SUN ‘n FUN is coming up soon. If you are heading to the show in Lakeland, Florida, what else can you do while you’re in Florida? Of course, there’s always Disney World, but why not see the hub of America’s space program, the Kennedy Space Center?
Granted, it ain’t cheap and without advance planning, you could be disappointed. But its “Up Close Tours” are a unique opportunity to see America’s aerospace heritage. And its display of Space Shuttle Atlantis is second-to-none.
As an aviation-enthralled teen, I saw the space program as further inspiration to join in on America’s “Century of Flight.” My friends and I watched launches with rapt interest, aware of history being made. Learning to fly a new 1966 Cessna 150 (after struggling with a ’46 Taylorcraft!) seemed to put me in step with America’s grand new adventure.
Fifty years later, visiting this history is a thrill. Just crossing the Indian River onto NASA’s Merritt Island is a privilege. You’ll have to get over to Florida’s east coast, but KSC is just 100 miles (less than two hours) from Lakeland.
The Space Center Visitor’s Complex is operated by concessionaire Delaware North Companies Parks & Resorts, not by NASA, so you’ll detect immediately this is a commercial operation.
Delaware North holds concessions at many national parks and attractions. There’s a “Disneyland” approach in look and layout. Some of it seems “dumbed-down” for the “average” tourist. Most of it is educational, though, especially for kids and those not well-versed in the space program. (A remarkable 70% of visitors are international.)
Also “Disney-like,” however, is the admission price — about $50 including the basic 45-minute KSC bus tour, which terminates at the spectacular Apollo/Saturn V Center. Each special “Up Close” tour is $25 extra. Tourists at KSC complain bitterly about admission and food prices. (Remember though: Disney World admission is now up to $100.)
Pilots and knowledgeable space fans should plan their visit carefully to get their money’s worth. First, consult KennedySpaceCenter.com. Second, show up early. This is not the spot for a quick blow-through. Make a day of it, if not two — especially if you’re taking an “Up Close” tour. And that you should do.
My first KSC bus tour in January disappointed. Perhaps it was the bus driver “tour guide” who struggled through a badly memorized script. You do drive past the massive 525-foot-tall Vehicle Assembly Building, the world’s largest single-story building by volume at 129 million cubic feet. But you won’t get any closer than that; the “Up Close” walking tour of the VAB ended Feb. 23 as NASA put facilities back into service for the new Space Launch System and Orion programs.
From there, the bus tour ambles along the “crawlway” where NASA’s giant mobile launching platforms transported Apollo/Saturn V and Space Shuttle stacks to Pad 39A/B. Each of two widely separated stone roads you see is only one half of the “crawlway,” handling just one crawler track. Those crawlers are that big!
You do get out towards where Americans left for the moon, but my January Pad 39 “photo op” was a mere 10-second stop and quick shot through the bus window. Perhaps it was the hapless narration, but this tour seemed simplistic and “at arm’s length” — not by itself worth the admission. (A second try in February was better.)
Many visitors really like the extra-cost “Up Close” tours, especially the Apollo/Shuttle-era Pad 39 launch pad tour. Others like the daily, extra-cost “Lunch with an Astronaut” event. Whatever you do, plan and reserve early. Spend the extra money. Wherever you look, you’ll see icons of America’s space effort.
The standard bus tour concludes at the Apollo/Saturn V Center. It boasts a gigantic Apollo/Saturn V rocket stack on its side, separated by stages to show how it all fit together. There’s also a simulated Saturn V launch in a relocated launch control room (complete with overwhelming engine noise and shaking windows.) In the same building is a slice of moon rock you can touch — an opportunity I have not seen elsewhere.
Space Shuttle Atlantis — veteran of 33 missions, 307 days and 125 million miles in space — is the big draw in a new 90,000-square-foot building of its own. Out front is a replica 184-foot-tall shuttle external tank with two solid rocket boosters. KSC Visitor’s Complex bragged that its display of a retired shuttle (of four around the country) would be unmatched by others. Mission accomplished.
Atlantis is displayed in a 43.21° left bank with a view into its 60-foot cargo bay I’ve never seen before. On the other side, that bank angle allows a stunning study of its 122-foot belly and the thousands of thermal tiles that made re-entry possible. You’ll marvel at those landing gear doors, too.
KSC is a national treasure that’s a privilege to see. It was a thrill just to be on the grounds. The privilege doesn’t come cheap, however. Without advance planning and spending enough time and extra cash, you’ll miss “the good stuff.” And that’s what makes this post-SUN ‘n FUN destination worth the trip.
Tomorrow: An “Up Close” visit to old Cape Canaveral.© 2104 Drew Steketee All Rights Reserved