Kennedy Space Center, FL
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Kennedy Space Center, FL

Want to play astronaut? Start your journey here.

All Spaced Out

Faster than a speeding bullet, more fun than a computer game... It's the Kennedy Space Center (KSC). How cool would it be to watch a real rocket taking off, and feel the rumble of engines in your shoes? Or, at least imagine what it was like to be an astronaut on one of the first space missions?

Exploration in the New Millennium,
copyright Kennedy Space Center.

Your kids may have missed the '60s, when this country was obsessed with the space race, but they can relive those exciting days during a visit to KSC, better known to us old fogies as Cape Canaveral.

Not only are rockets still taking off here, but the space center has become one of the most kid-friendly places this side of... well, Disney World. Located an hour's drive east of the mouse's kingdom, KSC and its educational programs now rival those of Disney and neighboring theme parks. What's more, this gee-whiz, awe-inspiring place is an adventure for everyone in the family.

Three, Two, One... Blast Off!

Shuttle launch, copyright
Kennedy Space Center

The good news: It's easy to find a spot to watch a Space Shuttle launch. The bad news: It's hard to know when lift-off will actually happen. Don't plan a trip to Central Florida around launch.

The National Aeronautics & Space Administration (NASA) schedules launches months in advance. Mechanical or weather problems are routine and can delay a mission indefinitely.

If your family is lucky enough to be around when one does take off though, make every effort to get a good viewing spot. Here's how:

  • VIP viewing area. To secure a prime spot here, you have to be a VIP -- or know one. You'll be watching from the closest location, on space center grounds just 3.5 miles from the launch pad.
  • Best public spot. Non-VIPs can watch from NASA Causeway, six miles away; you must book tickets in advance through the space center's Launch Transportation Tickets program.
  • Other vantage points. No tickets? Not to worry. There are some excellent spots along Hwy 1 south of Titusville, and from the beach in the cities of Cape Canaveral and Cocoa Beach. While you'll be less than 15 miles from the launch site, all locations are within good eyeshot of the action.

Locals know that smaller, unnamed rocket ships go up all the time. While not nearly as dramatic or visible as a Shuttle launch, they're still good-size spaceships heading for the outer limits.

Behind-the-Scenes Tours

At the visitor center (it's the building with a full-size Shuttle mockup parked out front), sign up for three guided bus tours into several restricted areas. Plan on a full day to see all the exhibits.

International Space Center,
copyright Kennedy Space Center.

1. Kennedy Space Center Tour. Pressed for time? This is the tour to take. The kids will learn about today's space program and hear what the future holds. Highlights include a stop at an outdoor platform offering great views of Launch Pads 39A & B, about a mile away, where the four shuttles are launched; with luck, one may be sitting out there getting ready to take off.

Another high note is the Apollo/Saturn V Center, home of the massive 363-foot-tall Saturn V rocket. You'll also visit the Firing Room, a theater where mission control consoles used during the Apollo program set the stage for a video and audio re-creation of the Apollo VIII launch.

Final stop: the International Space Station Center. Preview this ambitious, 16-nation effort to establish a permanent human presence in space. Orbital assembly of the space station started in 1998. A total of 44 U.S. and Russian launches will be needed to complete the facility in 2006. From an observation window, view the "clean room," where components of the station are examined and tested, and enter a full-scale mockup of the Habitation Module. Plan on two to four hours here.

2. NASA Up Close. How has the government been spending your tax dollars? Find out on this new 90-minute tour. It's a peek into the current manned space program -- from launch preparation, to lift-off, to the return of the mission -- and includes a stop at the Shuttle launch pad observation site.

You'll also see the Vehicle Assembly Building, the second largest in the world and so huge, clouds and rain have been known to form inside. This is where the Shuttle is prepped before heading to the launch pads.

Then it's on to the NASA Press Site Launch Countdown Clock (that big digital clock counting down the seconds to launch), and the Shuttle Landing Facility, the longest and widest landing strip in the world.

3. Cape Canaveral: Then & Now. Although not as high-tech as the other two tours, baby boomers may enjoy this three-hour excursion the most. You'll gain entry to the center's restricted southeast area, scene of many unmanned and early manned space shots. Highlights include visits to Mercury and Gemini launch pads, control rooms, and training facilities. You'll also tour Complex 17, an active launch site where unmanned Delta rockets are launched, and the Cape Canaveral Lighthouse, built in 1868.

