC" tour on a bus of about 40 filled seats and a tour guide who, like many of his gray-haired brethren, had an 8-year-old's enthusiasm for America's space history. As we set out, he asked what Velcro, smoke detectors, cable television and cell phones have in common.
"We wouldn't have any of that without NASA," the guide said. "And NASA gave it to the world, not just America!"
We set out from the visitors center and into the heart of Kennedy Space Center, where the Vehicle Assembly Building adorned with an American flag and NASA logo loomed. That's where shuttles have been mated with their fuel tanks and solid-fuel rockets.
We passed the launch pads that have sent shuttles into space, and there I learned something: The Kennedy Space Center has had two shuttle launch pads, commonly called Launch Pad A and Launch Pad B. For its first nine liftoffs, Challenger left from Launch Pad A. For its 10th and fatal launch, it departed from Launch Pad B. It was a nearly three-hour tour that tapped into modern U.S. space history.
The next day I joined an even longer tour of adjacent Cape Canaveral, seeing where the earliest U.S. rockets launched. That tour brought us into the control room that sent the first American rocket into space. It brought us to the control room that controlled Shepard's launch. It brought us to the exact spot where Apollo 1 caught fire; they asked us to remove our hats for that one.
The Cape Canaveral tour was nothing but history, which seemed encouraging for the future of the Space Coast. Even after the end of the shuttle program, anyone with a sense of space history will still find something there. Jeffrey Shankman, visiting with his family from Johannesburg, reasoned that the end of the shuttle program could even be good for tourism.
"It could make it more popular," Shankman said. "We cling to our past. You only realize what you have when it's taken away."
A classic, and often true, point. NASA's most encouraging sign seemed to be in the parking lot as I headed home. Most of the tourists streaming to their cars did so with plastic bags stuffed in the gift shop. They wanted a piece of space to take home with them.
If you go
Kennedy Space Center is 50 miles east of Orlando. Many visitors stay there or in Titusville (10 miles west of the visitors center), Cocoa Beach (25 miles south) or Melbourne (40 miles south). Admission to the space center is $41 for adults, $31 for children 3-11. A basic bus tour is included. Additional, longer tours are available for $21. The "Lunch With an Astronaut" program costs $22.99 per adult and $15.99 for children.
More information: kennedyspacecenter.com and space-coast.com.