In the late 1960s, Central Florida was the most exciting place on Earth, thanks to the moon. Kennedy Space Center, which was established in 1958 and ruled the tourist circuit with Disney in the 1970s, was eventually eclipsed by attractions based on fantasy. These days, it’s out of this world again.
You’ll see the launch sites used by the shuttle and by the Apollo moon shots, and you’ll receive an intelligent explanation of the preparation that went into each shuttle launch. You’ll buzz past eagles’ nests, alligator-rich canals, pads now leased by private space-mission contractors SpaceX and Boeing, and the confoundingly titanic Vehicle Assembly Building, or VAB, where the shuttle—which NASA folk call “the orbiter”—was readied. It’s just one story tall, but it’s a doozy: The Statue of Liberty could fit through those doors with 200 feet left over. The main bus stop, the Apollo/Saturn V Center, is themed “Race to the Moon” and begins with a mandatory 5-minute film and then a full-scale mock-up of the “firing room” in the throes of commanding Apollo 8’s launch, in all its window-rattling, fire-lit drama—to skip that 30-minute show and get to the good stuff, pass through. The adjoining hangar contains a Saturn V rocket, which is larger than you can imagine (363 ft. long, or the equivalent of 30 stories)—but the new SLS rockets are even bigger. Don’t overlook the chance to reach into a case to touch a small moon rock, which looks like polished metal. The presentation in the Lunar Theatre, which recounts the big touchdown, is well produced and even includes a video appearance by the late, reclusive Neil Armstrong. There’s a cafeteria here, and look around for retired engineers and astronauts who are often on hand to answer questions.
The end of the space shuttle program has enabled previously off-limits areas to be opened for visits. Availability shifts, but on a variety of additional “Up-Close” tours (generally $25 adults, $19 kids 3–11, plus admission), there’s always something that’s not on the standard KSC Bus Tour. You can visit the shuttle’s launch pad, the Launch Control Center used in the shuttle’s last liftoffs, the core of the Mercury and Gemini missions, and find out what NASA’s up to now, including the new SLS (Space Rocket System) that will carry the new Orion module into space for longer trips than ever before.
You don't have to pay to enter KSC to see launches. Although the space shuttle has flown into history, Cape Canaveral still launches unmanned rockets—SpaceX conducts spectacular liftoffs from pad 39A, where the Apollo missions launched. Because launches are often postponed, it would be dangerous to plan a trip to Orlando just to catch one, but then again, if there’s one when you’re in town, it would a shame to miss it, even if it means waking up at 5am. Kennedy Space Center maintains an updated schedule online both on its Kennedy Space Center Official Guide smartphone app and at www.kennedyspacecenter.com/events and sometimes it arranges VIP seating at a safe distance. The general public is not permitted to flood NASA turf during the actual events, but Titusville, a town at the eastern end of S.R. 50, is a good place to get a clear, free view, because you’ll be across the wide Indian River from the pad. Even if you can’t leave Orlando for a launch, you can still see the fire of the rockets ascend the eastern sky from any east-facing window in town. Night launches are even more spectacular