One of the two men responsible for my first trip to Orlando, Fla., 16 years ago was James B. Irwin. He's a clergyman now and for several years has been leading a team all over eastern Turkey in the area of Mt. Ararat, trying to find traces of Noah's Ark.
But when I met him in 1970, he was gearing up for another distant voyage. Jim was getting ready to go to the moon.
In those days, I was an executive at a Las Vegas hotel, where I met astronaut Irwin and his moon-bound traveling companion, David R. Scott. The National Aeronautic and Space Agency (NASA) thought the stark, arid desert of nearby Death Valley bore a substantial similarity to the surface of the moon, so that's where they sent their astronauts to practice walking, picking up rock samples and survival.
When their training period was completed, the two men elected to remain in Las Vegas for a few days. I escorted them around town and showed them the sights. They, in turn, invited me to go to the Kennedy Space Center on the Florida coast to watch the launch of Apollo 15, which was to take Scott, Irwin and Alfred M. Worden moonward.
Thus, it was on the bright morning of July 26, 1971, at the Kennedy Space Center that I awaited the launch of Apollo 15. The countdown began. Then with a magnificent roar, the mighty Saturn V rocket lifted off the pad and gathered speed as it headed into the cloudless sky to send the lunar module on its long journey to the moon.
Something else was scheduled for launching near Orlando in 1971. Because I had the rest of that day free and an inquisitive nature, I drove to a Preview Center theater where I watched a group of cleverly animated bears present a show entitled "Country Bear Jamboree."
In music and verse, the bears told of Walt Disney World, a vast entertainment complex that was scheduled to open near Orlando later that year. So impressed was I by the performance of the country bears and the story they had to tell that I pledged to return as soon after the opening as possible.
Walt Disney World in Florida opened on schedule, but it was only recently that I finally made good on my vow to return. The Disney folks had wrought wonders within the perimeters of their modest 28,000 acres wherein lie the Magic Kingdom along with EPCOT, the Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow, which gives us a look at what our life styles may be like.
Aside from the miracle created with more than $2 billion and 43 square miles of pristine land, the Disney company exerted significant influence on the spawning in nearby communities of hotels, motels and shopping centers, a meandering network of freeways, a plethora of restaurants and fast-food outlets, several dozen satellite tourist attractions and unlimited opportunities for the purchase of T-shirts.
Predating the spectacle of EPCOT and the Magic Kingdom there was already bustling activity a few miles to the east along the Atlantic shore. Even then Orlando had earned its place in history because of the nearby John F. Kennedy Space Center, which had been carved out of thousands of acres of marsh in the early 1960s to serve as the launching site for the Apollo program of manned explorations to the moon. It was one of these Apollo rocket launches that I had been privileged to witness in 1971.
Like Walt Disney World, the Kennedy Space Center had undergone marked changes since my last visit. Spaceport USA, the KSC Visitor Center, ranks as one of the most popular tourist attractions in the United States, hosting more than 2 million visitors each year.
Aside from the fact that admission to the Spaceport USA grounds, exhibits and briefings is free, the complex tells the impressive story of America's ventures into space, beginning with Explorer I, the first U.S. satellite launched in 1958 up through the current space shuttle program.
The grounds and buildings of the Space Center display a large number of space vehicles as well as full-size mock-ups of others. Two theaters featuring space movies and a guided tour of the center are free. A two-hour double-decker bus tour, including the Space Shuttle launch area, requires a modest admission charge as does a 40-minute film that provides an insider's view of the Space Shuttle program, presented on a five-story IMAX screen. The entire complex and its theaters, exhibits and displays are a proud and stirring educational experience.
The Kennedy Space Center is the focal point of the Space Coast, a rapidly developing 70-mile stretch of coastal communities and beaches in East-Central Florida. Within a few hour's driving time, in addition to EPCOT and the Magic Kingdom, visitors can also enjoy Sea World, with its trained killer whales; Wet 'n' Wild, comprised of man-made rivers, surf, lakes and all manner of water sports, and Circus World, a permanent version of the Big Top, with rides, attractions, shops and restaurants.