After $120 million re-do, Kennedy Space Center is thrilling destination for families to experience the glory days of the U.S. Space program.
By Karen Rubin
After a $120 million renovation, the Kennedy Space Center has become the place to experience the thrill and challenge of the glory days of the U.S. Space program-the days of the Mercury and Apollo missions that lead to those first fateful steps by man on the moon.
You are transported back to that time between the unknowing and knowing, back to when there was the vast mystery of the cosmos and when there were more failures off the launch pads than successes, back to the toe-line of the Space race with Russia, back to President John F. Kennedy’s fateful challenge to put a man on the moon before the end of the decade, and finally, that fateful “one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” You are reminded of the awe and wonder and thrill of the achievements.
The experience continues with the Shuttle program, the Mars Rover, and the International Space Station (the subject of a phenomenal IMAX movie), and you still get to see the exterior of the massive Vehicle Assembly Building (the third largest building in the world in cubic area) as well as a view of the launch pads (which may possibly have a shuttle or rocket lined up for blast-off) but these are more like ellipses, signifying the continuation of the space program, rather than the focus of the visitor experience.
Instead, much like how Disney’s MGM theme park and Universal’s focus is on the heyday of movie making, the glory days of the 1930s, the Kennedy Space Center is centered on that glorious time before people became bored and apathetic and yes, even dubious about spending the billions of dollars to push the envelope of our knowledge and our physical space deeper into Outer Space. To some degree, the reignited delight we feel about that time helps raise consciousness and increase support for the latest challenge, to send a manned mission to Mars.
The Delaware North Corporation, which now operates the Center as well as the nearby U.S. Astronaut Hall of Fame, has done an amazing job at enhancing the visitor experience at both space-oriented attractions.
The new exhibit restores the social and cultural context to the era of the Mercury program, a time when people were living on the edge of a nuclear holocaust and the Cold War was running hot. By the end of the Apollo program, though, the Soviets (now Russians) had become our allies, our partners in space, signified by the link-up of the Soyez with the Apollo spacecraft.
Finally, we are witnesses, via the incredibly realistic 3-D IMAX movies which makes you feel that you are actually “there,” to the construction and occupation of the International Space Station.
There are many more videos and old television footage and music from that time that provide cultural context for those who weren’t there but also jog your memory for those who were. More of the exhibits also incorporate the cultural symbols of the time-commercials that people were watching, interviews with the “man on the street”, even the kids’ thermoses, lunch boxes and toys, the comic books and “alien invasion” novels that reflected how our preoccupation with Space had pushed aside cowboys and Indians in our collective conscious.
As before, the centerpiece of the visitor experience is a bus trip (this is still a working space facility, after all, so visitors can hardly be running about on their own, and the various sites are spread out by miles). But the bus tour has been completely changed, updated, and altogether improved. Instead of timed departures, you line up for the next available bus, so the wait is minimal (you even get a group photo taken on your way to the platform-just one of the many “theme park”-style “amenities” that have been introduced). The buses have video screens so you get some great footage and interesting information as you take the ride out to the first stop, an Observation area where you can gaze out to the various launch pads.
The bus driver breaks in with relevant narration as you pass important sites-such as the VAB (Vehicle Assembly Building), which you learn is the third largest building in the world, in total volume. The video screens show what goes on inside but, obviously, visitors do not get to go inside. You get to see the “Crawler”-this massive tractor-type vehicle with a platform upon which the rocket assembly is placed, and which makes its way from the VAB on a specially constructed road to the launch pad at the amazing speed of one mile per hour.
The Launch Complex 39 Observation Gantry used to be just a raised platform; now there is an entire building with a wonderful video about what goes on in the VAB, and then interactive exhibits about the launch pad. Then you climb (or take an elevator), up about four stories for a 360-degree view of the launch pads, the Crawlerway and the Vehicle Assembly Building. You can spend as much time as you like, and then go out to the bus platform where you queue up for the next available bus to continue the tour, to a specially constructed hangar-like building where the key parts of the visitor experience are based.
