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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?
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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:
Before making a trip to the space center, visit the following kid-oriented websites recommended by NASA:
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.
Kennedy Space Center Visitor Center NASA Parkway and Hwy 3 Phone: 321-449-4444, 800-572-4636 in Florida
National Aeronautics & Space Administration
Florida's Space Coast Office of Tourism Phone: 321-868-1126
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.
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.