Curiosity about the history and future of the U.S. Space Program is reaching a fever pitch, with commercial space travel gathering steam and NASA having named the first nine astronauts to launch from U.S. soil since 2011.
Space travel for earthlings (with deep pockets) is also on the horizon. But while you wait to blast off to the Moon or Mars, the vast Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex on Florida's Space Coast could be the next best thing.
The 70-acre working space port has added some new attractions and out-of-this-world activities. It also offers great viewing spots to see (and feel) some of the 40-plus rocket launches planned for this year.
Daily admission to the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex at Cape Canaveral (about an hour east of Orlando, Florida) is $57 for those over 12, and $47 for ages 3-11. A variety of discounts, including free admission through 2018 for 5th graders, are available. Check the event calendar to see if your visit coincides with an upcoming rocket launch.
Instead of a traditional rock garden, the Center invites visitors to wander the paths of the Rocket Garden. In addition to water features and lush plants, the garden is landscaped with climb-in replicas of the Mercury and Gemini capsule and eight authentic rockets. These include rockets like the 224-foot Apollo Saturn 1B and a Mercury-Atlas — just like the one that launched John Glenn into space in 1962.
The 151, 315-pound Space Shuttle Atlantis first launched on October 3, 1985 and flew 33 missions before its retirement in July, 2011. At the Center, its payload doors open and looks like it could be floating in space. The surrounding activity zone includes a space kitchen and lavatory, and interactive activities. A shuttle launch ride that gives visitors a five minute sample of what a space launch sounds and feels like, plus a great view of Earth from space.
The center's gallery is filled with artifacts from the Apollo moon missions. Among the treasures on display: spacesuits and gear used by the Apollo moon walkers, a spacesuit repair kit, the Apollo 14 crew capsule and Apollo 14 Commander Alan Shepard's spacesuit, complete with moon dust.
What's it like to be in space and how challenging is it to get there - and back? Two 3D IMAX documentaries offer a thrilling five-and-half story glimpse. The images in A Beautiful Planet 3D were filmed by astronauts; at least one veteran space traveler says the IMAX journey may be better than actually being in space because it's cheaper, faster and cuts out the part of the trip where most people get sick.
Several emotional exhibits pay tribute to astronauts who lost their lives in space program-related events. 'Forever Remembered' (inside the Space Shuttle Atlantis hall) shares the stories of the 14 crew members of both the Challenger and Columbia shuttles, which features personal items belonging to flight crews—and debris from both doomed vehicles.
Seeing rockets and space-related artifacts is fun, but meeting a real astronaut is a real thrill for both kids and adults. Current or retired astronauts are on site daily for scheduled 'Astronaut Encounter' programs and, for an extra fee, visitors can join a veteran astronaut for a lunch program that includes a buffet meal, a fun lecture, a question and answer session and a photo op.
Ready to go into space? The new Astronaut Training Center offers two prep-for-the job programs that include high-tech experiences and hands-on activities. The Astronaut Training Experience trains visitors for a mission to Mars, while Mars Base 1 puts rookie astronauts through the paces of a life on Mars. (Both program require extra registration fees.)
At more than 15,000 square feet, the Space Shop is billed as the world's largest store devoted to space memorabilia and NASA gear. Souvenirs range from freeze-dried ice-cream to autographed collectibles and meteor fragments.