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Find space on Earth on the ultimate alien road trip



W With Richard Branson claiming to be "terribly close" to taking passengers into space, and Elon Musk driving Boeing to Mars, space travel is back on the agenda and I get a taste on which Nasa calls the multi-axis trainer or MAT. This thrilling ride for would-be astronauts is guaranteed to get your head moving. Turned upside down, I now regretted my breakfast with waffles and maple syrup every turn.

Astronauts use the spherical machine to prepare themselves for fall rotations when reentering the Earth's atmosphere. Strapped into a seat in the middle of the device, I now understand why the men and women who travel to infinity and beyond are truly the best of the best.

MAT is just part of the Astronaut Training Experience (ATX) at Kennedy Space Center, Florida (£ 39 admission). It offers ground riders like myself the chance to test some of the tiring tests that make real astronauts on their way to zero gravity.

MAT offers laypersons a chance to re-enter space

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SYSTEM

The half-day program costs £ 110, including a ride in a shuttle simulator and a micro-gravity harness – a thrilling foretaste of the candidates of the successful BBC series Astronauts: Do you have what it takes?

For real astronauts like Sam Durrance, that would have been just another day in the office. The scientist spent 25 days in space on two missions in the International Space Station. Now he is one of eight former astronauts who meet and greet ATX visitors.

A Lamborghini is a way to travel to US space centers


SYSTEM

Durrance has degrees in physics and astro-physics, so what are the most common questions? "They want to know how we go to the bathroom in outer space – and how the food tastes – none of the answers is very edifying."

Durrance and his NASA colleagues take turns having an astronaut event during their daily lunch to appear, which costs £ 22 per person at Kennedy. The buffet is a chance to meet a real space hero, though it is advisable to book at least a week in advance.

Otherwise, Kennedy's latest attraction is Heroes & Legends, which revives the pioneering days of space travel. A 4D cinema brings the lift-off experience to life, and visitors can stand within an arm's length of a Gemini 9 capsule.

An eerie Redstone rocket – America's first ballistic missile – hangs from the ceiling, while right in front of the hall are just more spacecraft in the Rocket Garden. Time for a visit at dusk and the gigantic structures are spectacularly lit against the night sky.

Kennedy is the obvious launch pad for my drive south to find the best space-related tourist attractions in America. The road trip crosses seven states and ends in Flagstaff, Arizona – where astronauts drive the original moon buggy back to the Sixites.

If you think that space tourism is still in the starry sky, Nasa is already working on a mission to send two unnamed civilians around the moon next to Musk's SpaceX. Musk, the multi-billionaire behind PayPal and Tesla, wants to make space travel as easy as hopping on the plane.

A charred vintage space capsule

Credit:
SYSTEM

I timed my space travel with a rocket launch in Kennedy, but the mission has been delayed. Starts are visible from almost anywhere on the Florida Peninsula, details can be found on Kennedyspacecenter.com.

The concierge at the Ritz-Carlton Orlando did his best to explain the experience of a launch: "You can pump your heart's feeling – the thrust of the engines vibrates through the landscape, it's a Firebolt, the ground is shining move and then the flame flames into the sky. "

Fitting excited, I set out on the first leg of my journey. From Orlando, it's a nine-hour drive to the John C Stennis Space Center, a missile test base on the Mississippi-Louisiana border that originally served to develop the Apollo spacecraft.

I drove a Lamborghini Huracán, which I came closest to a road missile. It has air conditioning and cruise control, unlike the Corvette Stingrays, which allowed most astronauts to drive back in their sixties.

New Orleans is a good base to visit Stennis. It was late afternoon when I reached the Big Easy, but my cell phone was already busy with two distress alerts. The Flood was not long in coming. Soon, the I-10 motorway, which ran on stilts over the city, became a parking lot as the drivers sought refuge from the water below.

The exits to downtown around bustling Canal Street have been closed. I was near the Ritz-Carlton, where I was supposed to live, but even the city's trams were stuck in the flood. The locals seemed unimpressed by the storm, though it was clear that even after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, the flood defenses were still powerless against a severe flood.

The next day it took less than an hour to reach Stennis. The Infinity Science Center (£ 13 admission) is the official visitor complex and offers a pedagogical approach compared to Kennedy's Razzmatazz Theme Park. One leader confided that the best time to visit was a rocket engine test, although bad luck is because there is no official timetable.

Everything about the science center is great, including the power stage of a Saturn V rocket used to propel Apollo. Standing under the booster, it was hard to imagine that something as big as this would ever appear on the ground.