New and Noteworthy

In early 2000, NASA added $120 million in new visitor attractions to the space center. These exhibits, which can be toured on your own, include:

  • Astronaut Encounter. This is a kid's dream: to meet a real astronaut. They'll hear from the pros what it's like to be weightless, walk in space, or troubleshoot problems in Q&A sessions, held every day. Besides listening to their space heroes' personal stories, your future astronauts can watch mission briefings at an outdoor pavilion. Check the schedule posted at the visitor center as soon as you arrive, and plan on finding a seat early.
  • Early Space Exploration. Take a trip back to the space program's early years at this walk-through exhibit featuring the Mercury Mission Control Room and original consoles and components from 1960s-era spacecraft. Want to feel like a dinosaur? Check out the recreated '60s living room and kitchen. Don't be surprised if your kids comment on how ancient you are after watching one of those black and white TVs from your youth.
  • Exploration in the New Millennium. Space exploration is the theme of this exhibit, which includes replicas of Mars probes and the Hubble Space Telescope. A highlight is Space Race 3000, a futuristic and comical show about spacecraft that could travel outside our solar system. At Kids Space, your young ones can watch a video of "Steve" and "Blue," from Nickelodeon's Blue's Clues series, or sing along to "The Planet Song," which was featured in a recent episode.
  • The Rocket Garden & More. Also at the visitor center: the (not so new) Rocket Garden, a large, outdoor exhibit displaying historic space vehicles; a full-size, walk-through mockup of the Space Shuttle; the Astronaut Memorial, a polished black-granite monument to 17 astronauts who gave their lives for space exploration; an exhibit about the International Space Station; and a pair of IMAX theaters showing -- you guessed it -- films about space exploration.

Before You Go: Explore Space Online

Before making a trip to the space center, visit the following kid-oriented websites recommended by NASA:

  • Star Child. Explores the planets, space and astronauts


  • The Nine Planets. An Internet tour of the solar system.


  • Web cams. Even if you can't be there, you can still watch.



Type of trip: Educational, adventure

Best ages: Nine and up

Ideal trip length: One full day, but you'll need more if you hope to see a Shuttle launch.

Distance: Orlando (55 miles); Tampa (130 miles); Miami (210 miles)

Best time to go: Fall through spring; major holidays can be very crowded.

Weather: 80/65 degrees in fall, 70/50 in winter, 80/60 in spring, and 90-degree highs in summer with oppressive humidity.

Squirm factor: Very little, if any. Younger kids may get cranky during a long day.

If You Go...

Apollo/Saturn V
Center, copyright
Kennedy Space Center

Kennedy Space Center Visitor Center NASA Parkway and Hwy 3 Phone: 321-449-4444, 800-572-4636 in Florida


  • Launch information
    Phone: 321-867-4636
    The Orlando Sentinel and Florida Today newspapers regularly publish launch schedules.
  • Launch transportation tickets
    Phone: 321-449-4444


National Aeronautics & Space Administration


Florida's Space Coast Office of Tourism Phone: 321-868-1126


Side Trips

Blast Off in an Airboat

LC 39 Observation
Gallery, copyright
Kennedy Space Center

So the launch has been scrubbed. Make it up to your kids with an airboat ride. This blast into a marshland nature preserve is an adrenaline rush too. Airboats are aluminum, flat-bottomed boats with a large, airplane-type propeller engine perched high above the back end. They were developed decades ago to help ranchers and outdoorsmen easily navigate Florida's shallow marshes.

Now that these boats have been adapted for recreational use, you can give one a try on the open marshland of the St. John's River, along Hwy 50 between Orlando and the Space Coast. The ride is noisy, fast, fun, and safe (ear protection is provided), and educational; guides will stop to point out close-by alligators and distant bald eagles, herons, and egrets.

Avoid the huge 25-passenger airboats; the 4- to 6-seat airboats get you closer to nature. Operators are listed in the Orlando and Space Coast tourist brochures. Best for kids ages 10 and up.

The Inside Scoop

Favorite local spots:

Jetty Park. At the north end of the city of Cape Canaveral, 321-783-7111. The park's seashore jetty, just south of the space center, is considered one of the best places to watch manned and unmanned launches. You'll pay a small parking fee, but get good views.

Playalinda Beach. Just east of Titusville, 321-867-4077. Many locals head to this miles-long stretch of beach, where the only signs of human development are a single road and a few restrooms and related facilities. (Eat before you go or take a picnic lunch).

Best souvenir: Freeze-dried space food.

Traffic alert: On launch days, expect gridlock on area highways.

Reviewed April 2004.