Florida’s east coast is home to epicenter of man’s conquest of the great heavens: the John F. Kennedy Space Center, a NASA facility at Cape Canaveral. Millions of people every year go to Florida for an entirely different reason. Instead of enjoying the sun, they are setting their sights towards the stars. To the space-bound folks, it is known as the launch site for the Apollo and Space Shuttle missions, as well as the famous Skylab. To the regular tourists, it is the site of an exciting adventure, no matter what your interests are!
To Infinity and Beyond
The tourist complex of the Cape Canaveral facility is a remarkably well-curated space of exhibits and attractions. If you are expecting a backstage tour-type experience where you walk amidst a jumble of machinery and watch as the workers go about their jobs, you’d be pleasantly surprised. Sure, you get to see some things in action, but the entire facility felt more like Universal Studios or Disneyland than a place devoted to pushing the frontiers of human reach!
The place is divided into sections called “Mission Zones”. Each one is dedicated to a certain aspect of the complex, from the people who drove its development and achievements to NASA’s future plans.
Heroes and Legends
We know that Neil Armstrong was the first man to set foot on the moon, and the first man in space wasn’t even an American. But how about the rest? This zone stands as a memorial to these gallant souls, via the Astronaut Hall of Fame. For those looking for something more immersive, the Heroes & Legends exhibit takes you through the stories of the first space missions and the people behind them, all through glorious 4D. And for the ultimate up-close and personal experience, you can even go down to the Astronaut Encounter Theater to see real-life veteran astronauts, ask them questions, shake hands, and take a picture! While the name of the event sounds like it came right out of a zoo, there is something inherently amazing about seeing an astronaut in person, and to hear them talk about their experiences.
The zone also houses a few Instagram-perfect places, such as the massive rocket garden. This houses life-sized replicas of the various rockets launched through history, plus a guided tour of what they are and why they are significant. Other iconic places include the Kennedy Fountain (dedicated to the late President’s challenge to put man on the moon), the historic countdown clock that ticked down the seconds to a launch, and the official NASA insignia. While all the sights can make you hungry, there’s a cafe and food truck to perk you up.
Behind the Gates
This is the most backstage tour-like of all the zones, primarily because it is a backstage tour. While the actual workings and complicated rocket science bits are still off-limits, you can hop onto a tour bus and see actual facilities in action. Impending rocket launches affect the bus routes, so you may see different portions of the site (such as the prototype mobile launcher and the Vehicle Assembly system) during these days. There are also different bus tours that take you through different locations within the facility. If you really want to go further, you can purchase a Special Interest Tour that gives you access to even more exclusive areas!
Aside from the bus tour, you can also take a close-in look at the famed launch control center. You can also walk with the last launch director of Space Shuttle Atlantis, Mike Leinbach, and learn about the inside works of the NASA Space Shuttle program. This is an additional ticket, though, and costs $149. It’s a hefty price, yes, but if you’re a real space nerd, there’s no way you can miss this!
Race to the Moon
The word “Apollo” may be synonymous to “Moon Landing” in the minds of many, but there’s a full story behind it. This is the place to learn it all. The area is only accessible through the bus tour, and would take you through everything from a model of the Saturn V rocket and its various modules, to a Lunar Theater that shows the actual footage of the moon landing (updated in 3D!) to a collection of Apollo relics. You can also get access to the famed “Firing Room”, which directed the 1968 launch of the first crewed NASA moon orbit! The consoles in front of you won’t be replicas. They’re a part of space race history.
Shuttle: A Ship Like No Other
From the days of Apollo, move towards the era of the Space Shuttle as you see the actual Space Shuttle Atlantis. I know what you’re going to think first when you see this high-tech behemoth: “how do you even fly that thing?”. Well, you can get your answers with the zone’s training simulators! And for a real thrill ride, you can take the Shuttle Launch experience that simulates what the 8-minute launch into orbit feels like. Even space veterans love this ride!
The Space Shuttle history is not all adrenaline, though. There is also a memorial to the 14 astronauts who died during the Challenger and Columbia incidents, along with actual mementos from each. There are also bits and pieces from the lost orbiters. Other highlights of the zone include exhibits of the Hubble Space Telescope and the International Space Station, both of which were serviced by the Space Shuttle Program.
NASA Now & Next
After all you’ve seen so far, you would inevitably ask what NASA is up to now and in the future. This zone will answer those questions. View Earth and Mars just as astronauts would in an IMAX presentation. You could even view the concept of the future Mars Rover, which looks like a cross between Christian Bale’s Batmobile and the “Armadillos” Bruce Willis and his crew used in Armageddon!
Really, a single day would not be enough to appreciate all the wonders that the Kennedy Space Center has to offer. It doesn’t take a space (or even science) fan to appreciate the magnitude of all they’ve done (and are yet to do!) here. And like all good places, the best thing you can do is just sit back, buckle up, and enjoy!