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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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.