Throughout the course of human history, the moon and space have beckoned to man. There, but untouchable and unobtainable. The freedom to reach for the unimaginable and yet undeniable is what America was founded on and what NASA was born into and tasked to do. If you want to learn about the short history of NASA and their many accomplishments or the brave heroes of space exploration there is no better way than by visiting the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
The Space Race
In 1957, Russia sent the first man-made satellite into orbit and in that instance, the United States found itself behind the eightball as one of the world’s two superpowers in a race for space. The U.S. moved quickly and within a year had established and funded the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). The Russians would again beat the U.S. into space in April of 1961 with Lt. Yuri Gagarin becoming the world’s first person to leave Earth. This was the last time the U.S. would be bested. Two months after Russia sent Gargarin, NASA launched Alan Shepard into space from Cape Canaveral and into history.
To the Moon
The month after Shepard’s historic trip the U.S. president, John F. Kennedy, dropped the gauntlet on NASA and announced to the world that we would take on the extraordinary challenge of “landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to Earth within a decade.” NASA wasn’t even three years old and had barely scratched the edge of space but they would rise to the challenge of sending mankind on a journey of more than 225,000 miles. Every planet’s mass in our solar system can fit into that distance between the earth and the moon. It is unimaginably far. This endeavor into the seemingly impossible was where NASA’s feet were put to the fire and one of the many stories to fully discover when visiting the Kennedy Space Center.
The Top 7 Reasons for Visiting the Kennedy Space Center
#1 – The Rocket Garden
The Rocket Garden rightfully stands at the gate to Kennedy Space Center. It is the first thing visitors see as they walk through the gates and this is appropriate as these rockets are the ones that started the U.S. space program. Visitors can get up close to these pioneers of the space age. Crawl inside the mercury or Gemini capsules and feel how cramped these crafts were. Gemini 7 was in orbit for 13 and a half days. Think about sitting next to a fellow astronaut in a Gemini capsule for that long. At least they had a great view.
#2 – The Cape Canaveral Early Space Tour
The Cape Canaveral Early Space Tour has an additional cost associated with it, but it is a must do for anyone visiting the Kennedy Space Center. The tour enters the Cape Canaveral Airforce Station and visits a few of the actual launch sites for the early rockets that are found in the Rocket Garden. The tour passes through an early launch facility known as a blockhouse. It is amazing how close these structures were to the rockets they were launching into space. Equally amazing is the technology used to do it. Massive computers line the wall with the equivalent calculating power of a modern day $5 calculator.
Another stop on the tour is launch pad-5 which is where Alan Shepard was launched into space on the top of a Redstone rocket named Freedom 7. The Redstone Rockets were originally designed to be intercontinental ballistic missiles, he was basically strapped in place of the warhead. The Cape Canaveral Early Space Tour also visits launchpad 34. This is the location where NASA experienced its first true failure when Apollo 1 burned up on the launchpad taking the lives of three brave men. Many other rockets had blown up or flown off course in the early days. Our tour guide said there were so many that the failures heavily outweighed the successes, but Apollo 1 was the first time American’s had paid the ultimate price in our quest for space. It is a sobering spot.
#3 – Saturn V Center
The Saturn V rocket is what got us to the moon. Calling it massive is an understatement. It stood 363′ tall on the launch pad and was 33′ in diameter weighing 6.54 million lbs. Those are mind-boggling numbers that seem so large they don’t mean much when reading. When you visit the Kennedy Space Center you can stand alongside one of these behemoths laid out on its side and elevated so that visitors can walk alongside and under it. You can realize the enormous amount of thrust and engineering that it took to get something that massive off the ground let alone into space. You will be left in awe and with a sense of pride in what humans can accomplish when we put our best and brightest to a task.
A visit to the Saturn V center begins with visitors getting to sit in the actual control center that launched the massive rockets to the moon and re-live that “giant leap for mankind.” The Saturn V center also houses a moving and technologically stunning tribute to those 3 brave astronauts of Apollo 1.
The Saturn V Center is accessed via a bus that is part of admission to the Kennedy Space Center. Most people will spend several hours exploring this area so plan accordingly. Food is available for purchase at the Saturn V Center. A bonus of this bus ride is getting to see NASA’s Vehicle Assembly Building which is where all the rockets are assembled for launch. The Saturn V stood inside the building on a crawler pad so it is the largest thing at the Kennedy Space Center. It has the largest doors in the world.
#4 – Space Shuttle Atlantis
In 2011, the 30-year-old shuttle program came to an end when Atlantis touched down on the runway of Cape Canaveral on its final mission. The Shuttle program was the 4th program in NASA’s short history and it was the workhorse for over half of NASA’s existence. In all, there were 135 shuttle missions.
Visitors to the Kennedy Space Center can experience the Shuttle Program’s history from concept to seeing the legendary spaceship Atlantis housed inside the Space Shuttle Atlantis building. Visitors can also experience what it was like to launch into space on the space shuttle via the Shuttle Launch Experience simulator. Highlights of the shuttle program including replicas of the Hubble Space Telescope and the International Space Station are on display. There is also a memorial hall dedicated to those who lost their lives on Challenger and Columbia.
#5 – Heroes and Legends
The quest for space has been fraught with danger since the very beginning. It takes a person of great fortitude and bravery to strap themselves into the seat of a rocket and be blasted into the unforgivable environment of space. There have been setbacks and losses as with any exploration of human endeavors, but also great accomplishments. The Heroes and Legends exhibit does an amazing job of displaying the virtues of a hero and chronicles the men and women who rose to the challenge of space exploration.
If reading about the heroes of space isn’t enough for you the Kennedy Space Center has different Astronauts come in to tell their personal stories of how they became involved with NASA and the missions they were a part of. Visitors can ask questions during the Q&As and have a picture taken with the astronauts. For a little extra cost, visitors can even Dine With An Astronaut.
#6 – Learn About the Future of Space Exploration
The Kennedy Space Center is not only a great place to see NASA’s accomplishments of the past but to look to the future. The future is bright for space exploration with private industry getting involved with servicing the new space endeavors and new technologies like 3D printing being utilized to reduce costs. There are displays of the new Orion capsule as well as other spacecraft and even a new concept shuttle on display at the Kennedy Space Center.
#7 – Witness a Rocket Launch
Rockets are regularly being launched from Cape Canaveral. Visitors can arrange to view these scheduled launches from several locations at the Kennedy Space Center. Getting to see the raw power of these new generations of rockets first hand is a memory that will last a lifetime.
What to Know Before Visiting the Kennedy Space Center
- Plan for 2 days
- If you want to experience all of the above and more (there is much more) a minimum of 2 days is needed. Plan on 3 days if you want to see everything and do some of the extras.
- Entrance Fee
- The cost of a single visit is pricey but an annual pass “Multi-day visit” costs less than 2 days would and you get a free parking pass for the second visit.
- Click here for current pricing
- Hours of Operation
- Opens at 9:00 AM year round.
- Closing time varies. Click here for scheduled times.
- Motorcycles: $5.00
- Automobiles: $10.00
- RVs: $15.00
- Where to Stay
- For those with rolling accommodations, the Manatee Hammock Campground is located on the other side of the Indian River. Reasonably priced and a good location to take in a rocket launch.