Kennedy Space Center brings America's space legacy down to Earth

The Rocket Garden at Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex displays eight real rockets from NASA's history.
The Rocket Garden at Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex displays eight real rockets from NASA's history. Photo Credit: Holly V. Kapherr
Holly V. Kapherr
Holly V. Kapherr

The beach is certainly a great reason to visit Florida's mid-Atlantic coast, but if you tire of shaking the sand out of your shoes, the Kennedy Space Center's Visitor Complex is an excellent way to spend a mostly air-conditioned day learning about America's history of space exploration.

It's really part scientific education, part inspiration and part patriotism that fuels what's going on at the complex. On a recent visit, I felt pretty proud of where we've been in the solar system and the leaps and bounds technology has taken since the Space Race began in the 1950s.

The absolute must-see exhibition is the space shuttle Atlantis. Atlantis is one of four shuttles on display in museums around the country (Discovery is at the Air & Space Museum in Washington; Endeavour is at the California Science Center in Los Angeles; and the test shuttle, Enterprise, is on display at the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum in New York). The exhibition begins before you even walk into the building, as guests pass between two solid rocket boosters and a gigantic fuel tank that helped the shuttle glider zoom into orbit. It's a perfect photo opp.

It's an awe-inspiring experience, to see the actual shuttle with its pock-marked exterior, from tiny meteors hitting its surface, and imagining what it must have been like to spend a few months onboard. In the huge exhibition space, there are other exhibits that highlight the history, the physics and the invention that went into designing the shuttle. A rocket scientist is also on hand at various times throughout the day to answer questions from kids and adults alike.

Another highlight is the Astronaut Hall of Fame, and the presentation beforehand called "Heroes & Legends." Like most exhibitions at the Visitor Complex, it starts with a film. This one is in 3-D and features a variety of people giving their definition of a "hero." The film continues to explain how the astronauts who have left Earth in the name of scientific exploration fit within this definition. After the film, guests enter the museum area, where a bevy of personal items are on display, owned and cherished by astronauts through the years.

Just outside the Hall of Fame is the Rocket Garden; I highly suggest the 15-minute guided tour, which takes you through the exhibit, explaining each of the eight rockets on display. Also, make time to take the bus tour, which runs continuously from 9:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. and transports guests from the main Visitor Complex to the Apollo/Saturn V Center, where the artifacts from the Apollo missions and the original Saturn V rocket are displayed.

There are lots of other interesting, exciting and educational experiences at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex, including the Dine With an Astronaut program, where guests can share a meal with and hear stories from someone who's been to space and have their picture taken with them (reservations and additional ticket required). The Astronaut Training Experience is a half-day training session where guests can try out some of the gear the astronauts used to get ready for their missions (additional ticket required).

Admission tickets to the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex start at $52 for adults (age 12 and up) and $42 for children ages 3 to 11. Add-on tickets can be purchased in advance or at the ticket booth at the front of the attraction.

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