Inside this structure, the Apollo/Saturn V Center, reassembled, is the very control room which launched and monitored the 1969 flight that sent the first men to land on the moon. In the old days when you would visit the Kennedy Space Center, this was a stagnant, cold, old-looking room. Now, that moment of the launch is brought back to life. There are the video screens that emulate what the controllers were looking at; the backs of the chairs have shirts slung over them with the names of the various contractors who would have been sitting there-IBM, for example. There is sound, light, and commentary by famous astronauts including Jim Lovell. It is a fusion of the past and present and it is done extremely well.
Then, you enter a Lunar Theater where the first moon landing is depicted. Here, in a thrilling film about the first moon landing, I learned for the first time that the mission almost had to be aborted because of a problem with the navigation of the descent (that was not rehearsed because it was considered too improbable) which would have landed Neil Armstrong in a place where he would not have been able to lift off, back to the lunar orbiter. The decision had to be made with just two minutes (the amount of fuel in the lunar lander), but Armstrong took the controls and manually flew the Eagle to a spot. The rest is history.
From there, you walk out into a massive room that houses a real Saturn V rocket-one of only three remaining-that launched the astronauts to the moon. The chance to walk beside it so closely gives you a sense, for the first time, of just how enormous this thing is.
There is much to do in this new exhibit: you can touch an actual moon rock (only about one inch long); you can remotely control a model of the Mars Rover.
There is so much to do, in fact, you will probably stop for refreshment at the Moon Rock Café (the prices are out-of-sight); and of course, there is a souvenir shop (but all the gift shops at the center now are actually quite wonderful).
The Visitor Center complex also has a lot to do. You can visit Shuttle Explorer, a full-scale replica of an actual space shuttle, walking into the flight deck and the crew quarters and peering down into the cargo bay area (there is actually very little room, it seems, for the crew). Also, in the Exploration in the New Millennium, you can touch a real Mars rock and get a sense of the future of space travel.
This is where the IMAX theaters are located; during our visit, we saw “Space Station,” an amazing movie about the International Space Station, shown on a screen five-stories high, makes you feel you are right there with the astronauts.
A new activity is the Mad Mission to Mars 2025, a live-action show with theatrical effects and 3-D computer animation that delights young children, who become young space cadets on a wacky adventure through the cosmos. The youngsters will also appreciate a Children’s Play Dome (a play area for children under 48-inches); and the Robot Scouts, another kids-oriented cosmic adventure.
The Rocket Garden is still there, from before, with historic rockets, some like the Titan 10-stories high, that tell the story of man’s quest for the stars.
A highlight in this area is the daily Astronaut Encounter, when you can be face-to-face with one of the few people on the planet who has actually ventured into outer space.
The Universe Theater is showing “Quest for Life” movie, which raises the question about the possibility of life on other planets (about 20 million are potential candidates to harbor life, just in our own Milky Way galaxy) and how scientists are pursuing this quest.
A new exhibit, Early Space Exploration, offers actual Mercury Mission Control consoles, an actual Gemini capsule, and other space artifacts.
There is also a Launch Status Center, where there are live Shuttle mission briefings.
The Center for Space Education offers interactive learning and a Teacher Resource Center (open Monday-Saturday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.).
This area also offers a Space Walk of Honor and the Astronaut Memorial, a restaurant, cafeteria and snack bar. Finally, there is the Space Shop, the world’s largest store devoted to space memorabilia and gifts–and it is really quite excellent.
These can all be visited on the standard tour, but there are some special tours and programs that you might be interested in: NASA Up-Close Tour, Cape Canaveral, Then & Now tour, Lunch with an Astronaut, and the ATX (Astronaut Training Experience).
The two specialty tours, NASA Up Close and Cape Canaveral, Then & Now, are guided by a space program expert and take you deeper into the operations of Kennedy Space Center.
