Andy Mossack launches his interplanetary guide to the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex in Florida.
Come on, be honest. Who doesn’t think space travel is cool? It’s like a modern-day version of those western trail pioneers, the polar explorers and the world’s great seafarers all rolled into one huge final frontier. Well, this insider guide to Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex should put to bed any doubts you may be harbouring.
I last visited the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex for the launch of its Space Shuttle Atlantis attraction in 2013, and I’m not ashamed to say it reduced me – a hard-nosed cynical seen-it-all-before hack – to tears. After walking through the build-up, finally seeing that bruised and battered veteran of thirty-three missions displayed in all her glory was an emotional experience.
So on my recent visit, I was nearby at New Smyrna Beach, I really wanted to be reacquainted with her, but also keen to see what new experiences lay in store there. It’s an active launch complex packed with so many wow moments. A place where history has been written countless times.
Even getting there is an adventure. It’s spread out on its own network of barrier islands, and you have to drive across an impressive road bridge spanning the Indian River before arriving at the visitor entrance.
The new Gateway attraction is the perfect place to begin your personal exploration project. You can’t miss it; just walk towards the clutch of towering rockets they call the Rocket Garden. It’s Kennedy’s memorial to the numerous rockets that pioneered America’s early space race; a group of silent sentinels pointing to the heavens they once frequented. Walk amongst these giants and read about their histories or join one of the regular free guided tours the run through the day.
Gateway, and Heroes and Legends
Gateway is all about what lies ahead in space travel. The technology getting designed right now for deep space projects like the SpaceX Cargo Dragon or the Boeing Starliner capsule and the Sierra Space Dream Chaser. Clamber in and learn fascinating stuff about the future. Then go up a level and enter Spaceport KSC, four thrilling state-of-the-art simulators that fly you to deep space destinations never before explored such as Mars, Trappist-1, a Horsehead Nebula, Saturn, and Jupiter.
Just the other side of the Rocket Garden you’ll find Heroes and Legends, a fitting 360-degree tribute to the early pioneers at the dawn of America’s space. What makes a hero? Were men like John Glenn, Alan Shephard and the rest of the Project Mercury team really heroes or just brilliant pilots doing their day jobs? I know what my answer would be. The US Astronaut Hall of Fame is an excellent reminder of just how many people put their lives on the line in the name of science.
Complex Tour Bus
You can visit the Atlantic Shuttle exhibit now, or, like me, you can wait until you return from visiting the Apollo and Saturn V Center. To get there, you take a tour bus on a 45-minute drive behind the gates of the main working complex towards the outer edges close to the launch sites. And it’s all included in the admission fee. Driving through the restricted areas of the KSC you’ll see the Vehicle Assembly Building, once the tallest single-storey structure in the World. You might also spot the two giant crawler-transporters, the vehicles which carried the rockets on their mobile launch platforms from the assembly plant to the launch sites at a staggering 2 mph!
Mind you, even without the rockets they weigh nearly 3,000 tonnes. These guys carried all the Apollo, Skylab, and Space Shuttle rockets to their launch positions and trundled back without complaining once.
Apollo/Saturn V Center
The bus drops you off at the Apollo/Saturn V Center where you’ll not only witness the drama of the first crewed lunar orbit Apollo mission in the Firing Room Theatre but also get to walk under the entire length of a real Saturn V rocket. The rocket that launched humans to the Moon.
The thrill of simply being within touching distance of this immense beast is one thing, but it is literally hanging above your head, and I enjoyed lunch in the Moon Rock Café looking up at it the entire time.
The theatre contains the actual mission control consoles from the 1968 Apollo 8 project and recreates the launch and the drama of the first dark-side orbit of the Moon when the command capsule was out of radio contact for forty-five minutes.
The centre is also full of Moon-landing artefacts including the actual lunar module of Apollo 14, a lunar rover, a moondust-covered spacesuit, the Lunar Theatre showing the drama of the first moon landing, and even see fragments of moon rock. A treasure trove of jaw-dropping stuff.
Space Shuttle Atlantis
You’ll have time to get your breath back during the forty-five-minute return journey (ironically the same time Apollo 8 was out of radio contact) and even spot some of the wildlife that lives in the surrounding grassland.
Which brings us back to the big finale – the Space Shuttle Atlantis experience. It really is worth the admission price on its own, even the second time around in my case. To see her entire cosmic battle-scarred hull in all her glory as you walk around her is a real treat. KSC brings another layer of colour with a tour guide walking you around Atlantis throwing out a few stories.
The Shuttle Launch Experience is an added bonus. We might not be professional astronauts but perhaps we can experience something close to what it’s like during a space shuttle launch with this ride. A prelaunch briefing from veteran space shuttle commander Charles Bolden is the backdrop to this eight-and-a-half-minute launch simulator which many of his NASA colleagues have said is almost the same as the real thing.
You can round off your day with a few other diversions such as 3D IMAX shows or the Hubble Space Telescope Theatre or buy some added extras like meeting a real astronaut for lunch, tour the Shuttle with former Launch Director Mike Leinbach, or even indulge in some astronaut training sessions. You might even be there when an actual launch is taking place. You never know.
All images (C) KSC and Andy Mossack (Saturn V and Entrance)
Tell me more about this Insider Guide to Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex
Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex brings to life the epic story of the US space programme, offering a full day, or more, of fun, inspiration, thrilling experiences and educational activities. Just 45 minutes from Orlando, Florida, Kennedy Space Centre Visitor Complex is open daily at 9 am. Single-day admission is $75 per adult, and $65 per child. The new two-day ticket, which can be used for up to six months from purchase, is now available for $89 per adult and $79 per child.
Where to stay
The new Courtyard by Marriott is perfectly situated just a few minute’s drive from the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex. it’s right on the waterfront and designed with a cool galactical theme. They have a roof terrace so you can watch launches from it and sip a cocktail.