Space Center: A blast for visitors

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VIERA, Fla. -- There are few experiences as earthshaking as being at Cape Canaveral for the launch of a space shuttle. The roar of the rocket drowns out all other sound, and the ground shudders under your feet.

For those who can't be there to witness a launch, the biggest attraction on Florida's Space Coast is the Kennedy Space Center, a rambling complex, parts of which are open to the public.

The nucleus of the space center for tourists, the Visitor Complex, lies six miles inside the entrance. This is where visitors have an opportunity to meet an astronaut for a Q&A. Attractions, exhibits and programs include live shows, such as "Mad Mission to Mars 2005," an interactive journey through the cosmos.

Among the exhibits are "Early Space Exploration," which highlights the Mercury and Gemini programs in a facility that houses artifacts from the first manned space flights and the original Mercury mission control consoles. The outdoor Rocket Garden displays eight rockets, including the one used to launch John Glenn into space in 1962.

Rocket launches are the most spectacular man-made events on Earth. Launch dates can be found at www.spaceflightnow.com. Probably the most popular experience is the Kennedy Space Center tour, which takes guests on a narrated, video-supplemented bus excursion to restricted areas, including the observation gantry, where visitors view the shuttle and rocket launch pads.

The bus stops at the vehicle assembly building, where the space shuttle is stacked for launch and where the Apollo/Saturn V rockets were once assembled.

At the Apollo/Saturn V Center, guests relive the launch of Apollo 8, the first mission outside of Earth's orbit, in the Firing Room Theater, then get a look at the 360-foot Saturn V moon rocket, one of only three Saturn V rockets in existence.

The Apollo/Saturn V Center is also home to the Moon Rock Cafe, the only place where people can dine next to a genuine moon rock, unless they happen to be eating lunch on the moon.

The Space Center's newest attraction is the Astronaut Hall of Fame, located just outside the Space Center entrance. The Hall of Fame showcases a collection of personal astronaut mementos, plus historic spacecraft and astronaut training simulators.

Admission to the Space Center is $33 plus tax for adults and $23 plus tax for children ages 3 to 11. This includes the Kennedy Space Center tour, IMAX films, the Astronaut Hall of Fame, all attractions and exhibits and a second day free. Hours are 9 a.m. to dusk, except on Christmas and launch days. Wheelchairs and strollers are available free inside.

For more information about the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex, call (321) 449-4444 or visit www.kennedyspacecenter.com. For group reservations (15 or more), call (321) 449-4400.

A 45-minute drive from Orlando, the Kennedy Space Center is the focus of the Florida Space Coast, which includes Cocoa Beach, Melbourne, Palm Bay and Titusville.

Titusville has a Space Walk Hall of Fame in its Searstown Mall, a small but tangible example of how the region identifies itself. Indeed, the economy of the Space Coast often ties in tightly with the success or failure of the nation's space program.

"After the successful Mars landing, there was a spike at the Space Center, especially during the holidays," said Rob Varley, executive director of tourist development for the Space Coast.

The Challenger Space Shuttle tragedy in 1986 hit the Space Coast's tourism economy hard. But in the year since the February 2003 Columbia Space Shuttle tragedy, the destination has held its own, Varley said.

The area is reporting a 4% to 5% increase in visitors over last year, though it's still 4% under the numbers for 2001.

Visitor numbers, revenue and average daily room rates, however, are up over August 2001, Varley said. And the occupancy rate is up to 62.6% as compared with 56.1% in August 2001.

For more information, see www.space-coast.com. Information about upcoming launches can be found at www.spaceflightnow.com.

To contact reporter David Cogswell, send e-mail to [email protected].

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