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Kennedy Space Center Florida is much more than a place to see the next SpaceX shuttle launch. It’s also an interactive, educational space adventure! Experience the exhilaration of takeoff in a shuttle launch simulator. Step into the shoes of a NASA astronaut in the Apollo control center. Feel the sensation of real moon rock between your fingers. Keep scrolling to learn how one TravelingDad and his kids went big on the geek-out factor during their Kennedy Space Center visit.
This post is sponsored by VISIT FLORIDA.
My wife and I got into an argument recently about something she says the military calls BLUF (Bottom Line Up Front), and what I’ve learned as BLOT (Bottom Line on Top). The idea is that you tell the reader what they came for right away, and then you give them the details of why you feel that way.
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If you’re wondering why I’m starting off a review of NASA’s Kennedy Space Center Florida (KSC) with an argument about acronyms, just hang tight, my little astronaut.
Here’s the Bottom-Line-On-Top: GO NOW! RUN! DRIVE! FLY! TAKE A SHUTTLE (#dadJoke)! BLAST OFF YOUR WAY TO KENNEDY SPACE CENTER NOW.
Kennedy Space Center Visitor Center
My family did not research heavily on what to expect from KSC. Neither of my kids, both extremely bright, have shown interest in learning about space exploration or NASA in general, and there wasn’t a buzz of excitement in the car as we neared the parking lot.
All of that changed faster than Saturn V’s speed to escape Earth’s orbit (25,000 MPH!).
From the moment you approach the parking lot, you’re instantly blown away by towering rockets that you’ll struggle to get into your selfies. Near the back of the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex, you can see the Space Shuttle Atlantis’s life-size fuel tank replicas towering over the entire site, begging for your attention.
But your mind is already with the stars, and your journey has only just begun.
The Space Shuttle Atlantis’ Spectacular Reveal
When we picked up our admission tickets, our agent noticed that we were signed up for the bus tour to the Saturn V center, and she advised us to head straight to the Space Shuttle Atlantis. She said that we’d easily find enough to see and do in 2 hours. As an added bonus, she said, the Atlantis is conveniently located right beside the bus depot if we lost track of time.
That part was key, because we truly lost track of time.
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When you first enter, you wind your way up to a room featuring a 10ish minute movie, set in the 1960s about the space shuttle program. It sets the scene beautifully, showing the challenges NASA faced in engineering this first-of-its-kind shuttle, and the immense pressure that the teams were under.
You then enter a room where the viewing screen surrounds you, enveloping your mind in space flight. It’s engaging, immersive, and is only topped by itself, As the film ends, the viewing screen ahead starts to become transparent, and the actual space shuttle Atlantis appears, through the now semi-transparent screen you were watching. It’s magnificently produced, and the transition from film to reality is seamless.
Pardon This Proud Dad Moment
As a proud Dad side note, I noticed something interesting shortly after entering the exhibit. My high school aged daughter was engrossed in an area featuring information on the Hubble telescope. There were mathematical formulas featured and she said that her math teacher would be proud of her for understanding some of it, and wanting to learn more.
I love seeing this side of her. She’s so creative in anything she does, and I hope she maintains an interest in NASA. We need more women excited about STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics), and we need to encourage them to explore these frontiers.
NASA has a history of hiring extraordinary and brilliant women. Those women have been crucial to NASA’s success, and have been instrumental in countless missions, as NASA astronauts, crew members, engineers, scientists, and mathematicians.
If you have the opportunity to take your daughter to Kennedy Space Center, and ignite the spark in her to fall in love with STEM and its infinite possibilities, you’ll not regret it.
Now, back to our regularly scheduled Kennedy Space Center post.
Shuttle Launch Experience
The Space Shuttle Atlantis exhibit is also where you’ll find the shuttle launch experience. This is unlike any simulator or theme park ride you’ve ever been in before. It was designed by astronauts and former astronauts to make you feel what the astronauts felt at liftoff from the launch pad. That means experiencing multiple Gs of pressure as you accelerate into orbit, and experience weightlessness.
For many of us, this is the closest to space travel that we’ll get. Unless you get motion sick, do not skip this experience. For a few brief moments, you may just feel like a real astronaut.
TravelingDad Tip: The launch simulator closes at 4pm, an hour before closing time for the rest of KSC. Plan accordingly!
Geek Out Moments
I’m going to drop some impressive statistics about the Space Shuttle Atlantis, but not enough to make you run for the hills as I geek out for a moment:
- Maiden Voyage: 1985
- Final Mission: 2011 (26 years of space flight!)
- 33 Different missions with 156 different crew members
- 12 Missions to the International Space Station (ISS)
- The first shuttle ever to dock with Mir, the first modular space station assembled in space
This exhibit tries to drop the mic on your visit from the start, but the Saturn V center has something to say about that…
Apollo / Saturn V Center: The Greatest Space Adventure
“But if I were to say, my fellow citizens, that we shall send to the moon, 240,000 miles away from the control station in Houston, a giant rocket more than 300 feet tall, the length of this football field, made of new metal alloys, some of which have not yet been invented, capable of standing heat and stresses several times more than have ever been experienced, fitted together with a precision better than the finest watch, carrying all the equipment needed for propulsion, guidance, control, communications, food and survival, on an untried mission, to an unknown celestial body, and then return it safely to earth, re-entering the atmosphere at speeds of over 25,000 miles per hour, causing heat about half that of the temperature of the sun–almost as hot as it is here today–and do all this, and do it right, and do it first before this decade is out–then we must be bold.”
