I am more than a bit infatuated with space travel and space travelers. By happenstance and design, I have met a couple dozen astronauts, from Wally Schirra and Gordon Cooper to Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin. I've heard firsthand more than I wanted to know about how one goes to the bathroom in space from three-time shuttler Mike Mullane. And I'm proud to call Dave Scott, commander of Apollo 15, a friend.

To borrow the message imprinted on NASA souvenir coffee mugs: I need my space.

The problem is, my discretionary income budget falls somewhere shy of the $200,000 needed to go on SpaceShipTwo, the Virgin Galactic craft scheduled to fly ordinary folk (with high discretionary income) into the stratosphere, possibly as early as 2009. And I'm close to $20 million short of what it takes to visit the MIR space station as a tourist.

So I've had to explore other options for my space fix, and 10 days ago I discovered what's surely the next best thing to being up there.

Over Memorial Day weekend, the Shuttle Launch Experience attraction opened at Kennedy Space Center Visitors Complex, near Titusville, Fla. Operated by Delaware North Corp., it was touted as a "true-to-life ... amazingly realistic simulation" of an ascent into orbit. I was invited to attend a pre-opening media tour in late May.

Fortunately, I was unable to attend.

I say fortunately because among the alternative dates was June 8, the day the shuttle Atlantis was scheduled to launch for a rendezvous with the space station. I went on that day instead and unexpectedly discovered the perfect space and tourism experience for $199,962 less than the next-cheapest alternative.

The Kennedy Space Center Visitors Complex, 45 miles east of Orlando, is of small enough scale that its attractions, shows and tours can easily be seen in a day. I'm guessing it could comfortably fit into the Magic Kingdom's Tomorrowland.

Even so, a visit there takes a little planning to get the most out of it, especially when visiting on a day that the shuttle is scheduled to launch.

First, the near-obvious: Arrive at 9 a.m., as soon as the complex opens. Lines only grow longer throughout the day, and days in Florida certainly grow steadily hotter.

When the gates open, head directly to the new $60 million launch experience. It is terrific. The attraction begins with a film, supplemented with special effects, starring four-time shuttle astronaut Charlie Bolden. He briefs guests on the rocket science of a launch and the human experience. As for the science, it's all kept clear and simple; no child is left behind.

The launch simulation is not nearly as intense as Disney's Mission: Space, which puts guests in a centrifuge to achieve g-forces. Instead, through tilting, vibrations, sound, visuals and throbbing seats, it takes guests through the stages described in Bolden's "briefing."

The center's bus tours place the shuttle program within the context of the larger space program and are well worth the time. The downside of going on a shuttle launch date is that guests aren't allowed as close to the actual launch site as on other days, but the upside is that you pass within a hundred yards of the building where the astronauts are suiting up. Also, everyone -- bus drivers, souvenir shop cashiers, guides -- are buzzing with launch-day excitement.

Among the things that absolutely must be reserved when going on a launch day is the "Lunch with an Astronaut" program which, for $22.95, includes a Q&A with an astronaut and a signed photo.

"Astronaut Encounters," which is free, provides another opportunity to interact with a space explorer.

A most important tip: About 90 minutes before launch, return to your car and move it to the back of the parking lot. This will save you hours as 12,000 people try to leave Florida's Space Coast simultaneously after the launch. (The 45-minute drive back to Orlando expands to four hours and 30 minutes. Book accommodations as close to the Space Center as you possibly can.)

On launch day, communications from Launch Control are piped from loudspeakers into the park all day. As the launch nears, a veteran astronaut appears on an outdoor stage and translates the technical jargon, telling visitors not only what the words really mean but also exactly what the astronauts are doing at that moment. The excitement, from this point on, is high, in no small part because visitors have become deeply familiar with the launch routine.

The actual launch, which occurs six miles away, is close enough for the rumble to rattle your bones. You can still see, with unaided eyes, the shuttle rise to a height of about 51 miles (which takes only three-and-a-half minutes).

If you have people as space-obsessed as I am among your clientele but whose budget won't stretch enough to reserve a seat on a Virgin Galactic flight, do them a favor and tell them that there are going to be only 16 or so more shuttle launches before the program is closed, likely in 2010 (three more launches are scheduled for 2007: Aug. 9, Oct. 20 and Dec. 6).

If booking a trip on launch day, there are some other add-ons that can keep clients busy and help build their excitement during the days leading up to the launch, including a daylong Astronaut Training Experience that includes time in a simulator ($250) or a two-day "Family Astronaut Training Experience," which includes a one-night hotel stay ($625 for two people).

But the most crucial tip you can give them -- one that will inspire eternal loyalty to you -- costs them nothing. It is this: Every member of Congress is given tickets to a close-in, VIP viewing area for each launch. Few members of Congress use their tickets. The tickets are transferable to their constituents, and they are often handed out first-come, first-served. This is information that can make you a space hero in the eyes of your clients.


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