Southern Fiction Author, Infrequent Blogger & Retired Clown

Florida Life: Kennedy Space Center

Florida Life: Kennedy Space Center

Growing up in a place like Florida, adventure is never far away.

Just within the confines of my little neighborhood, I could spend entire summer afternoons lost in exciting explorations; catching tadpoles in the creek and riding bikes with friends. 

But no adventure compared to those special days (and sometimes nights) when I could run outside, bare feet in the cool, wet grass, and look up to catch a glimpse of flames shooting across the sky.

Cape Canaveral, home to NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, is about a two hour drive south of my hometown, St. Augustine. From this little triangle of land along the Atlantic Ocean, rockets and spacecraft have been taking to the sky since Alan Shepard lifted off in Freedom 7 on May 5, 1961. 

After the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo space programs, NASA took a long break from space travel to design a new vehicle that could transport more astronauts to space. On April 12, 1981, the Space Shuttle Columbia was the first in the new fleet of six spacecraft to take off from Cape Canaveral. 

Fun Fact: You’ve probably heard of the five most popular shuttle names (Columbia, Atlantis, Endeavour, Challenger, and Discovery) but did you know there was a sixth shuttle that was only used for testing and never flown to space? Yeah, it was called the Enterprise, in honor of (do NOT say Star Wars) Star TREK. 

John F Kennedy Space Center
Just outside the entrance to Kennedy Space Center is this beautiful monument to the man who began our quest for space exploration.

Throughout my childhood in the late eighties and nineties, space shuttle launches became a regular part of Florida life. We also had a few early morning wake-ups when one of the shuttles would re-enter the atmosphere on its way to land at the Cape, causing a sonic boom that rattled the windows and drew us quickly out of a deep sleep.

I don’t remember how old I was the first time my parents took me to the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) at Cape Canaveral, but I do know that I was instantly hooked. I went from zero to Full Space Nerd overnight. I got a telescope, constellation maps, solar system models, a replica space shuttle with lights and sounds, and covered my ceiling in glow-in-the-dark stars. I cut out newspaper articles about the different shuttle missions and taped them up on my walls (I still remember one, about the return of astronaut Shannon Lucid that said “Shuttle Down, Shannon’s Home” which I thought was QUITE clever). 

Strangely, I never really had the desire to go to space myself. I think I knew that if I couldn’t even stomach the Back to the Future ride at Universal Studios then space travel was probably not in the cards for me. But nonetheless, I was absolutely obsessed with the history of space travel and the new history unfolding with each shuttle launch.

Carl Sagan quote at Kennedy Space Center

A lot has changed at KSC since I first became obsessed with All Things Space.

I’ve made several trips down there over the last couple of years and it’s amazing how many new exhibits and tours they’ve added. I know everyone comes to Florida to visit Disney World and Universal Studios, but as a native Floridian I’m here to tell you, KSC is the hidden gem you MUST visit (and it’s only an hour east of Orlando, so you don’t even have to go that far out of the way!).

I’m so certain that you’ll enjoy your visit and instantly join the legions of space nerds such as myself, that I’m going to share all of my insider secrets about Kennedy Space Center. (And I’m an annual pass holder now, so I really know what I’m about here.)

9 SECRETS TO MAXIMIZE YOUR VISIT TO KENNEDY SPACE CENTER

Note: These tips are for “normal” operations at Kennedy Space Center. Currently, many of their exhibits and tours are not operating due to COVID-19. Be sure to check their website for the latest updates before you go!

1. Arrive early

This is an all-day adventure, go ahead and fully commit yourself to that right now. Not only is there a lot to see and do with the exhibits, they’re also spread out across two separate sites within the confines of the park that are about a mile apart. A full day at KSC includes the Space Shuttle Atlantis Experience, Apollo/Saturn V Center, KSC Bus Tour, Heroes & Legends Tribute, Rocket Garden, IMAX Experience, Astronaut Encounter, Journey to Mars, and you know you gotta allow at least an hour for that two-story gift shop full of space memorabilia. 

KSC Rocket Garden
The Kennedy Space Center Rocket Garden is not to be missed!

2. Bring snacks

Small, soft-sided coolers are allowed inside KSC, so feel free to pack a few snacks and some water bottles for your adventure. Food and beverages are of course available at several different locations within KSC, but like all theme park-type establishments they come with a hefty price tag and are not always the highest quality cuisine.

Dippin Dots at NASA
Even if you do bring snacks though, don’t skip out on the Dippin’ Dots ice cream. As my niece can attest to, it’s good stuff!

