With rockets launching almost every week now, there is a renewed interest in America’s space program. People line the beaches and roadways in the area of the Kennedy Space Center in Florida to watch rockets launch from pads 39A and 39B, and the adjoining Canaveral Space Force Base pads.
The crowds aren’t as big as they were during the Space Shuttle and Apollo days, but the best viewing spots can get a little crowded, so plan on getting there early. The best viewing is from public parks along US 1 in Titusville. This is directly across the Indian River Lagoon from the launch towers.
For a close-up and hands-on experience with the space program, large crowds head for the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex. This is a great experience to share with kids and grandkids. When you go, try to be there at 10 a.m. when it opens. And buy your tickets in advance, online. Otherwise, tickets can be purchased at self-serve kiosks near the entrance.
Note: Security at the complex is tight. Backpacks and hand bags are searched. Guests are encouraged to observe social distancing, but that didn’t seem to be observed in the lines of 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 the iconic shuttle launches, these are 15 experiences at the Kennedy Space Center.
1. The Apollo Moon Exhibition
Quick tip right up front: If you want to see the Apollo/Saturn V exhibit, go to the sign-up station immediately and pick a time you want to go. The exhibit is in another area of the space center and you have to make a reservation for a shuttle bus to take you there. It’s first come, first served, and they book up quickly. Allow an hour and a half for the exhibit, including the drive time.
The Apollo/Saturn V complex is within the confines of the actual Kennedy Space Center, several miles from the visitor complex. It features exhibits of the Apollo moon landing missions. You get to walk on a dusty lunar surface simulation, and touch an actual 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. Wander around in awe of their size, especially the Saturn, which sent astronauts to the moon during the Apollo program in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s.
3. See The Heroes Of American Space Flight
Also near the entrance, adjacent to the Rocket Garden, is the Heroes and Legends exhibit, and the Astronauts Hall of Fame. It’s all in the same building. The exhibit has a mixed media and video presentation that recounts the high points of the early NASA-manned space efforts. From there, enter the Hall of Fame, which features pictures and bios of top American astronauts from the Mercury, Gemini, Apollo, and Space Shuttle eras.
4. It All Began With The Mercury Program
There is a mockup of the original Mercury program mission control center. It looks small and technically out of date compared to the large control centers now at Kennedy, and the Johnson Space Center in Houston. You have to keep in mind the Mercury program was 60 years ago. A lot has changed since then.
5. America’s Shuttle 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 that were used to launch shuttles into space. Inside, there is a giant-screen video about the shuttle program. And leave it to NASA not to skimp on any details — the movie includes the double bang of sonic booms the shuttle always made while landing. At the end of the movie, the doors open to an exhibit room that holds the actual retired Atlantis shuttle. It’s an awesome sight that makes you wonder, how in the world did they ever get something that big off the ground and into space?
For the record, Atlantis is 122 feet long, 57 feet high, and has a wing span of 78 feet. The whole thing weighed 4.5 million pounds at liftoff. Wow!
Kids get a thrill at being able to sit in a mockup of an actual space shuttle cockpit in the Atlantis building. It makes for a great photo opportunity. Other photo ops around the complex have models of different space capsules that kids can climb into for 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 Feel For The Actual Shuttle Launch
After you’re done looking in awe of Atlantis, there is an opportunity to be thrilled in the Shuttle Launch Experience, a simulation of the actual liftoff of a shuttle. You get strapped into your seat and there is a simulation of the actual shaking and G-forces experienced by the astronauts during a launch. The simulator has a warning for people who may experience motion sickness, but in reality, it isn’t that bad, just a little shake and bake — fun for everyone.
7. Astronaut Photo Opportunity
A special treat for the kids is an opportunity to have their picture taken with an astronaut in a space suit. This takes place at the entrance to the Space Shop, and the astronaut is there every hour to pose for pictures. No, it isn’t a real astronaut, but it’s fun and a great photo opportunity nonetheless.
8. What Is It Without NASA Souvenirs
The Space Shop is the official gift shop of the complex. You will find T-shirts, jackets, models of rockets and shuttles, and coffee mugs — all kinds of fun stuff for people of all ages. The shop is on two floors, with most of the children’s sizes on the second floor. Best to make this your last stop of the day so you don’t have to carry your packages around all day.
9. The IMAX Experience
The IMAX theater has movies that are in 3D, in addition to the huge screen. The main IMAX movie changes from time to time. On my visit, the IMAX was a new movie about asteroid hunters. It runs about 40 minutes and the surround sound and IMAX experiences are breathtaking. There is also a shorter IMAX movie, Journey to Space, which 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 Space Shuttles Challenger and Columbia, and the launch pad fire of Apollo 1. There are also brass memorial plaques engraved with the images and names of the 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 mockups of the Mars rovers and a prototype model of what a future manned rover may look like. There are interactive games and simulators so you can test your skills to become a Mars explorer.
12. Explore The Universe
Universe Theater by Northrop Grumman takes you through the known history of the universe, some 13.4 billion years, and explores the heavens with images from the Hubble Space Telescope. It uses 3D and 4K resolution images for deep space exploration via the Hubble. There is also an exhibit for the NASA James Webb Telescope, which is now in deep space and will be the future replacement for the Hubble. Grumman is the prime contractor of the new telescope.
13. Fuel For The Space Crew
There are several food options around the complex. The Orbit Cafe is the main cafeteria, featuring pizza and burgers. There are also salads. The Planet Play Lounge is more for adults, with beer and wine. The Milky Way offers hand-dipped ice cream, and Space Dots has novelty cream and sprinkles for youngsters.
14. The Revolving Globe
The Constellation Plaza is centrally-located near the Atlantis exhibit. It features a heavy revolving globe with diagrams of the constellations. The globe floats on water and revolves with the water pressure, which is no more than the pressure you get from a garden hose.
15. Train Like An Astronaut
The Astronauts Training Experience is an added fee, $175, and must be booked in advance. It allows guests to train, work, and live in a simulation of what the real experience would be on Mars. The training sessions run 4–5 hours and include realistic simulations of launching, landing, and walking on Mars.
- The complex is open daily, 10 a.m.–5 p.m. If you plan to hit all the exhibits, the IMAX movies, and the Apollo/Saturn V tour, it makes for a full day.
- Your best bet is to purchase tickets online in advance of your visit. Once you are in the complex, there are no additional charges for the exhibits.
- If you travel with Fido, no problem. There is a free air-conditioned pet kennel near the parking lot as you enter the complex.
Explore more of our Florida content, including these articles: