For those of you who would like to take a break from the onslaught of tourism that is Orlando, Kennedy Space Center makes a wonderful day trip just 45 minutes away. Although advertised as being a 2 hour tour, plan on a whole day here. I've tried to update the original 1998 information for 2010.
When arriving at the visitor's center, you will be confronted with possibly the world's only wheelchair accessible space vehicle...an actual space shuttle conveniently fitted with a ramped and elevator equipped tower allowing you access to all parts of the shuttle (see picture above).
Of course, the one thing everybody wants to see on the shuttle is the bathroom. You won't be disappointed...you'll get a front row seat for a view. It's amazing that 7 crew members can actually fit in the cramped quarters - most of the shuttle space is given over to cargo room and mechanics. This alone is worth the trip over but is just the beginning.
Starting off at the visitor's center, which separate from the tour of the spaceport itself is
free (not any more - Ed), you can wander about the amazing museum here. Aside from the shuttle mentioned above is the outstanding Rocket Garden which displays examples of some of our nation's most famous rockets.
Those of you traveling in wheelchairs needn't worry a bit about visiting here. Every facility is superbly accessible. Handicapped parking abounds right in front of the gate to the visitor's center. Accessible restrooms are just inside and all parts of the facility are ramped. There are also twin IMAX theaters that show great movies such as "The Dream is Alive" that have special seating reserved for wheelers...none of that stadium-style seating front row business that you are forced to endure at the local multiplex.
Tim demonstrates the wheelchair access on NASA's tour buses.
The panel behind him swings away and a lift pops out from the compartment below.
After seeing the highlights of the visitor center, you'll want to jump aboard one of the huge lift-equipped buses to tour the actual space center.
This is the only knock I have on the center's accessibility, and it's really just a small one. Not every bus in the fleet is lift equipped. Only about every 3rd bus is (all buses are now lift equipped - Ed).
Once on your way, the tour makes three main stops. You spend as much time at each one as you want, and then catch another bus to the next stop. It is at this point that you may have to wait for 2 or 3 buses before a lift-equipped bus will show up. (Each accessible bus has tie-downs for two chairs)
Now, on with the tour.
Once on the bus, an audio track is played featuring NASA astronauts explaing features and highlights of the facility. On the way to the first stop, you will pass the mammoth shuttle assembly building which is much bigger that needed because it originally was designed for the Saturn V booster that sent men to the moon. Recycled and refurbished it now serves present day needs.
Next to that is a smaller building with blast louvers on the windows. This is mission control where you see all those technicians at their computer monitors during a blast off. Parked out back is the biggest ground vehicle I've ever seen. This monster-sized tracked vehicle is the shuttle transport vehicle which carries assembled space shuttles out to the launch pad at a blistering 1 mile per hour.
After a drive by look at the famous digital countdown clock, you arrive at your first destination...the launching pad viewing platform.
After a quick movie showing how shuttle are prepared for flight and an actual blast off, you saunter out to the three story platform. An elevator will take you to any level you desire.
This is the closest the public is allowed to an actual launching pad due to the hazardous materials found there. There are two pads, the closest about 1/2 a mile away and the farther one about a mile. You can see them well and telescopes are mounted on the platform for a close-up view.
This is the shuttle that carried the first piece of the International Space Station sitting on the pad.
On our visit in October of 1998, the closer pad held the shuttle that was to be launched in December carrying the first piece of the International Space Station. The farther pad held the shuttle that in a week's time would carry John Glenn on his historic return to space. As a history buff, being at the epicenter of a place where history was being made was a thrill beyond measure.
This is the shuttle that carried John Glenn back to space sitting on it's pad.
Back on the bus after this stop, we pass by the shuttle landing strip and are told that the road we are on is the actual taxi way the shuttles use to be towed back to the assembly building. Just beyond that, the driver points out an alligator lounging in a water-filled roadside ditch. Then it's on to stop number two, the Saturn V display building.
Here we are noticing that are time is slipping away. We had scheduled 4 hours for this tour and then had to head back to Orlando to catch a flight home. Now is the time I realize that it's not enough to expect the tour to take only 2 hours as advertised. We were already hear that long and were only getting to the second stop. Clearly we'd have to trim some time. There is a movie you can watch about the Saturn V, but we skipped that and headed into the building.
The Saturn V's nozzles can't even fit into one picture
You may think you know how big the Saturn V is but until you've seen the actual thing, nothing can prepare you for it. The only complete Saturn V built that was never used (it was made for one more Apollo mission that was scrubbed), it lies on its side in this massive hall specially built for it. Over 3 football fields long, the booster has five gigantic rocket nozzles in it's base that provided enough thrust to lob men all the way to the moon. It is so big that I could not get those five nozzles into one picture no matter how far back I stood.
There is also a fantastic multimedia show highlighting the first trip to the moon back in 1969. Two moon rocks are on display, one you can touch, along with a lunar rover and an actual used apollo capsule. The cafeteria is here along with the requisite gift shop.
The last stop on the tour was the International Space Station assembly building where you can see components of the station being prepared for flight. As we were completely out of time, we stayed on the bus here and headed back to our car parked at the visitor's center to catch our flight home. (The space station is now orbiting around Earth so this is no longer an option - Ed)
Kennedy Space Center is located about 45 miles due east of Orlando next to the town of Titusville. It's a quick and scenic drive along the Beeline Expressway toll road (about $3 in tolls each way) to the center.
Back in 1998, admission to the visitor's center museum was free, but the tour was $14/adults and $10/kids under 12 and also includes another tour to historic Cape Canaveral where our space program began. Not any more. General admission, which includes the space center tour is now approaching $60 for adults and $50 for children (there are a few discounts such as senior and military, be sure to ask). The web site link at the top also describes how you can watch shuttle launches live and has a schedule of upcoming blast offs.
Copyright 1998/2010 - Darryl Musick