At Florida’s Kennedy Space Center, it’s all about rocket science

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Shortly after I entered, the room went dark, except for a soothing video playing on an oversized floor-to-ceiling screen. The pastoral scene depicts a wildlife refuge, presumably one at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex here on Florida’s Atlantic coast.

The scene quickly changed from wetlands and alligators to scientists, astronauts, rockets and launch pads as a fascinating story of space shuttle development unfolded. After the video ended, the screen turned transparent and slowly opened up for a big reveal. I won’t spoil the surprise for you but I can tell you that I saw a few tears and heard exclamations of “Wow” as well as an inappropriate expletive for a family diary.

The Space Shuttle Atlantis attraction was just one of the highlights of my day at Kennedy Space Center, which included a glimpse of NASA’s largest rocket and a “Behind the Gates” bus tour passing active launch pads.

The figure of a Space Shuttle astronaut hangs inside the Space Shuttle Atlantis attraction at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex.
– Courtesy of Katherine Rodeghier


Successes and tragedies

The Space Center is named after President John F. Kennedy whose “We Choose to Go to the Moon” speech in 1962 sparked support for the Apollo space program. Americans choose to take on challenges like space exploration “not because they’re easy, but because they’re hard,” he said.

Attractions and exhibits show visitors how challenging and difficult it is.

The Space Shuttle Atlantis attraction’s Forever Remembered gallery commemorates 14 astronauts who died during the Space Shuttle Challenger and Columbia missions. The personal items of each astronaut are displayed in display cases. The American flag emblem on Challenger’s fuselage and Columbia’s cockpit window surrounds are among the hardware items salvaged from the exhibit.

When I approached the space shuttle Atlantis – not a model, the real thing – I saw scratches and stains, wear and tear from flying 33 missions between 1985 and 2011. Atlantis contributed to the success of the International Space Station and The Hubble Space Telescope. The shuttle is displayed as it would have appeared just undocked from the space station, rotated and with its payload doors open and robotic arm extended. The two-level viewing platforms allowed me to check it out from multiple angles.


        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        

I pretended to dock at the space station and land the orbiter on earth using shuttle simulators and attached myself to the shuttle launch experience for a bouncing fake takeoff.


The tallest rocket ever built hangs inside the Apollo/Saturn V Center.

The tallest rocket ever built hangs inside the Apollo/Saturn V Center.
– Courtesy of Katherine Rodeghier


Countdown

The real launches take place just outside the visitor complex. Bus tours are the only way for a civilian to pass behind security barriers. My visit began with a walk through the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge where I spotted bald eagle nests and kept my eyes peeled for turtles and alligators hiding in the wetlands. Alligators and other wildlife that have crawled too close to the launch pads are removed by the National Park Service before takeoff.

We made a brief stop at the massive Vehicle Assembly Building where rockets and space components are stacked on a mobile launcher. The Statue of Liberty, holding a rocket in her hand, could fit inside the building’s gaping doors. A creepy vehicle that could have come from a “Star Wars” movie set was parked outside. This crawler transporter moves at the speed of a snail to move the spaceship from the assembly building to the launch pad on wide tracks resembling battle tanks.



A space capsule recovered from an Apollo mission occupies a display area inside the Apollo/Saturn V Center at Kennedy Space Center.

A space capsule recovered from an Apollo mission occupies a display area inside the Apollo/Saturn V Center at Kennedy Space Center.
– Courtesy of Katherine Rodeghier

Unfortunately, no spacecraft sat on the launch pads during my visit, but I could imagine what they looked like when used by NASA and SpaceX. Lightning towers stand around each pad to ward off spacecraft strikes. The heat and humidity that bring storms make Florida the lightning capital of the United States. Over 100,000 workers are employed in aerospace in this part of Florida.

race to the moon

The bus tour not only allows visitors access to launch sites, buildings and equipment, it is the only way to visit the Apollo/Saturn V Center. The thrill of a countdown is captured during a walk through a launch control room with real consoles used in the Apollo missions. I stopped short when I entered the main hall dominated by Saturn V, the largest rocket ever launched. This 363-foot behemoth sent Apollo astronauts into space on lunar missions, including the 1969 moon landing. A real lunar module unfolds below Saturn V in a mock-up of the landing and the Apollo Treasures gallery nearby features an authentic Apollo spacecraft and a pair of once-white space boots soiled with moon dust.



A rocket garden stands just inside the entrance to the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex on Florida's Atlantic coast.

A rocket garden stands just inside the entrance to the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex on Florida’s Atlantic coast.
– Courtesy of Katherine Rodeghier

My biggest regret: not having planned a full day – or better, two – to explore the space center. By the time I took the bus back to the visitor complex, it was almost closing time. I’ll have to come back to see a show at the IMAX, meet an astronaut, and visit the Heroes and Legends building containing the US Astronaut Hall of Fame. I could also book an extra cost experience such as Chat with an Astronaut, the Astronaut Training Experience, or a tour of Cape Canaveral Space Force Station to see where the US space program began.

With luck and at the right time, I might witness a rocket launch from one of Kennedy Space Center’s official viewing areas or one of the beaches or parks along the Space Coast. Launches are often delayed by weather and technical difficulties, so it’s advisable to book accommodation on the Space Coast rather than Orlando, 45 minutes away.

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If you are going to

Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex: Merritt Island, Florida; one-day admission $75, $65 children 3 to 11, $70 55 and over; two days $89, $79, $84; kennedyspacecenter.com/

Florida Space Coast Visitor Center: For launch viewing sites and accommodations, visitspacecoast.com/

Visit Florida: visitflorida.com/

• Information for this article was gathered during a research trip sponsored by Visit Florida and the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex.

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