Now that rockets are launching almost every week, there is renewed interest in the US space program. People line the beaches and highways in the Kennedy Space Center area of Florida to watch rockets launch from Pads 39A and 39B, and the adjoining pads at Canaveral Space Force Base.
The crowds aren’t as big as they were during the days of the Space Shuttle and Apollo, but the best viewing spots can get a bit crowded, so plan to arrive early. The best view is from the public parks along US 1 in Titusville. This is directly across the Indian River Lagoon from the launch towers.
For an up-close, hands-on experience with the space program, large crowds head to the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex. This is a great experience to share with children and grandchildren. When you go, try to be there by 10am when it opens. And buy your tickets in advance, online. Otherwise, tickets can be purchased at the self-service kiosks near the entrance.
Note: Security at the complex is tight. Backpacks and handbags are searched. Guests are encouraged to observe social distancing, but that doesn’t seem to be observed in the queues at various exhibits.
Enjoy an immersive experience and learn about the past, present and future of NASA. From man’s first walk on the moon to iconic shuttle launches, here are 15 experiences at the Kennedy Space Center.
1. Apollo Moon Exposure
Quick tip up front: If you want to see the Apollo/Saturn V exhibit, go to the check-in station right away and choose the time you want to go. The exhibit is in another area of the space center and you must make a reservation for a shuttle bus to take you there. It’s on a first-come, first-served basis, and they book up quickly. Allow an hour and a half for the display, including driving time.
The Apollo/Saturn V complex is located within the confines of the actual Kennedy Space Center, several miles from the visitor complex. It features exhibits from the Apollo moon landing missions. You have the opportunity to walk on a simulated dusty lunar surface and touch a real moon rock.
2. They call it a rocket garden.
One of the first things you see when you enter the visitor complex is the Rocket Garden, with many models of the rockets NASA has used over the years. Walk around in awe of its size, especially the Saturn, which sent astronauts to the moon during the Apollo program in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
3. See the heroes of American space flight
Also near the entrance, next to the Rocket Garden, is the Heroes and Legends exhibit and the Astronauts Hall of Fame. Everything is in the same building. The exhibit features a video and mixed-media presentation recounting the highlights of NASA’s early manned space efforts. From there, enter the Hall of Fame, which features photos and biographies of the greatest American astronauts from the Mercury, Gemini, Apollo, and Space Shuttle eras.
4. It all started with the Mercury program
There is a mock-up of the mission control center from the original Mercury program. It seems small and technically outdated compared to the big control centers now at Kennedy and the Johnson Space Center in Houston. Keep in mind that the Mercury program was 60 years ago. A lot has changed since then.
5. The American Ferry Experience
The star of the show at the visitor complex is the space shuttle Atlantis exhibit. At the entrance is a full-scale model of the rocket and external fuel tank used to launch shuttles into space. Inside, there is a giant screen video about the shuttle program. And let NASA skimp on the details: The film includes the double blast of sonic booms the shuttle always did upon landing. At the end of the film, the doors open to a display room that houses the retired shuttle Atlantis. It’s a breathtaking sight that makes you wonder, How the heck did they ever get something that big out of the ground and into space??
For the record, Atlantis is 122 feet long, 57 feet tall, and has a wingspan of 78 feet. The whole thing weighed 4.5 million pounds at liftoff. Wow!
Kids are thrilled to sit in a mockup of a real space shuttle cockpit in the Atlantis building. It is a great opportunity to take photos. Other photo ops around the complex have models of different space capsules that kids can climb into to take pictures. Even some adults can’t pass up the opportunity.
Also for the kids, Planet Play is a high-tech arcade with space-themed video games and interactive games.
6. Get a taste of the actual shuttle launch
Once you’re done admiring Atlantis, you’ll have the chance to get excited about the Shuttle Launch Experience, a simulation of an actual shuttle liftoff. You’re strapped into your seat and there’s a simulation of the actual jolts and G-forces experienced by astronauts during a launch. The simulator has a warning for people who may experience motion sickness, but really, it’s not that bad, just a bit of a shake and bake – fun for everyone.
7. Astronaut photo opportunity
A special treat for children is the opportunity to have their photo taken with an astronaut in a spacesuit. This takes place at the entrance to the Space Shop, and the astronaut is there every hour to pose for photos. No, it’s not a real astronaut, but it’s fun and a great photo opportunity nonetheless.
8. What is it without NASA memorabilia?
The Space Shop is the resort’s official gift shop. You’ll find t-shirts, jackets, model rockets and shuttles, and coffee mugs—all sorts of fun things for people of all ages. The store has two floors, with most children’s sizes on the second floor. It’s best to make this your last stop of the day so you don’t have to carry your packages all day.
9. The IMAX experience
The IMAX theater has movies that are in 3D in addition to the giant screen. The main IMAX movie changes from time to time. On my visit, the IMAX was a new movie about asteroid hunters. It’s about 40 minutes long and the surround sound and IMAX experiences are impressive. There is also a shorter IMAX movie, Trip to spacewhich is a permanent feature film.
10. In memory of our space explorers
On a solemn note, take some time to visit the Space Mirror Memorial. The tall mirror contains the names of all NASA astronauts who have died in mission-related accidents over the years. This includes the crews of the space shuttles Challenger and Columbia, and the Apollo 1 launch pad. There are also brass commemorative plaques engraved with the images and names of deceased astronaut crews.
11. The Mars Experience
The Journey To Mars exhibit is certainly timely. It includes a multimedia presentation on the missions to the Red Planet, and there are scale models of the Mars rovers and a prototype model of what a future manned rover might look like. There are interactive games and simulators for you to test your skills to become a Mars explorer.
12. Explore the universe
Northrop Grumman’s Universe Theater takes you through the known history of the universe, some 13.4 billion years, and explores the skies with images from the Hubble Space Telescope. It uses 3D and 4K resolution images for deep space exploration through Hubble. There is also an exhibit for NASA’s James Webb Telescope, which is now in deep space and will be Hubble’s future replacement. Grumman is the prime contractor for the new telescope.
13. Fuel for the space crew
There are several food options around the complex. The Orbit Cafe is the main cafe, offering pizza and burgers. There are also salads. The Planet Play Lounge is more for adults, with beer and wine. The Milky Way offers handmade ice cream, and Space Dots has novelty creams and sprinkles for the youngsters.
14. The spinning globe
The Constellation Plaza is centrally located near the Atlantis exhibit. It features a heavy rotating globe with diagrams of the constellations. The balloon floats on top of the water and rotates with the pressure of the water, which is nothing more than the pressure you get from a garden hose.
15. Train like an astronaut
The astronaut training experience is an additional $175 and must be reserved in advance. It allows guests to train, work and live in a simulation of what the real Mars experience would be like. Training sessions last 4-5 hours and include realistic simulations of launching, landing and walking on Mars.
- The complex is open daily from 10 am to 5 pm If you plan to visit all the exhibits, the IMAX movies, and the Apollo/Saturn V tour, it’s a full day.
- Your best bet is to purchase tickets online before your visit. Once you are in the complex, there are no additional charges for the exhibits.
- If you’re traveling with Fido, no problem. There is a free air-conditioned pet kennel near the parking lot as you enter the community.
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