|The VAB from 3.5 miles away.|
From a distance, NASA’s Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB), at Kennedy Space Center in Florida, doesn’t look so big. Even up close, it’s hard to comprehend that it’s the fourth-largest building by volume in the world. Yet the building was constructed to house the Apollo program: not just the astronauts’ capsules, but also the enormous Saturn V rockets that launched them into space.
Given the role it has played in the American space program, my wife and I were excited to learn that we could tour the VAB, now that the shuttles have been retired. We would only have this opportunity for a limited time, we were told. Once the Orion project gets into full swing, the VAB will be filled with new rockets, spaceships, and people, and it will be impossible for the ordinary person to tour it.
I soon realized that a tour through the VAB was not a tour through the VAB. Plastic cones and portable fencing limited our footsteps to a short, L-shaped section of floor floor. Security guards kept watch over us, just in case, driven mad by the immense structure, one of us made a wild dash across the open concrete floor. So we made an effort to ignore the guards, and their holstered weapons, as we listened to our guide’s words, and studied the signs and displays.
Still, the eyes tend to wander amid such vastness. Beyond the cones and plastic fencing, construction vehicles and supplies awaited their time of service. The building is sectioned off, so we couldn’t see the complete interior. Overhead, strange industrial cranes that had once pulled the space shuttle up, stood it vertical, and lifted it to a place where it could be worked on sat idle. Apparently, their operators had needed to take special care with the shuttles’ wings, as they only had inches of clearance in the VAB when the cranes hauled the great space planes around like one of those arcade game claws that grabs a stuffed animal. As we listened to our guide, workers entered and left the facility. Occasionally we heard a motor start up, and we would turn to watch an elevator merge with the vast grid-work above our heads.
A mockup of the new Orion capsule gave us a sense of the sheer magnitude of our surroundings. As a cluttered house disguises its true size, NASA’s Vehicle Assembly Building has so much moveable infrastructure that it’s difficult to take in how large it really is. I could only imagine what my days might be like, were I a worker in such a hive of activity. Then our guide led us out, and the guards followed in lockstep, ensuring that none of us were driven mad by an insatiable desire to actually tour the VAB.