Space program's history plays on 'virtual stage'

Susan Jacobson | Orlando Sentinel Staff Writer
Posted September 5, 2006

Alice Kramer remembers high-school history as a bit of a snooze: dull lists of names and dates that she memorized out of a book.

Through an online virtual-reality project, however, the University of Central Florida graduate student has breathed life into the lessons of the past.

Instead of imagining what the U.S. space program was like in the 1960s, visitors to "Shadows of Canaveral" at capehistory.org can experience it firsthand.

"It interested me to bring history into the virtual stage because everybody knows about history through books and pictures and TV shows, but I think this is the next step," said Kramer, 23. With the help of three teachers, she and five other students spent nearly a year launching the site as a senior project.

It began operating in August.

The project was designed to teach students research skills, facts about the era and digital-media skills, said Lori Walters, a research associate with the UCF Institute for Simulation and Training and the college's history department.

The site is aimed at anyone who wants to learn more about the history of the Space Coast and the space program.

"Shadows of Canaveral" was financed with a $25,000 grant from the Florida Bureau of Historic Preservation. It focuses on the Feb. 20, 1962, space launch that made John Glenn the first U.S. astronaut to orbit Earth.

Kramer said she was surprised to learn about the level of interest the general public had in space travel 40 years ago.

"Now it's like, 'The shuttle goes up, no big deal,' " she said. "Back then, it was a huge deal."

While reviewing old photos and blueprints, the students learned about everyday items that older folks take for granted: rotary phones, Look magazine and cigarette ads featuring prominent people smoking. Among the explanations on the site: "Before the laptop computer, reporters clanked out their stories on portable manual typewriters."

The site allows visitors to tour the Cape through a reporter who has come to cover the launch. By clicking on his notebook, they can navigate a hotel room at the now-defunct Starlite motel in Cocoa Beach, visit NASA's Mission Control and see the press area.

Home movies shot in 8mm showed footage of Glenn and others from the time.

While a brick-and-mortar museum would have been impractical -- if not impossible -- the Web site allows anyone with Internet access to take a peek.

"It makes it totally democratic," Walters said.

The site is meant to enhance the information in history books, not replace it, said Michelle Adams, a UCF history instructor who also worked on the project. Ultimately, the point is to preserve history.

"It will be gone physically," said Eileen Smith, a research associate with the Institute for Simulation and Training and an instructor with the School of Film and Digital Media. "We want to make sure it's not gone in your memory."

Susan Jacobson can be reached at sjacobson@orlandosentinel.com or 386-851-7903.