By R. Norman Moody, FLORIDA TODAY
/ Published August 26, 2011
CAPE CANAVERAL AIR FORCE STATION, Fla. -- It was business as usual this week for about 3,000 employees working at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.
But for about a dozen people getting a free tour of the property - including a closeup view of a Delta II rocket on Launch Complex 17B, a climb to the fourth floor of the Cape Canaveral Lighthouse and visits to launch control rooms and blockhouses - their time on the base was special.
In an effort to connect with the many space fans who live in and visit Brevard County, Patrick Air Force Base's 45th Space Wing is now offering free tours of the Air Force station twice a week.
"This is new territory," said Kristen Klein- Nicholl, who snapped pictures of the old launch pad where Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee were killed in a fire in the Command Module during an Apollo I preflight test on Jan. 27, 1967.
Mrs. Klein-Nicholl lives at Patrick Air Force Base with her husband Matthew Nicholl, who is serving in the Coast Guard.
"I think it should be obligatory for everybody who lives here to embrace the history. It's the heart and soul of this place."
The three-hour public tours, which for several years had been run once a month, are now being conducted on Wednesdays and Thursdays. A third day could be added if the demand increases.
Brig. Gen. Ed Wilson, 45th Space Wing commander, is credited by many for making the tours more accessible. He said there has always been interest from the public in learning about the space program and the tours are one way of advancing that.
"We took a look at how we could show and tell the history of the Cape," he said after a ceremony at the lighthouse Aug. 18. The Cape Canaveral Lighthouse Foundation honored General Wilson for his support of the landmark, ironically coinciding with the tour group's stop there.
The tour, in an air-conditioned bus, starts at the Air Force Space and Missile History Center, just outside the south gate at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station and allows time for exploring different stops along the way.
General Wilson said cost to the Air Force is minimal, as the tours use existing buses and are guided by two civilian employees who also manage other duties at the base.
In addition, volunteers work the various stops.
"We're not trying to compete, but we're trying to show what's out here," General Wilson said, referencing another tour of the station. "We complement each other."
For a fee, Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex offers "Then and Now" historic tours to the Cape. Visitors pay $21 for the tour on top of $45.48 adult admission to KSC and visit the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo programs' launch sites, the Air Force Space and Missile Museum and the Apollo/Saturn V center on KSC property.
Andrea Farmer, spokeswoman for KSC visitor complex, said she, too, believes that the different tours complement each other. Both have some overlapping stops and seek to tell the story of space exploration.
"I think our goals are similar," Ms. Farmer said. "We're looking at different audiences, but telling a similar story."
Ira Isaacs, a financial strategist who lives part time on Merritt Island, said after the tour tthat he hopes to volunteer at the Space and Missile Museum after retiring.
"It really humanizes a lot of the history, the whole process and system," he said, adding that when he thinks about the Air Force now, "I'll think of the tour."
Air Force employees and tour guides Jill McCaffrey and Patrick Murphy, 45th Space Wing Public Affairs, captured the attention of those on the tour Aug. 18 as they explained some of the Cape's history and discussed the environment and the importance of upcoming launches.
The lighthouse was the main attraction for Sam Ortenzio, a 62-year-old cab driver from Harrisburg, Pa.
"This was the ultimate to-do," he said. "I did a lot of research. This was my interest here."
Mr. Ortenzio said he also wanted to get a flavor of the space program.
"I definitely wanted the history, too," he said.
James White of Brick, N.J., said his research paid off when he found out about the tour. He said he and his son, James White III, had already visited KSC and had seen a shuttle launch, but wanted to learn more about the space program and Cape Canaveral.
"I'm glad they finally put this together, and it fell right during the week we're here," he said as he looked over displays at the Space and Missile Museum. "I actually dreamt about being here, where I am right now."
Editor's note: For details about the public tour program, call 494-5945 or e-mail email@example.com.