Visiting Kennedy Space Center

My husband and I have always wanted to go to Kennedy Space Center together.

We wanted to go when we were in college.  We wanted to go when we were in graduate school (but by the time we were married and ready to travel, we were writing our dissertations).  We wanted to go when we worked for NASA (but we worked for NASA, and were way too busy to vacation.  Yes, I know (now) that that’s sad).  We wanted to go when we had children (but we had children, and were way too busy still).  We wanted to go when a mission I’d worked on launched (but, but, but … and we never went).

A couple of weeks ago, we just went.

Spurred by a question from Ellen, I’m writing up the highlights of our trip, here and on related (linked) posts.

The highlights of our trip to Cocoa Beach in October were many, although not all that varied.  We’re space geeks.  Period.  We love space.  And nature.  And space again.  This trip was a dream come true for us.

The first stop on the Space Coast was the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Center.  The visitor center is actually run by a professional visitor center company, Delaware Parks & Resorts, and it shows.  From the highly organized ticket-buying experience to the metal detectors to the visitor center food, it’s definitely done by someone who knows what they’re doing, and who can manage crowds.

Not that there were crowds when we were there.  It was October in Florida, after all, which I can tell you is a great time to go.  The crowds are thin, the people were relaxed, and the weather was absolutely gorgeous.  (Although the ocean was cold.  Not that we spent much time on the beach.)

We enjoyed the KSC Visitor’s Center immensely, running from the Robotic Exploration exhibit to the Constellation movie to the Rocket Garden, with a stop at the giant playspace full of tunnels, bridges, and slides for the younger set.  We took a tour (included with visitor’s admission), filed in to a shuttle mockup for a trip to space (kids under 48″ have to watch from a gallery — but even that was exciting), walked on the gantry that the Apollo astronauts walked, explored a full-size shuttle, and stood solemnly at the Astronaut Memorial.  We also touched a celestial sphere with the constellations engraved on it, and marveled as it effortlessly spun in the water base at the gentle push of a toddler’s hand.

One of the best parts of the trip was the KSC Then and Now Space History Tour, a three hour tour (not that kind of three hour tour) that took us onto Kennedy Space Center proper and over to Cape Canaveral, where all the Mercury and Gemini rockets were launched back in the 60’s and the unmanned rockets are still launched today.  Highlights for us were a visit to an actual bunkhouse, where we got to see and touch the ancient computers that filled the rooms, sit at a control desk, and stand behind the 12-layered glass where Werner Von Braun once stood.  We also went to the Apollo 1 launch pad, and solemnly put our hands on the launch structure where the capsule caught fire, burning Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee alive.  This was followed by a quiet ride back to KSC, and a stop at the Saturn V center, where one of the last remaining Saturn V rockets is on display.

Included in our trip to KSC was a stop at the U.S. Astronaut Hall of Fame, next to the old Space Camp dorms.  The Hall of Fame had quite a few other attractions, including hands-on activities and simulators for the kids (that used to belong to Space Camp).  This was a fun stop, and although not a whole day’s destination, it was the perfect way to top off Day #2 at KSC.  (KSC offers a second day free at the Visitor Center and/or the Astronaut Hall of Fame simply by validating your ticket on exit.)

After the Hall of Fame, we were starving, and dropped by Kelsey’s for pizza.  Yum.

Before we left Florida, we happened on another great place to go, this time in Titusville.  The U.S. Space Walk of Fame Museum is for the true history buff and/or space-crazy child or teen.  This unassuming little museum is packed tight with real pieces of history, like the charred I-beam used to advocate for necessary funding increases for the space program back in the 1980’s.  The ragged door from a Mercury capsule that was lost before the manned program began.  Lights, switches, and memorabilia given to retiring astronauts, engineers, and launch directors.  Handprints from dozens of astronauts, that you can lay your hands in for the asking.  An amazing room-sized model of the shuttle launch pad, gantry, and crawler.  Rooms for Mercury, Gemini, Apollo.  A room set up like the bunkhouse that we’d just seen on the tour, but even more child friendly.  Scrapbooks of photos kept by men who made the space program what it is today.

We were led through the museum by retired shuttle launch director (whose name I’ve misplaced), who worked his way up through the Mercury, Gemini, Apollo, and shuttle missions, growing right along with the space program, and it was amazing to hear his stories firsthand.  This museum is free, and well worth any time you spend there.  Go, shake the hands of the men who made it happen.

The Space Walk of Fame itself is a block or two away, by a beautiful stretch of water, and it is a must-visit.  Scattered over the two block area of Space View Park are monuments to the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo engineers, mechanics, flight directors, and all the people who made it happen.  Not just the astronauts.  Not the astronauts at all, actually, and that was a refreshing change from the astronaut-worship apparent at the KSC Visitor Center.  The Space Walk of Fame celebrates hard work.  Impossible work, really, and that was a lovely place for us to end our trip.

After a trip to Scoops, for freshly churned ice cream and milkshakes, we played in a nearby park and returned home, tired but happy, our trip complete.

Had we had more time, we would definitely have visited the Brevard Community College Planetarium, which hosts a rooftop observatory with 12 and 24 inch reflectors, a 6 inch refractor, a planetarium with a dual projection system, a 3 story high screened movie theater, and a space museum. The star show is showing Ring World, a favorite of friends of ours … and each show is just $6. We just ran out of time. We’d also like to see the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge, which friends of ours have loved on their trips there.  The Refuge is near the entrance to the Kennedy Space Center, and we’ll definitely make time for that on our next trip.

We can’t wait to go again!

Disclosure:  None of the institutions mentioned or NASA paid for any part of this trip in any way at all, nor are they aware of this post.  I used to work for NASA, and my husband still does, but I think you knew that already.

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