— President John F. Kennedy, 1962
I have goosebumps just reading that, but it’s nothing compared to the ones I experienced standing in the hangar exhibit by the actual Saturn V Rocket. I only learned about the moon landing through books and films, as I wasn’t old enough to be around when it actually happened.
But at the Saturn V Center, you can touch a moon rock, see your footsteps on a projected moon surface, and see a full replica of the control center from the Apollo missions.
The Control Center
I buried the lead a bit on the control center. It’s part of an immersive experience that you should not miss. You file into a large auditorium, and the scene is set.
The control center is front-and-center. High in the front-left you’ll see various phrases, indicating Liftoff, Engine Start, and other milestones reached during the rocket launch.
To the top right, are locations around the world helping maintain communication with the astronauts as they travel to the moon. Lights appear over various seats in the control center, where the men and women of NASA sat on that day as their words play out to you.
10….the room starts to shake
9….you forget you’re in Florida
8…The windows behind you are vibrating fiercely
7…oh my God, this achievement defies belief
6…Did I remember to pack clean underwear?
5….I hope my neighbor remembers to feed my goldfish
4…I’m worried that the windows behind, now shaking harder than ever, will hold
The inspiring words of President Kennedy ring true, as we reach the moon before the decade is out.
A Word of Advice on the Bus Tour
Pay attention! You’ll learn about the active bald eagle population, with more than 50 years of births on Merritt Island.
And, you’ll pass the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB). This building will play tricks on your mind. It will not look as impressive as it is. Three Empire State Buildings could fit INSIDE IT — 3! — and leave room to spare! It is the largest one-story building by volume in the entire world.
There is an American Flag on the building that was painted by hand, and the stripes are so wide that the tour bus you’re riding in could fit inside each stripe.
As the bus approaches the Apollo / Saturn V Center, hopefully your driver and tour guide will point out Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in the distance. There are 4 active launch sites in the distance, with 2 of them currently leased to Spacex. You’ll even find some bleachers that are used for viewings of various launches.
The Rocket Garden at Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex
Unlike any garden you’ve likely walked through before, you can’t miss this feature as you enter the Visitor Complex. These metal giants are filled with towering tales to tell.
There are excellent information plaques near each of the rockets, and there’s a 15-minute tour available a few times a day that you shouldn’t miss if possible.
At one point my teenagers decided to fit inside the small moon lander in the rocket garden. For a moment there, I wasn’t sure if they got stuck, but based on the amount of laughter inside that little lander, they clearly weren’t concerned.
More to See at Kennedy Space Center Florida
On our one day at Kennedy Space Center, we entered the gates around 11 o’clock, and left at 5 when they almost had to physically drag us out. It was a very full day. Even so we missed so much!
Here’s a rundown of other features that we’ll be seeing when we return at some point, very soon hopefully:
Astronaut Hall of Fame
Here’s how the Center explains Heroes and Legends and the Astronaut Hall of Fame:
“Relive the thrills and dangers of America’s earliest space missions and embark on an awe-inspiring journey designed to spark thought about how humans define a hero. Experience the dawn of the space age with astronaut pioneers through actual artifacts including a Redstone rocket suspended overhead along with the Sigma 7 capsule and a unique close-up look at the Gemini 9 capsule. Learn which qualities define heroes before finding them among those inducted into the U.S. Astronaut Hall of Fame.”
If you’ve never been to an IMAX theater before, you’ll be in for a treat. The IMAX experience takes immersion to the next level. Even better, there’s no additional cost. Currently, the two films are:
- Asteroid Hunters: A 3D film about asteroids, their cosmic origins and the potential threat they pose to our world. Asteroid scientists use cutting-edge tools and techniques to detect and track asteroids, and the technology that may one day protect our planet. It’s 40 minutes long and narrated by Daisy Ridley. Let me say that again: NARRATED BY DAISY RIDLEY! You know….Rey….Skywalker…Star Wars…..I mean….Come ONNNNNN
- Journey to Space: Journey to space through stunning imagery and interviews with NASA astronauts Chris Ferguson, commander of the final shuttle mission, and Serena Aunon, who will lead future flights. It’s also 40 minutes long. This one is narrated by Sir Patrick Stewart. Not to be outdone.…Narrated by The One and Only Sir Patrick Stewart….Jean-Luc Picard….. “Space, the final frontier….these are the voyagers of the Starship Enterprise….”
Astronaut Training Experience
This separate experience requires reservations and has an additional charge. It allows visitors to train like the next generation of space explorers who will travel to Mars. Practice docking skills, navigate the Mars terrain and experience the sensation of performing a spacewalk in a microgravity environment.
Using immersive simulation technology, participants work together to solve real-world problems using authentic NASA science.
Where is Kennedy Space Center?
The Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex is located on the east coast of Florida, about 1 hour east of Orlando (home to Disney World among other things). It’s on Merritt Island in Titusville.
Your awe-inspiring journey starts there, and it will end with you wondering where a full day went, why you’re not coming back tomorrow, and why you didn’t study harder in high school and college so that you could work for NASA.