When I was a kid, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s (NASA) space shuttle program was in its zenith. Every shuttle launch was an event, and every kid wanted to go to space camp only to be accidentally sent into space just like Lea Thompson in the movie Space Camp. When Space Camp came out in 1986, Halley’s Comet made its way through our solar system and there was a total solar eclipse. From that year on, I was hooked on space and loved everything to do with NASA that I could get my hands on.
Even now, I love to read the yearly NASA budget request just to see what projects are being worked on. This is why when my husband mentioned the possibility of going to the Kennedy Space Center during our Orlando family vacation, and the visit would be near the time of a launch, I practically launched into space myself.
The Kennedy Space Center Visitors Complex—located 45 miles east of Orlando on Florida’s “Space Coast”—is the first stop for everyone who comes, and it’s well worth the $38 general admission ($28 for kids ages 3 to 11). Here you can view several excellent IMAX films, peruse galleries of images from the Hubble telescope and other space-themed art, take a walk through a shuttle and even ride the Shuttle Launch Experience simulator.
The Vehicle Assembly Building is the third-largest building by volume in the world.
Deep Space Exhibits
Serious space fanatics can check out the International Space Station Center, the Early Space Exploration exhibit and the huge Apollo/Saturn V Center, which includes a reenactment of an Apollo launch from Houston’s Mission Control and a full-size Saturn V rocket suspended overhead.
You can even attend the Astronaut Encounter, which is a lecture series with former astronauts giving personal accounts of their time in space. For the kids there’s the beautiful Rocket Garden where they can get up close with replicas of the rockets used in NASA missions; the Children’s Play Dome; the show Mad Mission to Mars; and an opportunity to have their picture taken with a “spaceman” in full space walk garb.
Deep(er) Space Tours
There are two additional tours you can pay extra for ($21 for adults, $15 for kids 3 to 11) to gain an even closer look at the functions of this amazing complex. The first is Cape Canaveral: Then and Now, which takes you on a journey through NASA’s beginnings and includes a trip to the original Gemini, Mercury and Apollo launch pads where the space race got its start.
Visitors are briefed before their mission aboard the Shuttle Launch Experience.
When I went with my husband and daughter, I convinced them to take the more inclusive NASA Up-Close tour, which offers a drive out to the A and B launch pads currently used for the shuttles, a drive by the Vehicle Assembly Building and a stop at the shuttle runway. The guides on these tours have an impressive amount of knowledge about NASA, its history and its future and are able to answer virtually any question posed to them. Both tours end with a visit to the awe-inspiring Apollo/Saturn V Center.
Stoking Your Inner-Orbiter
Even though we spent the entire day at Kennedy Space Center, it wasn’t enough. Luckily, the general admission tickets are good for two days allowing those who have the time to get the full Kennedy Space Center experience. As for me, I was in a state of pure, unadulterated joy for approximately 12 hours that day.
The moment we stepped off the bus and I found myself a mere mile from the launch pads, one of which actually had Endeavour readying for its launch, I couldn’t contain myself. It really was a dream come true for me and for so many others on the tour with me.
Go even deeper into your outer space journey with the following tours:
Lunch With An Astronaut. $22.99 for adults, $15.99 for kids 3 to 11.
Astronaut Training Experience. The half-day program is offered for visitors 16 and over; $145 per person. A two-day family program is offered for ages 8 and over; $625 for the first two participants, $275 for each additional person. Includes mission simulations and hands-on astronaut training.
During the tour I excitedly told my daughter all about the space program and how important it was and still is, that this was where we launched brave men and women into space. I’m not sure my 5-year-old quite got it, but she had a wonderful time nonetheless. She even got to ask a real astronaut if he’d ever seen any aliens in space.
In one last hurrah of true space geekdom, I rode the Shuttle Launch Experience simulator by myself only to skip (oh yes, I skipped) my way all the way back to my husband who was watching my daughter play at the children’s play dome. When he asked how it was, my response was a gleeful “AWESOME!” That is a word that can be said for all of Kennedy Space Center.
Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex. Tel. 321-449-4444. Open year-round (except Christmas Day and on some launch days). General admission: $38 for adults, $28 for kids 3 to 11. Hours: 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tours start at 10 a.m. and run every 15 minutes. www.kennedyspacecenter.com