KSC - Rocket Garden - main plazaAnyone interested in the space program should try to visit the Kennedy Space Center in Florida located near Cocoa Beach.

This is where the American manned space history happened and is still happening. Visitors get to relive the great moments of the Mercury, Gemini, Appollo, and the Shuttle space programs.

The vast 144,000 acres property houses 700 facilities including launch pads, vehicle assembly, Payload processing, Headquarters, Operations and Checkout, and the Central Instrumentation Facility. 

Visitors to KSC start their visit at the visitor's complex and can only see a small portion of those facilities.

Kennedy Space Center Mission Control replicaAs you enter the visitors complex, the first sight you encounter is the Rocket Garden – showcasing rockets that were actually used to launch space vehicles of every kind.

The towering giants include rockets like Saturn, Juno, Mercury, and Atlas. This exhibit is the most photographed area of KSC.

After admiring the rockets you have to decide on your itinerary. The KSC website offers a choice of itineraries based on your interests and the number of days you are visiting. Go here to get your plan.

My favorite plan is the “Space Enthusiast (one or two days)”. Here are the highlights of my most recent trip to KSC:

Getting there

My daughter and I stayed in Orlando to do the usual Theme Parks, but our main goal was the Space Center.

The drive from Orlando to Cocoa Beach took one hour and was very pleasant. The highways were not crowded and the scenery was beautiful along the way. We hit a thunderstorm somewhere in the middle, which is very usual for Florida in the summer.

Entrance Plaza

We already had our passes so we just breezed through the gates and straight to the Rocket Garden. If you don’t have your tickets, you can stop at the windows, buy tickets and add-ons.

Some of the add-ons to consider are “Astronaut Training”, “Mars Base 1”, or an “Explorer Tour”. If you pick “Astronaut Training” or “Mars Base 1” be ready to pay $150-$175 and visit for more than one day.

The Tour

KSC - Tour - STS-36 Rollout - Wikipedia by NASAAdmission to the center comes with a standard 2-hour bus tour of the facilities. For most people, this is enough of an introduction to the space program and the historic figures and events, but if you want more, you can buy several extended tours. Go here for more options.

The buses leave from a building next to the Mars experiences and close to the Imax theater. The whole tour takes about 2 hours but you will be on the bus for around 40 minutes. The rest of the time is spent exploring the Apollo / Saturn Center.

The bus will take you close to major sites and buildings. The most impressive is the Launch Complex 39, the Vehicle Assembly Building, the large crawlers that carry a rocket to the launch site, and the new home of Space-X.

At the Apollo/Saturn Center, you get to experience the original launch control room and walk under an actual Saturn V rocket. The 363-foot rocket is the largest ever flown (so far).

Don’t miss the doors leading outdoors away from the main entrance. There is a picnic area with a great view of Launch Pad 39B.

Space Shuttle Atlantis

KSC - Atlantis - by Kitch - WikimediaAs you walk around, you can’t miss the full-scale shuttle with two solid rocket boosters at the entrance. Go inside to see the Shuttle as only astronauts have seen. It is shown titled on its side with the payload doors open and the arm extended. This provides a great view of the interior.

The exhibit showcases the 30-year shuttle space program and tells the story of this incredible achievement.

As part of the admission, you get to fly in the shuttle at the shuttle launch experience. This flight similar is the next best thing to actually flying on the shuttle.

As part of this experience, you get to watch a film about the space shuttle program, the building process, and its missions. After the film, you will end up in a smaller theater with 360 vision to experience a shuttle launch.

After all this excitement, you can still spend more time viewing the exhibits under the shuttle.

IMAX Theater

KSC - IMAX - Stars - by NASAThe IMAX theater plays space exploration films in the amazing IMAX format – some are in 3D. You can usually pick from 3 different movies to watch.

During our visit, we had a choice between Apollo 11 First Steps, Journey to Space, and Touch the Stars: The Journey Has Begun 3D. It was a tough choice, but I love 3D space films, so that is what we picked. Always check the schedules to plan your viewing time.

Touch the Stars: The Journey Has Begun 3D takes you along with NASA’s robotic exploration craft on a journey across our solar system.  Pass by the planets and their moon and witness strange phenomena like Ice Volcanos on Triton, Jupiter’s colorful storms, and the Diamon Rain on Saturn.

Space Mirror Memorial

A huge slab of polished black granite memorializes the names of 24 astronauts who gave their lives to space exploration.

Those heroes include the crews of Apollo 1, Challenger, and Columbia. This memorial reminds us that space exploration can require the ultimate sacrifice.

Journey to Mars

I was always fascinated by the red planet and my fascination grew with the exploits of the Mars Rovers. So being able to explore the Mars exhibits and trying some of the hands-on experiences was a dream come true.

This building includes multimedia exhibits, interactive games, and a mockup of the Mars Rover.

Heroes and Legends

KSC - Legends and Heroes - Flickr - by NASA KennedyThe astronaut hall of fame is the first building you see as you enter the Kennedy Space Center -right next to the rocket garden.

The hall tells the story of space exploration and celebrates the heroes who made it happen.

The main attraction here is the giant 225-degree, cinematic, 3-D screen projecting an immersive movie with four space legends retelling their historic moments.

As you experience the story, you will forget the screen and relive those moments with the astronauts.

After the show, you can wander around the multimedia exhibits with unique artifacts, each with its own story, that helps understand the astronaut and what made him a legend.

Astronaut Training

If going on a tour, watching immersive movies or browsing the exhibits is not enough for you, you can sign up for a Space Experience. Those experiences sell out quickly, so make your reservations early.

The newest experience is Astronaut Training. You will join a crew on a mission and train for it.

The mission simulates launching to Mars, landing, and walking on the red planet. You will also train to perform a spacewalk using immersive microgravity simulation technology.

As you train, you can create personalized video logs of your experience to revisit after you complete your mission – and share it with family and friends.

The training takes 4 to 5 hours and anyone ages 10 and older can participate.