By Susan Kohl
An Exciting Alternative to Disney
It’s no secret that one of the most popular family vacation destinations in the United States is Orlando, Fla. More than 40 million people visit the city annually for its world-renowned theme parks, including the sprawling Walt Disney World. For families interested in space travel and space exploration, however, there’s an affordable, educational family vacation alternative that’s only about an hour away from Orlando.
Historic Cape Canaveral and the Kennedy Space Center are located just east of Orlando on the Brevard County coast. There, manned space shuttles and unmanned Atlas, Delta and Titan rockets are launched on a regular basis.
The Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex offers one of the best tourism values in the state. Adults and children can purchase Maximum Access passes that are good for two days and include all exhibits, three IMAX® space films, a tour of the center’s restricted areas and admission to the Astronaut Hall of Fame. Passes are $33 for adults, $23 for children ages 3 to 11.
The tour is exceptional. Visitors travel past the famous Vehicle Assembly Building, which housed the mighty Saturn rockets during the Apollo era. Today, the building is used to mate the Space Shuttle with its external tank and solid rocket boosters. Next door is the Launch Control Center, where NASA officials give the official “go” for shuttle liftoff. Across the road is the press site, home to the major TV networks and wire services during shuttle launches.
Visitors are invited to leave the tour bus at the LC-39 Observation Gantry. There you can see the two working space shuttle launch pads, as well as use the free telescopes to view all of the Cape Canaveral rocket launch pads and facilities.
From there, the bus heads to the new Apollo/Saturn V Center. This is the crown jewel of the tour. Visitors can touch a moon rock, view dramatic multimedia shows, and take advantage of educational hands-on exhibits. Relive the historic launch of Apollo 8 at the Firing Room Theater, then marvel at a monstrous 363-foot Saturn V moon rocket – the most powerful rocket ever built. Finally, the Lunar Theater provides a rare look at the harrowing final moments before man landed on the moon.
From Big Screen to Play Dome
Once the tour ends, there are a number of things to do back at the Visitor Complex. The 3-D IMAX Space Station film is a must-see for anyone interested in how humans live and work in space. This film gives visitors a truly up-close and personal look at the International Space Station as seen through the eyes of the astronauts and cosmonauts who live there. If there’s time, The Dream Is Alive IMAX movie is as inspirational as the Apollo 13 IMAX Experience is historical.
Other points of interest include the historical rocket garden, the NASA Art Gallery and the wacky “Mad Mission to Mars 2025” show. There is also a full-size replica of a space shuttle, where visitors can look inside the mid-deck, flight deck and cargo bay. For younger children, there is the popular Play Dome, complete with a 1:5 scale Space Shuttle/Space Station Gym, and the ever-friendly “Spaceman.”
A Taste of Space History
For families who want to delve deeper into the early days of spaceflight, the Visitor Complex offers an add-on tour called “Cape Canaveral: Then and Now.” This tour covers the Cape’s 50-year history of spaceflight. Highlights include Launch Complex 34, which was the site of the 1967 Apollo 1 tragedy, and the Air Force Space and Missile Museum, which is no longer accessible to visitors except through this tour.
One tip: At the end of the Cape Canaveral tour, visitors continue on the bus to the sites covered on the regular tour, so combine the two and plan on spending about five hours.
With the Maximum Access admission, you should also plan to devote an hour or two to the Astronaut Hall of Fame. This attraction chronicles the personal side of the NASA story – its astronauts. The Hall of Fame features the world’s largest collection of astronaut memorabilia, as well as displays, exhibits and tributes to the heroes of Mercury, Gemini and Apollo.
If you or your children have ever wanted to be an astronaut, you have your chance in the “Simulator Station,” where you can feel the pressure of four times the force of gravity, take a virtual moonwalk, ride a rover across Mars and land a space shuttle.
To pay tribute to America’s fallen astronauts, visitors to Florida are encouraged to stop by the Astronauts Memorial Foundation’s Space Mirror Memorial, which is also located at the Visitor Complex. Dedicated as a national memorial in 1991, this monument is constructed of exquisite mirror-finished granite. Powerful lights illuminate the astronauts’ names 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.