3. Don’t miss the side exhibits at the Apollo Saturn V Center.

A short bus ride from the Visitor Center, the Apollo Saturn V Center is situated along the Banana River in the heart of the Kennedy Space Center campus. On the way there, you’ll get to see the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) where all of the Apollo and Space Shuttle vehicles were prepared for launch. At 526 ft, it is the tallest single-story building in the world and has the four largest doors in the world, each of which is 456 ft tall and takes 45 minutes to open or close.

Past the VAB and a distant view of Launch Complex 39 (home to the two launch pads where all of the Space Shuttle missions originated) the bus drops visitors at the Saturn V center where a short video and immersive Mission Control experience paves the way into the main attraction. Trust me when I say, there is nothing that can prepare you for the sheer size of the Saturn V rocket, which lies on its side in the building. 

Vehicle Assembly Building at Kennedy Space Center
It is difficult to get the perspective here, but to give you an idea, the stripes on that American flag are big enough that a bus could drive up and down them one at a time.

In addition to the rocket, there’s a great little theater that performs a sort of re-enactment of the moon landing (I can’t get through it with dry eyes) and a collection of Apollo program artifacts (including a moon rock!). 

You’ll definitely want to allow a couple of hours for the trip out to the center and to explore the exhibits contained inside. There’s also a great picnic area along the Banana River where you can enjoy those aforementioned snacks!

Apollo Mission Control at Kennedy Space Center
The Apollo/Saturn V experience begins with an immersive recreation of Mission Control on the day of the Apollo 8 launch.
Apollo 14 Crew Capsule
Looking at the Apollo 14 Crew Capsule on display inside the Apollo/Saturn V Center makes you realize just how TINY that space was for THREE people to cram inside.
NASA Space Suits
Hard to believe people flew to space in these early space suits.
Saturn V Rocket from the Apollo Program
This is an actual Saturn V rocket from the Apollo program, you cannot comprehend how massive this thing is until you see it in person.

4. Add a specialty tour

On one of my more recent visits to KSC, my best friend (a fellow Space Nerd) and I decided to take the Cape Canaveral Early Space Tour. Though it was an additional cost beyond the standard admission ticket, it was well worth it to get an up-close look at some of the most historic locations in space program history.

From the launch pad where Alan Shepherd’s historic first American flight into orbit took off to the somber memorial at Launch Complex 34 where the Apollo 1 tragedy occurred, this two hour bus tour provides access to some very exclusive places. You’re able to hop on and off the bus a few times, including the Mercury 7 monument and the Air Force Space & Missile Museum. 

KSC offers some other Behind the Scenes tours as well, including the Rise to Space tour that makes a stop at the Cape Canaveral Lighthouse.

Mission Control for Friendship 7 Launch
Part of the KSC Early Space Tour includes the original Mission Control room at the launch pad where Alan Shepard lifted off to become the first American in space.
Alan Shepard Quote at Cape Canaveral
Alan Shepard was also quoted as saying, “It’s a very sobering feeling to be up in space and realize that one’s safety factor was determined by the lowest bidder on a government contract.”
Old NASA Computers
Looking at the massive computers NASA had to use in the early days makes their accomplishments even more impressive.
Monkeynauts and Astrochimps
It is important to remember that humans were not the only living creatures to test the limits of space travel…
Women in Space
This exhibit was easily my favorite part of the Early Space Tour.
A replica of Friendship 7
A replica of the Friendship 7 Rocket sits on the original launch pad for the flight.
Launch Complex 34
Launch Complex 34 still stands today as a memorial to the three lives lost in the tragic Apollo 1 fire.

5. Bring tissues for the Shuttle Atlantis Exhibit

If you grew up glued to every Space Shuttle launch like I did, you can not possibly prepare yourself for the tsunami of emotions that will wipe out your soul in the instant that you set eyes on Space Shuttle Atlantis for the first time.

I don’t want to spoil the lead-up to the reveal, but it’s very well executed. I’ve seen it three times and every time it’s taken me back to that same feeling of magic and wonder that I had as a kid every time I saw that shuttle arcing across the sky. 

Space Shuttle Atlantis
Nothing can prepare you for the first time you see Space Shuttle Atlantis up close.
Space Shuttle Atlantis Exhibit
Atlantis flew 207 crew members on 33 missions and spent a total of 306 days, 14 hours, 12 minutes, and 43 seconds in space.
Shuttle Fuel Tank and Rocket Boosters
The fuel tank and rocket boosters used by the Space Shuttle program give you an idea of how massive the shuttle is.
Hubble Telescope
Exhibits on the Hubble Telescope are also featured in the Atlantis Experience.

