Three, two, one, zero … liftoff!
As 50th-anniversary celebrations for the Apollo 11 mission are launched across the country this summer, space destinations from the Johnson Space Center in Houston to Seattle’s own Museum of Flight (where the Apollo 11 command module Columbia is currently on view) are vying for visits.
But if you want to see it all: Launchpads and a Saturn V rocket, real astronauts and one-of-a-kind exhibits that explore our nation’s storied history and future in space, then there’s one destination: Brevard County, on Florida’s east central coast.
Known as the Space Coast, Brevard County is home to both the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) and neighboring Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, which are not only living museums of space but also active launch sites. This means that if you time your trip right, you might get to see a rocket blast off. At last count, nine launches were scheduled through the end of the year. (The next planned one is the launch of SpaceX Falcon, scheduled for July 21, at 7:35 p.m. EST).
In other words, look up.
Fun fact: The 3-2-1 countdown is such an important part of the culture on the Space Coast that it was adopted as the local area code.
Kennedy Space Center
Start your Space Coast adventure at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex, 70 acres of space-simulation rides, virtual experiences, interactive exhibits and behind-the-scenes access to working spaceports.
The indoor/outdoor destination is organized by themed Mission Zones, grouped chronologically by space era, which makes it easy to plan a tour. KennedySpaceCenter.com also has a trip planner feature that builds a custom itinerary for you based on either attractions you want to see or the makeup of your party. You can also use its app to access your itinerary and find your way around.
After you enter the complex, look up: You’ll see the Rocket Garden, a collection of rockets from the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo programs, most piercing the sky as if ready to launch.
Rockets and launchpads
Though you can access many of the Mission Zones on foot, you’ll need to take a bus tour to see a KSC highlight: The Apollo/Saturn V Center, where new content and more interactive exhibits will be unveiled at a July 15 “grand transformation celebration” to showcase new content and more interactive exhibits. (This is one of a series of events and celebrations to commemorate the Apollo 11 anniversary.)
A 363-foot-long Saturn V rocket — displayed above visitors’ heads — takes center stage in the center.
“For me, the most amazing exhibit that we have is the Saturn V Center, where you can see an actual Saturn V rocket,” said Beth Perdue, who heads up the Astronaut Training Experience STEM Academy at KSC. “I am always amazed by the sheer tenacity and power of the human will that constructed this amazing rocket without the aid of modern computers and technology.”
Once you’re done marveling at the rocket and related artifacts, you can test your skills landing a lunar module, leave footprints on the lunar surface and, from a theater, watch Apollo 8 lift off in 1968. Relive the Apollo 11 excitement by going back in time to a 1969-era living room.
The bus tour — included with admission, though there are also special-interest tours for an add-on cost — also goes past launch sites. Keep an eye out for Launchpad 39A, the site of the Apollo 11 launch, which you can also see from the Apollo/Saturn V Center.
Another must-see Mission Zone is the space-shuttle exhibit, starring the Space Shuttle Atlantis. Of the four orbiters on display around the country, it’s the only one presented as if in spaceflight — rotated 43.21 degrees and with payload doors open.
Learn about the Hubble Space Telescope in a special theater, and strap into the Shuttle Launch Experience for an 8½-minute, heart-thumping ride into space.
An astronaut encounter is possible every day at KSC. Check the events calendar for regular presentations given by astronauts, after which you can ask questions and take photos. Or dine with an astronaut ($29.99 ages 12 and up, $15.99 ages 3-11) and hear their tales of living and working in space.
If you want to be an astronaut rather than meet one, consider splurging on the new Astronaut Training Experience (ATX), a five-hour program that lets participants train as if they were headed to Mars. Through simulators and virtual reality, you can learn to navigate Martian terrain, and feel what it’s like to walk in microgravity. Those with iron stomachs can take a ride in the Lander/Rover Simulator. Be warned, you will be flipping around backward.
A companion program, Mars Base 1, lets would-be astronauts try out living on the Red Planet ($175 for ATX, $150 for Mars Base 1, minimum age 10, more restrictions apply).
No day of exploring space travel is complete without trying astronaut ice cream. Freeze-dried ice cream is sold in flat packages at the gift shop in the Saturn V center and back at the visitor complex.
Cape Canaveral Air Force Station
If you have an extra day, schedule a tour of neighboring Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, which houses the launch complexes for many of the early Gemini and Mercury missions. Like KSC, it’s an active launch site.
Although the base is a secure Air Force property, regular tours allow visitors access. KSC offers the Cape Canaveral Early Space Tour ($25 ages 12 and up, $19 ages 3-11). The three-hour excursion takes you to the launchpads of early space missions, including Launch Complex 34, the site — now a memorial — where the crew of Apollo 1 perished in 1967.
Canaveral Lighthouse Tours offers a more intimate three-and-a-half tour by minibus to see some of the same sites, including a one-hour guided tour of Cape Canaveral Lighthouse. The hitch: This tour must be reserved at least two days in advance to allow for security checks and may sell out, so reserve early.
As for seeing an actual blastoff: If your visit is happening around the time of a launch, you can purchase a ticket to watch at Kennedy Space Center. Keep in mind that mechanical or weather issues can delay launch windows or force a scrub.
You can also watch from Brevard County’s 70-plus miles of beaches, including world-famous Cocoa Beach, home to 11-time surfing world champion Kelly Slater (look for his statue upon driving into downtown).
We got humans to the moon, so you can get yourself to the Space Coast. Then, let the area’s unique attractions launch you through space and time.
If you go
Getting there: Kennedy Space Center is 45 minutes east of Orlando and less than 50 miles from three airports: Orlando International Airport, Orlando Sanford International Airport and Orlando Melbourne International Airport.
Hours: Opens daily at 9 a.m.; closing time varies by season.
Tickets: General admission $57 adults, $47 children 3-11, free for kids 2 and under; look for discounts online. Many attractions require additional fees.
Special Apollo 11 50th-anniversary events: A series of events will be held through July 20. Look for the schedule online.