CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — Suddenly, you are Alan Shepard, standing at the base of a rocket that will soon loft you into history as America's first astronaut to launch into space.
As you look up at the Mercury-Redstone, raising your hand to block the glare from nearby spotlights, you realize that the rocket now in front of you is almost identical to the one you saw just minutes earlier as you proceeded up the rampway to enter this place.
Only, the rocket that you saw outside was real; the one here is projected onto a 4D theater screen, curving above, below and to both of your sides. [Like 'Don Draper in a Spacesuit': Q&A With Alan Shepard Biographer Neal Thompson]
The experience, one of several first-person views that virtually places you into the shoes of some of most famous astronauts in U.S. history, is found inside "Heroes & Legends," the new attraction opening on Friday (Nov. 11) at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex in Florida. The "Through the Eyes of a Hero" 4D theater is one of three galleries — in addition to the U.S. Astronaut Hall of Fame — that is designed to introduce guests to NASA's early spaceflight pioneers.
"With all the drama of an actual trip to space, guests of the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex in Florida will be greeted with a dramatic sense of arrival with the new Heroes & Legends, featuring the U.S. Astronaut Hall of Fame, presented by Boeing," the complex stated in a release. "Positioned just inside the entrance, the attraction sets the stage for a richer park experience by providing the emotional background and context for space exploration and the legendary men and women who pioneered our journey into space." [Photo Gallery: Astronauts' Adventures Come Alive in 'Heroes & Legends']
Blending the real and recreated
That the Mercury-Redstone scene in "Through the Eyes of a Hero" comes across as real is because it is.
"That opening scene was filmed on the actual launch pad," said Cecil Magpuri, the president and chief creative officer of Falcon's Treehouse, a themed entertainment design company, which created Heroes & Legends for NASA. "So on site, real and authentic, we chose the exact time of day [as the real 1961 launch] and what ever things were not there any more, we put in using CGI and synchronized the lensing to match perfectly."
That blending of real sights with recreated history is present throughout Heroes & Legends.
In the new attraction's opening experience, "What is a Hero?", guests enter a 360-degree discovery bay where real artifacts — like the boyhood bicycle of space shuttle astronaut, and now Kennedy Space Center director, Bob Cabana — are revealed as part of a multimedia presentation that examines who the public identifies today as heroes and who the astronauts have held as their own role models.
And guests come face to face with another real Mercury-Redstone, among more than 100 other artifacts, as part of "A Hero Is...", the main exhibit hall in Heroes & Legends. Nine interactive stations showcase the memorabilia and attributes of the history-making astronauts, from courage and tenacity to curiosity and confidence.
It is within "A Hero Is..." that the public can also step up to NASA's original Mission Control as it was the day that John Glenn became the first American to orbit Earth and, through a holographic display, watch Gene Cernan as he spacewalks outside the actual Gemini 9 space capsule, on display just a few feet in front of them.
"We put the pressure on ourselves to be 100 percent accurate because we know astronauts are going to be coming through here and would call us out on it," said Magpuri.
Posing alongside heroes
Heroes & Legends' culminating exhibit is the new U.S. Astronaut Hall of Fame.
Established in 1990 by the surviving members of NASA's original seven Mercury astronauts, the Hall of Fame today celebrates the achievements of 93 veterans of the Mercury, Gemini, Apollo, Skylab and space shuttle programs.
In Heroes & Legends, visitors meet the inductees inside a rotunda that features a statue of Alan Shepard and backlit glass plaques for each of the astronauts. Touch screens enable guests to learn more about each member of the Hall of Fame, as well as arrange a special photo opportunity with a member of the Mercury 7.
"Overall, I think it's a fascinating new facility," said astronaut Jerry Ross, who was inducted into the Hall in 2014 and who shares the record for the most flights into space at seven. "I think the fact that it is here really adds a lot to the likelihood that people get a much better opportunity to see and appreciate what has happened in our space program over the years."
See more photos from Heroes & Legends at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex at collectSPACE.