The number one bucket list destination for any space geek traveler is Kennedy Space Center. America’s biggest and oldest space port is the center point of American space history, space present and space future. Conveniently located on the east coast of Florida, it is close to many other tourist hot spots, making it an ideal holiday destination. This post has all the tips for the first time visitor, but also offers some insider’s ‘secrets’ for those that have been there already and may consider a follow-up visit. Kennedy Space Center is much more than just the Visitor Complex.
To start with a common confusion: Kennedy Space Center consists in fact of two major space related sites. The John F. Kennedy Space Center (KSC) is one of ten NASA centers in the United States. It is located adjacent to the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station (CCAFS). Although nowadays these two facilities collaborate a lot, they identify a clear historic split between civil (NASA) and military (Air Force) space exploration. To add even more names, both facilities are located on Merritt Island, a large wildlife sanctuary just off the coast of mainland Florida, also referred to as the Space Coast. The easternmost point of the island is called Cape Canaveral. As most of the island is restricted access and very sparsely built, you may encounter a lot of unique wildlife, like alligators, manatees, bald eagles and even the endangered Florida panther lives on the island.
As early as 1949 the area was used as a test site to launch military missiles. These could be launched towards open ocean, not causing any threat to people. The very first launch pads along the coast quickly became known as “Missile Row”. This launch location quickly evolved into the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. Soon after new civil space agency NASA was formed in 1958, the Air Force transferred staff and some facilities to the new organization. President Kennedy’s 1961 space goals triggered a quick expansion of the site, leading to the government purchase of the area adjacent to the Air Force Station. Here, NASA constructed some of the largest facilities on the planet, including two massive launch pads to launch the large Saturn V rockets and an assembly building to construct them. This Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) now dominates the very flat landscape, visible from long distance. Shortly after President Kennedy was assassinated in 1962, the complex got its current name: Kennedy Space Center.
All of America’s historic manned space launches took place from here, starting with the Mercury program. All manned and unmanned Mercury missions launced from Cape Canaveral launch complexes 5 and 14, followed by the Gemini launches from nearby launch complex 19. After launching Apollo 7 from Cape Canaveral launch complex 34, NASA started using the brand new launch complex 39 pads on the new location near the VAB. After the Apollo program ended in 1975, these same two pads (LC39A and LC39B) were converted to launch 135 Space Shuttle missions, between 1981 and 2011.
At present only four launch complexes are in use, all located on the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. LC37B is used to launch the Delta IV rocket and LC41 for the Atlas V. Newcomer SpaceX launches from LC40 and since December 2015 lands its rocket(s) on LC13. In the meantime the two Apollo and Space Shuttle launch pads are converted for future launch systems. LC39A will facilitate the manned SpaceX Falcon 9 and the Falcon 9 Heavy. Its neighbor launch pad LC39B is being converted to handle the very heavy Space Launch System (SLS) rocket.
There is a lot to explore for the space-interested visitor. Please follow me here on a virtual tour of Kennedy Space Center:
Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex
United States Astronaut Hall of Fame
Saturn V Center
The story of the Saturn V rocket on display in this hall is remarkable. This is not a mock up! It is a real rocket, although the different parts do not necessarily belong together. The first stage is the S-IC-T test stage, used for ground tests and static firing of the F-1 engines from 1963. The second stage is a flight model, intended to be launched with Apollo 18. The third stage is again a test model, used for several structural and static firing tests. It was built for the smaller Saturn IB rocket, but later modified to fit the Saturn V. The command module and capsule are boilerplate (mockup) models.
Vehicle Assembly Building and LC39 Press Site
The Space Coast is located about an hour east of Orlando, which offers lots of good flight connections to almost the entire world. The best way to get around in Florida is by renting a car, as public transport is sparse. Car rental is relatively cheap in Florida. Driving from Miami will take about three hours, slightly less from Fort Lauderdale. Daytona is about an hour and a half.
You will find a good selection of hotels near Merritt Island. Closest are the towns of Titusville, Cape Canaveral and Cocoa Beach, with the best resort-like places in Cocoa Beach. Titusville is closest to the Visitor Center and launch viewing spots. There are no hotels on, or immediately adjacent to, Kennedy Space Center itself.
If you are a casual visitor you will probably make this a daytrip from Orlando, which is fine. If you are a more in-depth space enthusiast one day will not suffice to see even the Visitor Complex, including Saturn V Center. You want to plan two, or ideally even three days to see the Visitor Center, take one or two launch center tours from here, and explore the Cape Canaveral area, including the Air Force Space and Missile Museum. This should include having dinner in one of the waterfront restaurants in Port Canaveral, where you just may run into astronauts. Restaurant Fishlips is a well known space hangout.
As mentioned in the post, the US Astronaut Hall of Fame closed down in 2015. The collection will be moved to the main Visitor Complex and reopen for public view late in 2016.
I highly recommend taking a tour, organized by the Visitor Complex. As availability is limited, it is highly recommended to purchase tour tickets upfront (tickets are here). At the time of writing, three tours are offered: The KSC Bus Tour (included with admission), the Up-Close Explore Tour and the Launch Control Center Tour. The last option almost includes the other two, so I’d recommend to take at least that one.
If you want to attend a launch you should also purchase special tickets online. Tickets generally include bus transport to the viewing site. The Visitor Complex offers the closest public viewing opportunities (best places are the LC39 Viewing Gantry and the Saturn V Center).
In case you can’t get a ticket or don’t want to spend a lot of money, then you should find a spot with an uninterrupted view, for example over water, further away. Although normally you are not allowed to stop here, you will sometimes find viewing opportunities on the NASA Causeway. Good alternatives are several parkings and parks on Highway 1 in Titusville. Another good option is Space View Park (see map).
More Space Tourist Places
About a year ago I published a blog about my experiences as an Earth-bound space tourist, describing the best space places on the planet that I have visited to date, including KSC.
I also published the Space Tourist Bucket List, listing all manned space craft on public display, anywhere in the world. Of course it includes the KSC hardware.
Over the past years I visited the big Russian equivalent of KSC: Baikonur Cosmodrome. I wrote several blog posts about this birthplace of global space exploration. Part I is about the city of Baikonur, part II is about the cosmonaut experience and part III about the sites at the Cosmodrome.