Arts & culture

Rocket Man

By Cheryl Caira

It was touchdown followed by a rapt audience at Glasgow’s Barrhead Travel, as former NASA astronaut Brian Duffy described his stellar experiences. A veteran of four space shuttle missions and the 267th human ever to be in space, Duffy spent more than 40 days in orbit and was inducted into the US Astronaut Hall of Fame last year. With a passion for education, the veteran pilot and commander has now set his focus on touring schools to inspire the next generation of space explorers, while encouraging travellers to incorporate the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex into their trips to Florida.

“The center is a very special place. I’ll always love it because it’s where I went to leave the planet,” says Duffy. “It’s a great educational venue. Attractions like the space shuttle Atlantis are so much more than a display – it’s an experience. People can see up close and personal what the launch was like, and then gradually and dramatically, the space shuttle itself. It’s very dear to my heart because I flew Atlantis on my first flight into space, so when I look up and see my window, I have a lot of memories of floating and eating dinner, watching the world go by.”

Photo credit: Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex

Despite being meticulously trained in what lay ahead, space brought some surprises. “The beauty of the earth when you look back at it was more than I expected. It’s fabulous. Before you launch you know what part of the earth is going to be in daylight, and [in orbit] you’re going around the earth every 45 minutes, so you’re on the light side, then 45 minutes later you’re on the dark side.” There were also challenging moments. On Duffy’s final flight, the shuttle’s radar system broke the day before a planned docking and rendezvous with the international space station.

“For a normal rendezvous, you use a radar system to tell you how far away you are and how fast you’re closing in. Doing a no-radar rendezvous was a little tougher than I expected. It was successful, but I had probably the worst headache I’ve ever experienced in my life when it was over.”

With rocket company Space X announcing plans to fly two space tourists around the moon in 2018 and Virgin Galatic also lining up sub-orbital flights for commercial travel, space adventuring for people other than astronauts or multimillionaires could become reality over the next few decades rather than fantasy. “Space tourism is way in the future, but it’ll happen. I’m sure of it,” says Duffy.

Heading to the Visitor Complex at the Kennedy Space Center is a pretty impressive way to take in the human story of space – past, present and future. Situated 45 minutes from Orlando at Cape Canaveral, the state-of-the-art venue, on site at NASA’s primary launch location, has a multitude of attractions to explore. There’s the spectacle that is the 363-foot Saturn V rocket – the biggest rocket ever flown through space – as well as the Rocket Garden of past engineering feats. You also have the opportunity to meet an astronaut and quiz them on space, tour NASA’s Launch Control Center and of course, experience an eight-and-a-half-minute simulation of what it’s like to be launched into orbit. ‘The Journey To Mars: Explorers Wanted’ is a look at NASA’s plans to reach deep space, including sending humans to the Red Planet by the 2030s. We’ve seen astronauts walk on the moon, but preparation for the ‘Mars generation’ of potential explorers is nearing mission accomplished.