America's space program—past, present, and future—is the star at this must-see attraction, just 45 minutes east of Orlando, where visitors are treated to interactive experiences, two spectacular IMAX movies, bus tours, and more. Located on a 140,000-acre barrier island, Kennedy Space Center was NASA's launch headquarters from the beginning of the space program in the 1960s until the final shuttle launch in 2012. Thanks to an invigorated NASA program and to high-tech entrepreneurs who have turned their interests to space, visitors to the complex can once again view live rocket launches from the Cape. In fact, there were 24 launches scheduled in 2015—even more in 2016 (check the website for launch schedule).
of the human desire to explore and expand. The film honors the milestones of the Space Shuttle Program—deploying and repairing the Hubble Space Telescope, assembling the International Space Station—and then looks forward to the deep-space exploration missions to come, offering a glimpse of the Space Launch System rocket that will send the Orion crew capsule toward Mars.
The drama of the IMAX films gives you great background for the many interactive programs available at the complex. The bus tour included with admission (buses depart every 15 minutes) takes you past iconic spots, including the 525-foot-tall Vehicle Assembly Building and launch pads which are getting ready for future missions. Stops include the Apollo/Saturn V Center, where you can look up in awe at one of three remaining Saturn V moon rockets, the largest rocket ever built. Other exhibits include the Early Space Exploration display, which highlights the rudimentary yet influential Mercury and Gemini space programs; and the Lunar Theater, which shows the first moon landing. Visitors can dine next to a genuine moon rock at the cleverly named Moon Rock Café.
Several Up-Close tours offer more intimate views of the VAB, the Shuttle Landing Facility, the runway where the shuttles landed (now slated for use by the Sierra Nevada Dream Chaser, one of the commercial spacecraft under development), and the Cape Canaveral launch pads, where NASA, SpaceX, and the United Launch Alliance rockets await takeoff. Other iconic images include the countdown clock at NASA’s Press Site, a giant crawler transporter that carried Apollo moon rockets and space shuttles to the launch pad, and the Launch Control Center. The Then and Now Guided Tour (extra charge), visits America's first launch sites from the 1960s and the 21st century's active unmanned-rocket program.
The space shuttle Atlantis attraction offers views of this historic spacecraft as only astronauts have seen it—rotated 43.21 degrees with payload bay doors open and its robotic arm extended, as if it has just undocked from the International Space Station. The attraction includes a variety of interactive highlights, including opportunities to perform an Extravehicular Activity (EVA), train like an astronaut, and create sonic booms while piloting Atlantis to a safe landing.
Don't miss the outdoor Rocket Garden, with walkways winding beside a group of historic vintage rockets, from early Atlas spacecraft to a Saturn IB. The Children's Playdome enables kids to play among the next generation of spacecraft, climb a moon-rock wall, and crawl through rocket tunnels. Astronaut Encounter Theater has two daily programs where retired NASA astronauts share their adventures in space travel and show a short film.
More befitting a theme park (complete with the health warnings), the Shuttle Launch Experience is the center's most spectacular attraction. Designed by a team of astronauts, NASA experts, and renowned attraction engineers, the 44,000-square-foot structure uses a sophisticated motion-based platform, special-effects seats, and high-fidelity visual and audio components to simulate the sensations experienced in an actual space-shuttle launch, including MaxQ, Solid Rocker Booster separation, main engine cutoff, and External Tank separation. The journey culminates with a breathtaking view of Earth from space.
A fitting way to end the day is a stop at the black-granite Astronaut Memorial, which honors those who lost their lives in the name of space exploration.
Other add-ons include Lunch with an Astronaut, where astronauts talk about their experiences and engage in a good-natured Q&A; the typical line of questioning from kids: "How do you eat/sleep/relieve yourself in space?"