Today, Kennedy Space Center is an odd place, not so much changed in aesthetics from the days of Apollo, when, as the author Craig Nelson has written, anyone attending a launch expecting “a Tomorrowland of PeopleMovers and personal jet packs” arrived to find “a scattering of utilitarian 1960s office buildings, generic assembly factories, and sheds made from slabs of concrete topped with corrugated metal, set against an outback of pine, scrub, and palm.” About 8,500 people work there, down from a shuttle-era high of 13,000. But the funeral dirges seemed to have sounded prematurely. In fact, NASA may be emerging from all this leaner, more nimble, and—crucially—more sustainable. The Vehicle Assembly Building is humming with activity, being reconfigured to handle a host of possible commercial crafts coming online, as well as nasa’s Space Launch System—intended to ferry astronauts beyond orbit and into deep space—whose development is said to be running ahead of schedule, with test flights slated for 2017. Assembly of a deep-space capsule, called Orion, is continuing nearby, and launchpads are being retrofitted. (This is to say nothing of nasa’s ongoing unmanned programs—Voyager, the Hubble telescope, the Mars rovers—which many scientists consider to be of vastly greater consequence.) Several new companies have cropped up along the Space Coast, including an outpost of XCOR and a company called Rocket Crafters Inc. There is a sign placed prominently in a KSC field advertising SPACE AVAILABLE.
At the retiring of the Atlantis last fall, I spoke with two middle-aged engineers who were watching the procession next to me. Jack Hoffman had been at Kennedy from 1965 until his retirement in 1996; Mark Wollam had been at NASA since 1988. Like everyone I spoke with, they used the word “bittersweet” to describe their feelings. They said everyone at KSC knew the shuttle program would end soon after the Columbia disaster, a decision they did not necessarily oppose, given how long the shuttles had flown. Still, they were critical of NASA’s recent decisions. “I think what the space program needs, and I’m not sure how they’re going to get it, is a more defined goal that’s publicly supported,” Bill said. “Like the moon landing—the moon landing was the idea.” Mark elaborated: “The thing is,” he said, “if we don’t do something, there will be Chinese astronauts on the moon making colonies. We will be left behind.”
I heard this same refrain the following night, at the 40th anniversary reception for the Apollo 17, where ten members of the moon-landing program sat on a stage and reminisced. Dick Gordon of Apollo 12 described the harrowing experience of the Saturn V rocket being hit by lightning seconds into flight, so that Houston lost a chunk of its electrical data until a novel reboot could be figured out on the fly. Fred Haise of Apollo 13, the ill-fated flight that suffered an explosion en route to the moon, noted that he never felt safe until the capsule had splashed back into one of Earth’s roiling oceans, and “the two chutes are open, and you look out the window, and you knew you were probably going to be okay.” The astronauts mourned the death of Armstrong and paid homage to the three friends they lost on the launchpad in Apollo 1. This was what spaceflight was for them: novel, heroic, dangerous, utterly unpredictable. They were pioneers, part of the most exclusive club in history, and few were supportive of the most recent developments in space exploration, with billionaires building their own space agencies and regular, overweight people whose piloting experience is limited to driving BMWs ponying up to become astronauts.
There is one notable exception: Buzz Aldrin, who followed Armstrong out the hatch of a module with aluminum-foil walls to become the second human being to stand atop this windless, soundless surface, and who has spent the majority of his time back on Earth in the public eye. At the astronaut dinner, Aldrin spoke very little, most memorably asking his young date to stand up, saying, “Isn’t she beautiful?” But he has otherwise been almost ubiquitous. He has co-written eight books, two of them memoirs detailing his alcoholism and depression, and appeared in several television commercials. He was on Dancing With the Stars in 2010. He lives in Los Angeles and socializes with other celebrities; news of his recent divorce from his third wife, Lois, appeared first on TMZ. In January, Aldrin was introduced as a spokesperson for Axe body spray’s new line of products, to be called Apollo, tied to the Axe Apollo Space Academy; the campaign will include a sweepstakes that will take 22 Axe users to space aboard the Lynx, in 2014, launching from an island off the Venezuelan coast.