The Kennedy Space Center is one of my favorite attractions in the United States. It highlights some of the greatest technological achievements of our species and is testament to one of the most significant advances of human civilization — mankind leaving its earthly home to travel to the moon. It was President John Kennedy’s challenge to the nation to get a man to the moon and return him safely to the Earth before the close of the 1960s, a goal accomplished by the landing of Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong on the moon in July 1969. I was very young during those halcyon days of space travel but remember vividly the great successes (and some heart-breaking failures) of the Space Race. The Kennedy Space Center was witness to it all and it was here that the President’s and nation’s dream became a reality.
The Kennedy Space Center is run by NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration). Every manned space mission the US sent to orbit since the 1960’s was launched from this site. With the retirement of the Space Shuttle program manned space flight from the United States ended (at least for now), the focus of NASA shifting to unmanned space probes, developing private-public partnerships (eg space tourism) and starting work on its next manned space flight program, the fascinating Orion project (scheduled to be live within a decade with rockets 3x as powerful as the Saturn V rockets). I personally believe it was a tremendous miscalculation to terminate the Shuttle Program before a new space launch system had been developed but NASA never consulted me.
The Kennedy Space Center covers a massive piece of land, some 140,000 acres, much of it a nature preserve (Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge and Canaveral National Seashore). You’ll certainly see alligators and dozens of exotic bird species on your drive here, but this is actually a place where nature takes the back seat; the main attraction of Cape Canaveral is what man accomplished here. You get to see many old rockets and other space artifacts and memorabilia. But to its many visitors the crown jewels of the Kennedy Space Center are the Apollo/Saturn V Center and the new Atlantis Space Shuttle exhibit.
A visit to the Kennedy Space Center begins at its Visitor Center complex, where you can spend some time looking at the exhibits. If the weather is good, my advice would be to immediately take the tour bus for a guided visit to more remote portions of the Space Center (included in the admission). The driver, who provides narration while showing you around Cape Canaveral, will take you past the massive Space Vehicle Assembly building (where all of the rockets and shuttles were serviced, coupled with their launch rockets, fueled, then moved by a massive custom tractor to their pads). And you’ll be driven past launch pads A and B and LC-39, from which all space launches took place. While currently not active, it’s still interesting to see these historic places.
The bus tour ends at the Apollo/Saturn V Center where you’ll see a simulation of an Apollo mission launch from the perspective of Mission Control. And then, most memorable of all, you’ll get to see one of the last three remaining Saturn V rockets, the monsters that launched man to the moon. Saturn V is the largest and most powerful rocket ever created and sits there before and above you, suspended above the ground by large metal stands; you can walk under it and closely examine the different stages of the rocket, ending at its far end where the astronaut’s space capsule is attached. It’s one of the most amazing things I’ve ever seen — truly impressive!
After returning to the visitor center, I’d next see the Atlantis Space Shuttle exhibit, which will likely take you a few hours. I’ve written about this exhibit previously on this blog and which you can read more about here. It’s a beautifully executed display and a chance to see one of the four remaining Space Shuttles.
Other interesting exhibits around the Kennedy Space Center visitor center worth some of your time include:
1) Outdoor Rocket Garden: Here you can experience the very same Redstone, Atlas and Titan rockets that first put NASA astronauts into space, or climb aboard Mercury, Gemini and Apollo capsules – and get an idea of the cramped quarters America’s early astronauts endured.
2) The Astronaut Memorial, a shrine to those astronauts who lost their lives in Space Exploration.
3) IMAX theaters showing space movies, like images of and from the Hubble Space Telescope and International Space Station.
4) A chance to meet an astronaut and have lunch with him/her (extra fee for this and very popular so reserve in advance).
5) Your admission to the Kennedy Space Center includes a free entrance to the US Astronaut Hall of Fame, six miles west of main complex. I’ve never had the time to see this Museum, but it’s on my “to do” list. It would take a second day to visit this Hall of Fame because you the Kennedy Space Center will occupy a full day.
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