Hello, Mr. (or Ms.) Astronaut!
For families who want to actually meet an astronaut, there are a couple of options. First, you can take your chances at Coconuts, a popular outdoor restaurant in Cocoa Beach. It’s not uncommon to find rookie astronauts playing beach volleyball in front of the eatery. The tricky part is in knowing whether they’re astronauts. Another option is “Lunch with an Astronaut” at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex. This is an add-on package with your admission. Prices are $29.95 for adults and $19.95 for children ages 3 to 11. While pricey, the food is good and plentiful, the introductory video is lighthearted and fun, and the astronaut answers questions and cheerfully takes photographs with guests.
The most economical way to meet an astronaut is through the daily “Astronaut Encounters” at the Visitor Complex. This half-hour, interactive Q&A program features the same astronaut who speaks in the “Lunch with an Astronaut” program, but it’s free. For astronaut bios, check out www.jsc.nasa.gov/bios/.
Space Ed. Programs
The Center for Space Education, on the grounds next to the Visitor Complex, houses NASA’s free Exploration Stations. Staffed by professional educators, programs are offered to students, teachers and the general public in the areas of aerospace technology, human exploration and development of space, space science and earth science. Programs are scheduled in advance, and you must submit your request in writing. It’s definitely worth the effort. For more information, visit http://education.ksc.nasa.gov/exstation.htm.
Two other free space education sites are located in Titusville, just 20 minutes east of the Space Center as you’re heading back toward Orlando. There you will find the U.S. Space Walk of Fame at Space View Park on the Indian River. Three impressive monuments honor and recognize the men and women who worked on the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo space programs.
The U.S. Space Walk of Fame Museum is located only a few minutes away in Titusville’s Miracle City Mall. A one-of-a-kind museum, it displays hundreds of rare photos, space patches and pins, space hardware, flight suits, shuttle tiles, bronzed handprints of Apollo and Shuttle astronauts and miscellaneous memorabilia. Also included is a reading library of space-oriented books, magazine articles, documents, mission directories and videotapes. Oral histories from space workers document the roles they played in the early days of space exploration and their personal feelings about their jobs.
The ultimate free space activity is, of course, viewing a real launch. Night launches are especially breathtaking, as rocket engines cut a fiery path across the sky. When people say they can read a book by the light of the engines, they’re not exaggerating.
While the space shuttle fleet is temporarily grounded due to the Columbia accident, there are still plenty of unmanned rocket launches to witness. For a schedule of NASA Shuttle and unmanned rocket launches, visit www-pao.ksc.nasa.gov/kscpao/schedule/mixfleet.htm. For all other launches, visit www.patrick.af.mil/launch.htm. Prime viewing spots for unmanned rockets include Jetty Park, in Cape Canaveral, and any of the nearby causeways. For shuttle launches, the bank of the Indian River in Titusville is also a great spot. Space enthusiasts may also purchase launch viewing packages through the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex, which include refreshments, amenities and admission to the complex.
Finally, space buffs can even choose lodging that caters to their interests. The Resort on Cocoa Beach is one of the few beach-front properties that tracks and posts current information on all shuttle and unmanned rocket launches. Guests have a good view of Cape Canaveral and the Kennedy Space Center, and can either view a launch from their balconies or take the wooden walkway out to the beach for optimal rocket watching. For a few dollars more than what you’d pay for a standard hotel room, this property caters to families in terms of affordable lodging, food and activities for the kids. It also offers substantial discounts on space tours.
While most families don’t have the $20 million per person to actually take a vacation in space like American multimillionaire Dennis Tito, they do have a number of ways to learn about the final frontier. For more information about NASA and the Kennedy Space Center, visit www.ksc.nasa.gov. To learn about activities at the Visitor Complex, visit www.kennedyspacecenter.com.
Click here if you want to go Beyond Space....Florida’s Space Coast Has Plenty of Down-to-Earth Sights
Susan Kohl is a former aerospace reporter for CBS Radio News and WCPX-TV, Orlando. She lived on Florida’s Space Coast for nearly a decade.