On Merritt Island, Florida, Kennedy Space Center is the country’s most visited and watched space entity. Here, you’ll find over 700 buildings in use, such as multi-use spaceports with industry partnerships, vehicle assembly, Space Station Factory, Launch Control Center, astronaut dorms, and the iconic Kennedy Space Center Visitors Complex.
President Eisenhower established NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration) in 1958 to “perform civilian research related to space flight and aeronautics.” Five years later, Lyndon Johnson designated the facilities the John F. Kennedy Space Center. Today, Kennedy Space Center sees 1.7 million guests per year (pre-COVID). It is “Florida’s Gateway to Space.” Here is everything you need to know about visiting Kennedy Space Center and what you should see and do there.
Tickets And Parking
You can purchase Kennedy Space Center tickets online or from the kiosk at the entrance. Parking will set you back $10, and admission prices are $57 for adults. There are discounts for children under 12 and on multiday tickets. You are permitted to bring in your own food and beverages, though no glass is allowed.
Parking is easy and relatively close so walking to the entrance won’t make you exhausted upon arrival. Wear comfortable shoes, and depending on the time of year you visit, sunscreen may be required.
A few things are temporarily closed at KSC due to COVID; you will find them on this list, but there is plenty to make a day of it, and you’ll hardly notice.
Pro Tip: If you are traveling and have a pet, there is a free air-conditioned pet kennel offered on a first-come, first-serve basis. Proof of vaccinations is required.
Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex
The Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex (KSC) is where you’ll start your day. Operating hours are 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Things to see at KSC include the Rocket Garden, IMAX Theater, character appearances, Journey to Mars: Explorers Wanted, and Space Shuttle Atlantis with Shuttle Launch Experience.
You’ll be in awe wandering through the Rocket Garden, with Delta, Gemini, Mercury-Redstone, Juno rockets, and others that pioneered the space program. The missiles are replicas, as back in the day, they weren’t recovered or reused. The most impressive one is the Saturn 1B, the only rocket laying down.
At the Space Shuttle Atlantis, you’ll see every inch of a full-scale space shuttle, along with testimonials and memorabilia ranging from what the astronauts eat to how and where they sleep. Space Shuttle Atlantis should take about an hour to explore.
I encourage you to sit through one of the IMAX films that may pertain to space travel and how it affects the astronaut’s body or showcasing space travel of the future and what that means to you.
A must-see, though a tear-jerker, is Forever Remembered, a memorial honoring those astronauts who lost their lives on the Challenger and Columbia. These lives are also memorialized on the continually illuminated Space Mirror Memorial, a polished black granite stone on the National Register of Historic Places with those 24 astronauts’ names emblazoned.
Special Exhibits And Ceremonies
My favorite part of KSC is the Heroes and Legends exhibit. You’ll start with a 360-degree film about the meaning of a hero, then move into a second location for a thrilling interactive program about early space exploration. It has a Disney-esque feel to it, but I can’t tell you more because it could ruin the surprise.
After that portion of Heroes and Legends, you’ll enter the U.S. Astronaut Hall of Fame, where you can see those recognized and honored for their accomplishments. I’m waiting for my fellow West Virginian, Jon McBride, to make it there.
A ceremony I am proud to take part in is NASA’s Day of Remembrance. Each January, a list of the fallen astronauts is read and remembered in an intimate ceremony of around 100 people. This year, it took place in front of the Space Mirror Memorial, with family members of the fallen astronauts in attendance. The 35th anniversary of the Challenger disaster takes place in 2021.
Offerings For The Littles
If you bring children or grandkids, Kennedy Space Center’s all-new Planet Play offers a fully immersive multi-level playground designed for those ages 2 to 12. The neon lights and modern playscape is a much-needed offering at Kennedy Space Center and super fun. There are couches for parents to take a break and relax while the kids get some energy out, and the Planet Play Lounge serves coffee, beer, and wine.
KSC Tours And Special Features
The KSC Bus Tour runs from KSC to Apollo/Saturn V Center, offering an up close and personal look at the Saturn V, the largest rocket ever flown. It is only accessible by this tour. I had been to KSC a dozen times before taking this tour, and it is a must! The ride itself is pretty thrilling. It passes America’s multi-user spaceport, launch pads 39A (leased by SpaceX for the Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets) and 39B (previously Apollo and other launches, but is being reworked to support future launches).
At Saturn V, wander the grounds, namely the Moon Tree Garden, and then see the interactive displays, a “Footsteps on the Moon” timeline, 3D holograms, a replica of the moon landing, and 1960s living room, all inside the 100,000-square-foot facility. You can also eat a meal at Moon Rocket Cafe and browse The Right Stuff gift shop.
Fun Fact: Be sure to see the moon dust on Alan Shepard’s spacesuit at the Apollo Treasures Gallery.
The Astronaut Training Experience and the Mars Base 1 program give you a chance to see what training and living on the Red Planet is like. It requires a separate ticket fee, and guests must be 18 (or 10 to 17 and with a participating adult). Where else can you spacewalk in a microgravity environment with the world’s most cutting-edge simulation technology? The program lasts between 4 to 5 hours.
If you’re at KSC during a rocket launch (monitor the event calendar here), you can see it from the property, main parking lots, or even alongside the roads, when allowed. Launches take place at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, adjacent to KSC. I live in Vero Beach, 90 minutes away. Folks in my town go over to the beach to capture the launches. Depending on the clouds, it is entirely possible.
Pro Tip: If you are there for a night launch, I recommend staying at the Inn at Cocoa Beach, which has a darling oceanfront rooftop patio. Guests congregate there to watch and count down the launch, or you can do so from your room’s balcony. There are no crowds, either.
Dining And Shopping Options
You can enjoy a good meal at Kennedy Space Center at the Orbit Cafe. This sizable cafeteria-style venue has a wide array of burgers, sandwiches, build-your-own-salads, and pizza. Enjoy an ice cream treat or Martian Rocks (an exclusive flavor) at Space Dots, or pick up popcorn, drinks, and candy before going in to see the IMAX movie.
One of the most popular activities at Kennedy Space Center is Dine with an Astronaut. This event (currently on hold) gives you a chance to eat a tasty meal as you hear about a retired astronaut’s adventures in space as told by them. There is even time for Q and A at the end. And get this — they serve Tang!
The Official NASA Store of Kennedy Space Center is the world’s largest space-related store. You can find apparel, souvenirs (think ornaments, masks, plush, and mugs), books, office essentials, collectibles, and space ice cream. And speaking of the freeze-dried packaged stuff, I never miss picking up a bag, but the shelves were full of ice cream sandwiches, instead, on my last visit. I nearly cried.
Visiting Kennedy Space Center is an exceptional place to visit for all ages. It certainly makes you feel proud to be an American when you see all we have accomplished and what our future in space holds. Happy travels.