NASA Up Close (for an additional $22 adult/$16 child 3-11) provides access to a mock-up of the International Space Station, “the dream that seemed impossible” – the most ambitious space program since the Apollo moon landings. This fascinating facility gives you an up-close glimpse inside the actual facility where NASA is preparing the real components of the International Space Station – the largest, most complex structure ever to be placed into orbit. An elevated observation room overlooks the actual processing bay where each space station component is checked out, processed and readied for its trip into orbit. You enter the full-scale mock-up of the Habitation Module and see the facilities that space station crewmembers will use for living, sleeping and working quarters. Another highlight of this tour is that it allows access to the A/B Camera Stop, where visitors have the closest possible view of the Space Shuttle Launch Pad.
Cape Canaveral, Then and Now takes you to the Air Force Space and Missile Museum, at Launch Pad 26 (the original launch facility) where you relive the launch of America’s first satellite, Explorer I, and America’s first astronauts, monkeys Able, Baker, Gordo and Ham, and see today’s active rocket program. The tour ends at the Apollo/Saturn V Center.
One of the most popular programs at Kennedy Space Center, Lunch with an Astronaut ($19.99 adult/$12.99 child, added on to admission) gives visitors a one-of-a-kind experience to meet a member of NASA’s Astronaut Corps and get their autograph. Held once daily during lunch hours, these sessions offer an up-close and personal opportunity to share in the excitement of space exploration through the eyes and personal stories of one of NASA’s best, all while enjoying a delicious meal. An impressive roster of Astronauts have appeared since the program’s inception in 2001, including Wally Schirra, John Glenn, Jim Lovell, Gene Cernan, Walt Cunningham, Story Musgrave and Jon McBride. You can find out who is scheduled by visiting kennedyspacecenter.com/upcomingEvents.asp. Seating is limited, so you should make reservations: call 321-449-4400 or make reservations on line, http://www.ksctickets.com/dinwitas1.html.
Wonder whether you could make the cut as an astronaut? The Astronaut Training Experience (ATX) is a new immersive, interactive Astronaut Training Program. You get to try the multi-axis trainer, a 1/6-gravity chair, and practice in a full-scale Space Shuttle mock up; you also get to do a simulation of going into Earth orbit and rendezvousing with the International Space Station to perform repairs ($225/adult includes ATX gear and meal).
Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex is open every day of the year, except December 25 and certain launch days. Current operating hours are from 9:00 a.m to 5:30 p.m (The Astronaut Hall of Fame is open from 10 a.m. to 6:30 p.m.)
You can try to time your visit to the Kennedy Space Center to an actual launch-just check the schedule for launch online: http://www.kennedyspacecenter.com/launches/index.asp. In fact, there are a dozen launches each year.
Maximum Access Ticket ($37 adult/$27 child 3-11) includes the standard tour of Kennedy Space Center, the IMAX® space movies and all exhibits and shows. This ticket also includes the Astronaut Hall of Fame, which you can visit that day or return on a second day; the ticket also allows you to return to the Kennedy Space Center on the second day.
This is very handy since you will need at least five hours (and even longer) to get the full experience at Kennedy Space Center (recognizing that smaller children may not have such a long attention span, so it is better to break up the visit, anyway).
If you are not interested in visiting the Astronaut Hall of Fame, you would get the Standard admission: ($30 adult/$20 child), which provides for the tour of Kennedy Space Center, see IMAX® movies and the exhibits and shows.
The exhibits are accessible for those with disability; wheelchair accessible buses can be requested (321-449-4364; you can arrange a group function (such as a family reunion activity) by calling 321-449-4400. Another handy bit of information: there are pet kennels available free of charge
NASA Kennedy Space Center is a shrine to the glory days of the space program, when man crossed a threshold that separated unknowing from knowing and entered a new frontier, a new realm. It extended the boundary for humans … undid the fetters that keep us earthbound… propelled us a little closer to the infinite.
NASA Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex, State Rd. 405 on Merritt Island; 321-449-4444, www.KennedySpaceCenter.com.
U.S. ASTRONAUT HALL OF FAME
Eric sits at the controls of the shuttle orbiter, the joystick in hand, attempting to land the space craft. He is prompted by a trainer who guides him how to match up the diamond to the circle in order to line up correctly. He needs to get the nose slightly up. On the first attempt, he fails, and the $1 billion vehicle smashes up. The trainer is sympathetic. On his second try, he is successful. Whew!
