In the pre-dawn hours of a chilly and damp Friday morning, I sat with hundreds of other onlookers in a field gated off with rows of bike racks. We had been waiting for a few hours in the darkness, a giant panel TV the only light we saw with the image of a former space shuttle astronaut giving a blow-by-blow description of what we were about to experience. But despite the chill, despite the wait, the crowd was joyful and full of anticipation. The hours seemed like minutes because of all the events that were happening prior to what was to come.
And then it happened. The voice over the loudspeaker bellowed, “Main engine ignition: Three, two, one. Liftoff of the space shuttle Discovery!”
Suddenly the darkness on the horizon lit up as the shuttle slowly lifted off, gaining speed as the seconds ticked by. Then a minute later, the sound and roar of those engines hit us, washing over the crowd in a loud, vibrating, rumbling wave.
That was my first time seeing a launch from the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) Visitor Complex at Cape Canaveral, and it wasn’t my last. It doesn’t matter if you are a space geek or not, experiencing a rocket launch at KSC is incredible, and you will find yourself wanting to come back for more, especially now that NASA is preparing to launch the world’s largest rocket — the Space Launch System or SLS — that will send humans back to the moon and beyond.
The Kennedy Space Center Visitor’s Complex — which is operated for NASA by the Delaware North Company — does it up right with tons to see and do while you wait for the big moment. Here’s everything you need to know to see a launch at Kennedy Space Center.
Editor’s Note: For details on Cape Canaveral’s April 2021 rocket launch, check out You’ll Have To Get Up Early For NASA’s Rocket Launch This Month.
There’s An App For That
Making plans to view a launch from the Kennedy Space Center or at one of several sites around KSC is made easy with one of the free apps. The Visitor Center app gives you all you need to know to pre-plan your trip to KSC complete with an itinerary planner and launch day information. The official NASA app provides detailed information about the latest launches and their mission as well as other news about upcoming and current NASA missions and gives you portable access to NASA TV.
It’s Not Just A Launch, It’s An Experience
If the launch occurs during the complex’s normal business hours (Monday to Friday 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., and 5 p.m. on weekends), the KSC will be open for you to explore. There are many exhibits detailing the history of manned and robotic space missions including the actual capsules that flew into space with our astronauts, plus dining options and gift shops.
Of special interest is the Apollo / Saturn V Center. The Center commemorates the country’s missions to the moon including an authentic Saturn V rocket, the Apollo 14 capsule, and the firing room used to launch men to the moon.
You can also tour the complex with an astronaut (currently unavailable due to COVID-19) and visit the actual space shuttle Atlantis.
If you have kids or grandkids, they’ll love the Planet Play area where they can play among the planets in an interactive setting (just don’t tell them that they’ll be learning something at the same time), and for the kid in all of us, try out the Space Shuttle Launch Simulator, which is billed as “the next best thing to an actual shuttle launch.”
Pro Tips: Register early for the bus ride to the Apollo / Saturn Center. Most exhibits, including the Planet Play and Shuttle Launch Simulator, are handicap accessible.
On May 30, 2020, the SpaceX Crew Dragon lifted off from Cape Canaveral, launching astronauts from Florida for the first time since the last space shuttle launched in 2011. It was the most viewed launch since Apollo 11 in 1969 with one exception — it was virtual due to the pandemic. But that just goes to show you that when astronauts are on board a rocket, public interest is intense, and now that the Visitor Complex is reopening, expect every manned flight to draw huge crowds.
While it’s exciting watching a manned launch, unmanned satellite launches are still spectacular. The crowds are not quite as large as they are for manned launches but can still draw a crowd.
Viewing Locations At KSC
There really isn’t a bad spot to view a launch from inside KSC. The Center offers the closest public viewing areas. No matter where you view it from, you will definitely feel the power of the engines when they ignite.
The absolute best viewing area is on Banana Creek at the Apollo / Saturn Center. Bleacher or lawn seating gives you the perfect, unobstructed view of a launch with the pads directly across the creek from you. If the launch occurs during the normal Visitor Center operating hours (Monday to Friday 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., and 5 p.m. on weekends), you can visit the Apollo / Saturn Center while you wait for the countdown. Even if the Center is closed, restrooms and snack bars are still open.
The LC-39 Observation Gantry is a four-story observation tower that resembles a rocket launch gantry and is the closest you can get to the pad with an unobstructed view only two miles from the Atlas V launch pad and 3.4-miles from Falcon rocket launches. There is bleacher seating or seating on the wide lawn. Your tickets include a complimentary souvenir, snacks, and beverage. The LC-39 Observation Gallery is not available for SpaceX manned launches.
Your third option is right at the Visitor Complex on the North Atlantis Lawn right next to the shuttle Atlantis. This location is approximately seven miles from any of the launch pads.
The lawn viewing area provides an excellent view as the rocket clears the treeline and includes launch commentary (many times from a former astronaut) and a big screen so you can see the activity at the launch pad up close while you wait. It also gives you convenient access to the Visitor Complex where you can visit the exhibits, rides, and other activities during normal business hours. Many attractions inside the building are still open after hours depending on the launch. Details will be available when you purchase your ticket.
Pro Tip: Oh, wait. There’s one more viewing location — Launch and a Movie! Park your car in the Visitor Complex parking lot and watch a space-themed movie before lift-off. You’ll even have access to the Complex’s restrooms, gift shop, and snacks.
Note that due to COVID, some locations are still closed but hopefully will be opening soon. So far, the North Atlantis Lawn has remained open. Visit the KSC Visitor Complex website for updates.
To access the LC-39 and Banana Creek sites, you need to take one of the KSC busses. As soon as you arrive, register to get a seat.
All viewing areas are outdoors, so put on that sunscreen and wear a hat during the day and don’t forget to bring insect repellent. For night and early morning launches, pack along a jacket.
Get Your Ticket
Sometimes, viewing a launch is complimentary with your regular Kennedy Space Center admission. Currently, tickets are $57 for adults, $47 for children 3 to 11. Parking is $10, $15 for RVs. Besides admission to the Visitor Complex, a separate ticket may be required for so launches. The price varies, so visit the KSC Visitor Complex launch webpage for pricing. Many times, launch packages do not go on sale until two weeks before a launch, so just keep checking the website for updates and admission prices.
General admission tickets may be purchased online. Your ticket includes admission to most attractions at KSC.
For an extra special visit, take part in the Astronaut Training Experience. Using immersive technology, the Experience allows you to dock space vehicles and even experience a microgravity spacewalk. The training experience is currently $175.
Unfortunately, due to COVID-19, the fascinating KSC bus tour and astronaut appearances such as Dine with an Astronaut are unavailable right now.
I can’t stress it enough: Arrive at least two hours early unless your ticket tells you otherwise. Depending on the type of launch, traffic going in and out of KSC can be brutal.
Rain and technical issues can delay a launch, even cancel it (called a “scrub”). It’s frustrating but it’s all for safety reasons and beyond anyone’s control. If a launch is canceled before the viewing location opens or you board your bus to the viewing area, your ticket will be good for the next launch attempt. If you have already checked into the viewing area, then your ticket is considered used and you will have to purchase another ticket for the new launch date.
Every attempt is made to launch a mission within 24 hours (the “launch window”). To ensure you have better odds at viewing a launch after a scrub, you may want to consider multi-day tickets. For more area inspiration, consider: