One of our very favourite excursions on #ourUSAadventure in 2015 was to the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) at Cape Canaveral, Florida. It was well worth the hour and a half bus trip there and back from Orlando (something we tend to avoid with our brood) and it truly offered something for everyone.
Primarily an excursion organised to cater to our son’s special interest in space, it ended up being a spectacular day out for the whole family. Even our then 4 year old loved all the exhibits and the displays – I was afraid it would all go over her head but she seemed to love every moment – especially when she had the rare treat of getting into a complimentary stroller for a while!
From the moment you board the bus (which collects passengers from multiple hotel stops in Orlando) you are invited into the world of NASA. Videos play along the way, recounting memories from NASA astronauts, engineers and mission control workers from past and present. In between, your driver also keeps you entertained with anecdotes of the local area.
For instance, did you know that the area code for Brevard County (which surrounds Cape Canaveral) starts with 3-2-1? How cool is that?
3-2-1 blast off!
The entry to KSC gives you a glimpse of the sheer scale of what’s to come as you are immediately welcomed by the Rocket Garden’s impressive display of early spacecraft. Featuring rockets from NASA’s earliest unmanned and manned missions, it even features the very gantry used by the Apollo 11 astronauts who became the first men on the moon.
I could have stayed here all day – it is a breathtaking sight.
Now, if you have kids, like mine, who don’t like sticking around for hours watching rockets in a garden (really, what’s wrong with them?), then send them over to the Children’s Play Dome which is conveniently situated next to the both the Rocket Garden and the Rocket Garden Cafe. Morning tea/afternoon tea sorted!
After we let the kids play and roam after being confined to a bus for an hour and a half, we made our way to board another bus, this time one of the KSC tour buses. They leave every 15 minutes from the Visitor Centre and escort visitors around the vast NASA complex.
This is where you truly get a feel for the sheer size and scale of this facility.
You can’t miss the imposing size of the Vehicle Assembly Building, where the space shuttles and the biggest rocket ever built, the Saturn V, were constructed. It is the biggest single story structure in the world, as well as one of the biggest structures by volume. The US flag which adorns the exterior is 209 ft tall! The whole building is massive on a whole new scale – you really need to see it to believe it.
Then you drive past some of the launch pads that have been used over the years for rocket and space shuttle launches. This is real history, right in front of your eyes. I was again floored by everything involved in getting a rocket or shuttle from the VAB to the launch pad. It’s a long, slow and heavy process.
Finally you reach the Apollo/Saturn V centre which is where you leave the bus to explore the history of America’s first manned missions to space. First, you are ushered into a theatre with the Apollo Mission Control centre in front of you and a recreation of the countdown that accompanied Apollo 8’s launch into space.
After the suspense of the launch, you move into the main hangar where the major drawcard (one that you simply cannot miss) is the 363 ft long Saturn V rocket, the largest rocket ever launched into space. It’s suspended above you in a custom made hangar, surrounded with information, displays and interactive exhibits about the 17 Apollo missions.
Highlights of the Apollo/Saturn V centre are the lunar theatre where you can find out more about that first visit to the moon, the opportunity to see a real rock from the moon, the Moon Rock Cafe (who were able to cater to our gluten free dietary needs – hurrah!) and the Right Stuff space shop, where we may have made a few very necessary purchases…
When you’ve had your fill of all things Apollo and Saturn V, catch one of the complimentary KSC buses back to the Visitor Centre to visit arguably the best exhibit in the complex – the space shuttle Atlantis.
I have to say that KSC knows how to put on a show.
Upon entering the Atlantis building, visitors are ushered along a long ramp with infographics on either side before coming to stop in front of double doors. You are then invited into a room with a huge screen which shows video of an Atlantis launch, together with special sound and sensory effects to make you feel like you are really there.
Then all goes black before lights come on behind the curtain and suddenly you see it – the Atlantis itself, right there in front of you.
NASA you are GOOD.
While the Saturn V displayed never made it into space (if it did, there would have been nothing to have displayed) the space shuttle before you is the real deal. It sports charred edges, lost tiles and damage from re-entry but it is one of the most moving and amazing things I have ever seen.
To me, it represented the closest I will ever get to the magic of outer space.
After soaking up as much as we could of the space shuttle itself (okay we were moved along by the next group coming in), we meandered along taking in all the other exhibits included in the display. You are cleverly lured down and around the shuttle until you reach another interactive area, perfect for the kids.
Some of the fabulous experiences available here include a shuttle launch simulation and a slide that has been built to replicate the re-entry angle for the space shuttles. It’s steep but a whole lot of fun!
After buying even more items from the obligatory souvenir shop (they are always located on your way out, aren’t they?) we then took a final look around the Visitor Centre before meeting back up with our tour group.
There were so many other things we could have enjoyed. There are real life Astronaut Encounters, IMAX films that immerse you in the wonder of space and a memorial dedicated to those who lost their lives in the pursuit of space exploration.
Unfortunately we just couldn’t get to everything on the day, even though we did valiantly try!
KSC really ranks as one of my all-time favourite experiences. It was engaging, awe inspiring and a whole lot of fun. There is so much to see that you should set aside a full day here. Even then, just like us, you may not get to it all.
But I see that as just another reason to go back one day and do it all again!