Like Nowhere Else on Earth
If there was an eighth wonder of the world, some might argue it could be Kennedy Space Center, the launch capital of the United States.
Where else on Earth have so many kings, queens, presidents, heads of state, politicians, movie stars, musicians and everyday people stared in awe at the vehicles that soar into space?
Visitors to Kennedy Space Center have numbered in the tens of millions throughout the 45 years the center has served the nation's space program.
Image left: President John F. Kennedy steps off of Air Force One to tour the Launch Complex 37 facilities. Photo credit NASA/KSC + View Larger Image
During those years, many distinguished visitors and VIPs have been given a "red carpet" tour of the center.
President John F. Kennedy was the first dignitary to visit the center in 1962. Since then, the Kennedy guest book has read like a "who's who" of the world. Other U.S. presidential visits to Kennedy included Lyndon Johnson, Jimmy Carter, George Bush Sr. and Bill Clinton.
First Lady Laura Bush witnessed the historic launch of Space Shuttle Discovery on return-to-flight mission STS-114 in July 2004. She is only the third First Lady to attend a shuttle launch. More recently, Vice President Dick Cheney was on hand in July 2006 to view the first attempt of the STS-121 launch.
Kennedy has hosted tours and events for musicians like Jerry Vale, Gary "U.S." Bonds, the 5th Dimension, Paul Revere and the Raiders, Donny Osmond and Aerosmith.
Image right: In 1992, as the nation celebrated its 500th anniversary of the discovery of America, replicas of Christopher Columbus' ships, the Nina, Pinta and Santa Maria, sailed by Space Shuttle Endeavour while the vehicle was poised on Pad 39B for liftoff on its maiden voyage. Photo credit NASA/KSC + View Larger Image
Manny Virata, who leads media projects for Kennedy Public Affairs, has escorted hundreds of notables in his 30-plus years with NASA. "Singer Jerry Vale was in awe of the space center after finding out what we did here," said Virata. "Vale eventually became good friends with astronaut Gene Cernan."
John Denver was a "space nut" who came to many launches with his son Zack, Virata said.
Royalty included Emperor Haile Salassie I of Ethiopia, Prince Philip of England, Nehru of India, King Hussein of Jordan and Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands. The Saudi royal family was at Kennedy for the launch of Discovery on mission STS-51G in June 1985 to support family member Sultan Salman Abdulaziz Al-Saud. The sultan flew as a payload specialist representing the Arab Satellite Communications Organization.
John F. Kennedy Jr. attended a premiere of "From the Earth to the Moon," a 12-part miniseries created for HBO. The series was filmed in part on location at the center and highlighted NASA's Apollo program and the six successful moon missions.
Image left: John F. Kennedy Jr. greets invited guests at the HBO and Imagine Entertainment premiere held at Kennedy. Photo credit NASA/KSC + View Larger Image
Major television journalists including Walter Cronkite, Peter Jennings, Brian Williams, David Hartman, Charles Gibson and news anchors from around the world have traveled to Kennedy to report on the exciting launches and participate in special events held at the center.
Virata remembers touring race car drivers Ryan Newman and Jimmy Johnson. He said he showed them "our race car, which was the crawler (transporter)," and kidded them, "We get 38 feet per gallon." He remembers how much they enjoyed climbing all over the crawler.
Space-related movies like "Apollo 13," "Contact," "Space Cowboys," "Armageddon" and "The Right Stuff" brought film crews here. The fascinating activities at Kennedy enticed visits by celebrities such as Tom Hanks, Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, Warren Beatty, James Garner, Bruce Willis and Tommy Lee Jones, to name just a few.
"Hanks is a huge supporter of the space program," said Virata.
Image right: The Stanley Cup, won by the National Hockey League's Tampa Bay Lightning in June 2004, was brought to Kennedy Space Center by Tampa Bay general manager Jay Feaster. Manny Virata was proud to pose with the cup. Photo credit NASA/KSC + View Larger Image
Crews from the Discovery Channel and CNN are two of many that have come to Kennedy to film documentaries about the space program and the shuttle. Japanese, Italian, German, Swiss and Dutch TV crews have been at the center filming news stories or covering the launch of an astronaut from their country.
After 45 years, visitors to the space center, whether well-known or not, still leave with a keener understanding and deeper interest in the nation's space program.
Elaine M. Marconi
NASA's John F. Kennedy Space Center