The exhibits and visitor's buildings are spread over a large area, so the center has taken a bus tour to the main attractions. Do not miss the Space Gallery, which features space suit technology – some look pretty weird, as if they came from the Jetsons.

Five hours later I arrived in Houston and the Buffalo Bayou was flooded. I was downtown in the Hotel Sam and did not know that the area would be devastated by Hurricane Harvey two weeks later. At the nearby Johnson Space Center, NASA's mission control controls flights from the 1,000-mile launch pad at the Kennedy Space Center.

A Saturn V rocket at the Johnson Space Center [19659006] Credit:
Getty

The Visitor Complex – Space Center Houston (£ 23) – offers an overwhelming array of attractions, all overshadowed by the 747 aircraft parked outside the park. The main foyer is also replete with interactive, interactive exhibits such as rocket and pendulum simulators.

Starship Gallery contains the command module Apollo 17, which is still scorched from its re-entry into the Earth's atmosphere. Another area includes a collection of lunar rocks, a lunar vehicle, and a full size Skylab training module.

The highlight of the visit was the opportunity to board the shuttle replica on the 747. I recommend that you go up the stairs via the eight-story access building. There is a lift if that sounds one step further.

Heading west through San Antonio and further along the Mexican border, even the landscape in this part of Texas felt a little space-age. The huge skylines and the desert-like desert have transformed the sand landscape into another world where little seems to survive the extreme heat.

That evening, at the V6 Coffee Bar in the relaxed Gage Hotel, in Marathon, I was told by strange lights that pop up over the desert in the neighboring town of Marfa. Everyone seemed to tell an alien story here.

As if to prove it, on the other side of the New Mexico border is the International UFO Museum (£ 3.50 admission). Roswell has been known for a flood of UFO sightings since 1947, when a strange, saucer-like shape appeared in the sky during a thunderstorm. Since then, the locals have adopted everything extraterrestrial – up to the old cinema, which transformed itself as a UFO museum. The building claims to be a UFO research center as well, but some of the exhibits come directly from a fifties science fiction film.

The next day, on my way to El Paso, I visited the McDonald Observatory, near Fort Davis. In the wild backwaters of Texas, the dome-like structures looked like they could have landed from outer space.

The Weekly Star Parties (£ 10) are very popular and offer an educational tour of the galaxy. There is limited space for these evening events, so book in advance at mcdonaldobservatory.org to avoid a wasted trip.

If you've ever wanted to see a constellation up close, this is the place to go. Just a glimpse of the Moon's surface through the vast Ritchey-Chrétien telescope left me in awe of what these incredible machines can do.

The last 800-mile drive west on the busy I-10 took two days. Temperatures exceeded 104F (40C) and the road often disappeared in an illusion caused by the heat haze. My final destination was Arizona – and with good reason.

The rocky landscape in front of my window in the Phoenician hotel near Phoenix was a clue to it. Near Flagstaff is the road where Nasa turned an old volcano into an astronaut training in 1967 to test the original Moon Rover.

Thousands of tons of explosives were used to reconstruct the craters of the Tranquility Sea site, where Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin would make their historic landing two years later. NASA used satellite imagery of the moon itself to get the terrain right at Cinder Lake – though most of the landscape is naturally lunar to me.

I was disappointed as the Crater Field 2 site is now overrun and destroyed by quad bikers. A little further into the desert, however, I found the crater field 1. Far away from Highway 89, it has survived the test of time and could easily double for the lunar surface.

Crater 1 where astronauts have trained before a trip to the moon

Credit:
NIKOLAS_JKD

The footprints of astronauts trained here during the Apollo era are long gone. Under my feet, the porous volcanic gravel crunched like oversized grains of sand. But unlike sand, the shape of the hole remained intact when I stepped into one of the craters.

Only a handful of the 12 men who walked on the lunar surface are still alive today – Armstrong himself died in 2012 Maybe one day the boot lanes on the Moon's surface will be the ultimate destination for space tourists?

Durrance believes that we are only a few decades away from passenger flights to the Moon: "Absolutely, we had the technology 50 years ago, and the commercial missiles we see in the sky are well advanced Adventure.

"Obviously, there is nothing like space on earth. I'm too old to go back, but what I experienced above will live with me forever.

Essentials

Hayes & Jarvis (hayesandjarvis.co.uk) offers a 13-day US trip from Orlando to Phoenix for just £ 2,195 per person. This offer includes "standard" car hire and international flights from Gatwick with British Airways.

A Lamborghini rented from Orland Exotic Car Rentals (orlandoexoticcarrentals.com) will cost you more – from £ 1,160 per day.


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