Even more powerful than the massive Atlantis exhibit is a small, quiet corner tucked away on the first floor of the shuttle experience building. Fourteen boxes hold mini collections of items that once belonged to 14 crew members of Challenger and Columbia who gave their lives for the space program. This reverential exhibit also includes a recovered piece of each shuttle encased for display. 

Space Shuttle Columbia Memorial
These pieces were recovered from the Space Shuttle Columbia in 2003.
Space Shuttle Challenger Memorial
This piece was recovered from the Space Shuttle Challenger in 1986.

6. The Shuttle Launch Experience is not that scary, I promise!

Also inside the Atlantis building is KSC’s one and only “ride” (I would use the term loosely). Called the Shuttle Launch Experience, there’s a lot of build up for what purports to be a genuinely replicated encounter of an astronaut launching into space. 

I obviously can’t say for certain how close the ride gets to the real thing, but my guess is…not that close. Don’t get me wrong–it’s fun and definitely worth the ride, but it’s basically a simulator that tilts you on your back and then shakes the bejesus out of you for a few minutes. 

When I took my 11 year-old nephew to KSC, he got freaked out by the promo videos leading up to the ride and wound up refusing to go on it. But when I took my nine year-old niece, she didn’t even hesitate and immediately wanted to go a second time after we got off.

7. Prepare for rain

My last visit to KSC happened to coincide with a tropical storm. I’d promised to take my niece for her birthday and set a date to fulfill my promise in mid-October. Unfortunately, Mother Nature decided that was a great time to send a tropical storm spinning across the central part of the state. Nevertheless, we persisted–but with rain jackets. 

The KSC Visitors Center complex is made up of several separate buildings. Moving between them requires going outside into the elements, so if the weather is inclement, you can’t escape it. Even without a tropical storm, it’s still Florida, which means daily rain showers are guaranteed in the summer. They may not last long, but it’s still a good idea to bring ponchos or plan to spend your time at the IMAX theater during the downpour.

Visiting KSC in a Tropical Storm
In spite of the weather, my niece and I had a great time visiting KSC in the middle of a Tropical Storm. Seemed fitting for a couple of native Floridians!

8. Try the Cosmic Challenge

A few years ago, KSC added a new experience to appeal to the tween/teen crowd: Cosmic Quest. For an extra $20, you can get a special badge that allows you to participate in a series of challenges at digital kiosks positioned throughout every exhibit. When I took my nephew for his first visit, I could tell right away that the exhibits themselves didn’t hold his 11 year-old interest. But paired with the Cosmic Quest, he got a lot more excited about the experience (and I felt a lot less like murdering him for ruining one of my favorite places). 

Our favorite part of Cosmic Quest was when we discovered that one of the kiosks in the Atlantis exhibit was broken. Each kiosk is named after a planet, and we practically knocked each other down trying to be the first to get to the gift shop counter and tell someone, “Uranus is broken!”

Uranus is Broken
My nephew, who was clearly excited about space travel.

9. Meet an Astronaut

Part of KSC’s daily schedule includes an opportunity to step into the Universe Theater for a presentation from a veteran astronaut. My niece, quite the opposite of my nephew, was completely entranced by All Things Space and was hell bent on meeting an astronaut. The day of our visit, J. O. Creighton was the veteran astronaut in residence. 

That morning, before we entered the park, I told my niece we had one rule for the day — she could ask as many questions as she wanted. For a very inquisitive child who is perceptive enough to recognize when adults are growing a little weary of her curiosity, this gift left an enormous smile across her face.

After Mr. Creighton’s presentation, her little hand shot up in the air with a question.

“Do you think a kid could go into space?”

He smiled and told her if she worked hard and studied in school, she could potentially be one of the first astronauts to go to Mars. 

Let me tell you…she was a little pissed. 

That was not her question. 

She wanted to know if a kid could go to space, like, right now. Today. She was ready. And I have no doubt that if he’d said “Yes, there’s a rocket on the launch pad ready to go, you want to come along?” she would’ve jumped onboard in a heartbeat. 

Astronaut J.O. Creighton
Astronaut John Creighton offered great insight into his time at NASA.

That’s the power of KSC and the space program. You just feel connected to this thing, this enormous, powerful thing that is space exploration. It is a quest that requires so many people, so many minds and hearts dedicated to this task that seems at times impossible. But it’s so important to the longevity of our planet, to the growth of our people, and to the advancement of science. 

And when you see those rockets zoom across the sky, you look up and you can’t help but feel it in your bones. 

Sometimes the impossible is possible. 

Next Generation Astronaut
My niece is ready to go into space NASA, just give her a call!


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