Last week I took my first trip to the Kennedy Space Center in Titusville, Florida; which is a few hours from where I live in the Tampa Bay Area. My earliest astronomy memories involve Starlab, a giant inflatable contraption that appeared in the elementary school gym once per year that contained a star chart. Once I moved past the horrendous smell of feet due to everyone needing to remove their shoes; I found learning the constellations and the stories behind them fascinating, much more so than the actual science. Call me crazy, but the Chandrasekhar limit doesn’t exactly get me all hot and bothered. However, I do find the idea of space exploration fascinating and I enjoy learning about the technology, so I was excited to finally visit the space center. Little did I know, the space aspect would quickly take a back seat to the colorful cast of characters employed at the center.
Upon purchasing the tickets, we asked about the attractions at the center. One of the members of our group holds an annual pass and, upon receiving this inquiry, the woman looked the pass holder and bluntly asked “Aren’t you going to show them around?” After an awkward pause I realized she was serious. My significant other Monique and I could not help but laugh, and as a result I missed most of the lady’s cursory explanation. Although given her enthusiasm, I doubt this was a big sacrifice.
Our first stop after getting through the long security line was the Heroes and Legends building highlighting the astronauts themselves. The building housed two 10-15 minute films, neither of which provided seating. This was a recurring theme throughout the day, which I found quite interesting. I know NASA has been through some budget cuts, but when you are charging $60+ for admission to a visitor’s center I thought some chairs might be in the budget. Or maybe the architect was a big Groucho Marx fans and really thought that by having a standing army we save money on chairs. What was even more interesting was that one of the movies was in 3D and could have easily induced motion sickness. Something tells me the chairs might be a little cheaper than the impending law suit, but who am I to question the folks that put a man on the moon?
Upon exiting this exhibit we took a tour of the rocket garden, which showcased a number of the rockets that propelled the astronauts into space. The tour was led by a man that looked like Jack Coleman wearing Charlie Sheen’s black horn rimmed glasses from Major League. With that being said he was probably the most knowledgeable member of the staff I encountered on the visit.
After the tour lunch was in order, so we proceeded to the nearby cafe. The ordering system was touch screen but a worker was also present for assistance and cash transactions. It was a good thing because the touch screens had the accuracy and responsiveness of a Palm Pilot on methadone. What should have taken a minute or two ended up taking over 15 minutes as the employee had to complete the transaction on her register. From what I can tell these machines successfully eliminated one employee but also probably cut the revenue by about 50%, which seems logical.
Houston, we have a problem.
After lunch the 45 minute bus tour was next on the list. This tour takes you around the campus to see the launch pads where the missions launched from, and where companies like SpaceX are currently launching their rockets. As the comedy of errors continued, our tour guide got herself trapped in a parking lot. After seeing her usual exit was coned off, she chose to go behind a building instead of turning right one parking lot row sooner (the only row not blocked off) to make a clear exit. The road behind the building was also coned off. She handled it well by exclaiming over the intercom “They didn’t tell me this was blocked off. I’m not sure what we are going to do.” I see an air traffic control job in her future. Fortunately there were a couple guys outside that saw our bus and proceeded to move the cones for her.
The content of the bus driver’s spiel was full of great information, but mostly about the local flora and fauna. It was a good thing too, because the folks on the tour were far more interested in spotting turtles and alligators. In fact, the only thing that made people jump up to take pictures was a diamondback snake that was in the center of the road. The highlight of the tour was our guide telling us “Those building over there are brand new…but I don’t know what they are for.” Upon hearing this Monique and I looked at each other and burst into uncontrollable laughter (Click for Monique’s account of the trip). We looked around to find nobody else on the bus laughing. Apparently this sort of incompetence is just expected these days. I mean after all, it’s not like a tour guide only has one job. Oh wait…
The bus tour ends at the Platform 39B, where the Apollo missions launched. After touring this facility we were bused back to the main visitor’s center, where we ended our day. Prior to leaving, a member of our party wanted to voice their concerns about the overall experience. We were offered complimentary admission in the future and given a card for free ice cream which read “unhappy customer”. We walked to the ice cream stand to find Blue from Old School waiting for us, although the years of crystal meth hadn’t been so kind to his teeth.
He was reluctant to give us three free servings of ice cream, and quickly informed us that our choices were chocolate, vanilla, or mixed. Any other toppings would be extra. After asking each of us a snarky “what do you want?” he went on to chastise a member of our group for using their phone. The reason for this was because he is unable to use his phone at work, it is rude for patrons to do so. The three of us were speechless given the rudeness and absurdity of such a statement. Not to mention the fact that we were receiving this ice cream due to a poor experience. How someone with such a demeanor landed a job in customer service is mind boggling. I did not think someone could ruin free ice cream, but he managed to. It was actually a feat almost as miraculous as space travel. Almost. I am not one to complain, but let him know that I would be letting the center know about this behavior.
As we wandered out of The Twilight Zone and to the parking lot, I could not help but laugh. Given the rigorous training that astronauts go through along with the stringent selection criteria, it is ironic that the visitor’s center offers this kind of customer service. The space center has numerous gift shops selling “The Right Stuff”, perhaps someday an employee will read it; or at least watch the movie.