This is one of the new interactive experiences available at the U.S. Astronaut Hall of Fame, located six miles away from the entrance to the Kennedy Space Center on the same access road (Rte. 405).
Once a separate, private non-profit museum, the U.S. Astronaut Hall of Fame, has now come under the same operation of the Delaware North Company and has similarly gone through a substantial transformation that gives visitors-children especially-a much more interactive experience.
When the museum first opened, it provided that critical personal element to the story about Space. The museum was really about the men (and women) who were responsible for “man’s conquest of Space.” You saw these brave souls and modern day explorers, discoverers, adventurers, scientists of extraordinary courage, much like Christopher Columbus in his day.
It is here that you learn of the “dreams” of the astronauts before they entered that very special realm of those who have ventured into ” the ocean of night” from which they look back at a world without boundaries, without bounds.
Even now, parts of the exhibit retain the personal artifacts-the marbles, scout badges, favorite well-worn jacket-mainly of the Mercury 7 astronauts, but the exhibit also provides a timeline and artifacts that extend to the Apollo astronauts, while the actual Hall of Fame comes up to the present day, paying homage to 44 American astronauts (astronauts have to be out of service for five years in order to be considered for admission).
Because of the changes to Kennedy Space Center, some of the Astronaut Hall of Fame exhibits now seem redundant, but is still worthwhile.
However, the best features are the new interactive exhibits that let you get some sense of what astronauts go through in their training. You can now feel what it is like to be hurled through the air at 4Gs (similar to the force of take off); take a seven-minute “Mission to Mars” (this is not recommended for people like me who are prone to motion sickness); get into a harness to feel what it might be like to do a moonwalk; sit on your back in a mock-up of a Mercury capsule and try your hand at pressing buttons to “test” your reaction time; and try a virtual reality game of basketball to get the feel for how astronauts use virtual reality programs to practice maneuvers they might experience in space.
My absolute favorite, though, was sitting at the “controls” of a shuttle craft flight simulator, and getting a mini-lesson in landing the shuttle, then trying to land it, touching down at the equivalent of 200 mph. As I took the controls, I was remembering Sally Ride saying how the shuttle lands like a glider-you only get one try to get it right. I crashed but Eric managed to land correctly.
This facility works in conjunction with the Kennedy Space Center to offer the Camp Kennedy Space Center Day Camp for children. During the five-day program, they get to try motion-based space simulators, perform a Space Shuttle mission simulation, meet and talk to an astronaut, launch rockets, work in teams to investigate space travel to the moon and Mars, design space exploration vehicles and habitats. The program is available for campers from 2nd to 9th grade, divided by age (offered in spring and summer, $260 per week, 321-449-4444).
It is interesting to note that the Astronaut Hall of Fame is directly across from a new Police Hall of Fame (offering a shooting gallery and police helicopter rides).
Other Space-related attractions include the U.S. Space Walk of Fame in Titusville, the only riverwalk in the U.S. that preserves America’s history in space through displays of memorabilia, interpretive plaques, public art (it is also a favorite viewing platform for rocket launches, 321-267-7241); and the Astronaut Memorial Planetarium and Observatory in Cocoa (321-634-3732).
Contact the Space Coast Office of Tourism, 2725 Judge Fran Jamieson Way, Viera FL 32940, 877-57 BEACH, www.space-coast.com.
The highlight of the $120 million re-do of the NASA Kennedy Space Center is the new Apollo/Saturn V Center where you get up close to one of only three of these enormous rockets designed to take man to the moon (© 2005 Karen Rubin).
Eric Leiberman “lands” the space shuttle using a flight simulator at the U.S. Astronaut Hall of Fame (© 2005 Karen Rubin).
The “Rocket Garden” at night at the Kennedy Space Center (© 2005 Karen Rubin).
© 2005 Travel Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, Inc. All rights reserved. Send comments or travel questions to FamTravLtr@aol.com.