Located on Merritt Island, 50 miles directly east of Orlando, the Kennedy Space Center is the jewel of Florida’s Space Coast, sprawling across nearly 220 square miles. Home of every NASA human space flight launch since December 1968, it attracts thousands of visitors each year, all looking to catch a glimpse of one of the world’s most famous landmarks of the exploration era.
Named in honour of President John F Kennedy shortly after his death in 1963, the Kennedy Space Center was initially created in 1958 to accommodate the Apollo lunar landing program. Over time, it was used for more and more space missions, including the Saturn V launches of the late 1960s and the 1980s Challenger series. The end of the space shuttle programme in 2011 caused NASA to downsize, leading to 6,000 job losses.
Although the downscale of services meant bad news for astronauts, it was definitely a win for holidaymakers, allowing for the development of tourist facility, the Visitor Complex. Initially just a humble trailer with small-scale displays, by 1995 the complex had become entirely self-supporting, securing its position as the fifth most popular tourist attraction in Florida in the early 2000s.
Attractions: What Not To Miss
As such a huge expanse of land, it’s nigh-on impossible to experience the whole Space Center in one trip. It may be worth considering the multi-day passes; with prices beginning at $75 for adults and $60 for children, it’s not necessarily the cheapest family outing, but the variety of exhibitions ensure that you get value for money.
Shuttle Launch Experience
An amazingly-realistic simulator of a space shuttle, this eight and a half-minute ‘ascent’ into orbit is a heart-racing experience, amped up by the pre-launch briefing from real crew members. Riders are able to see, hear and feel the powerful journey at 17,500mph, before being presented with a breath-taking view of earth. Flying on a jumbo jet will never be the same again!
Space Mirror Memorial
Such pioneering spirit doesn’t come without its risks. The Space Mirror Memorial (also known as the National Mirror Memorial) is a touchingly-beautiful tribute to astronauts who have been lost to failed missions. With their names cut through a towering mass of black granite, any sunlight that streams through illuminates the script, almost as if backlit. A humbling portrayal of fragility amongst innovation, it’s well worth taking a moment to truly appreciate it.
The best place for photo opportunities, the Kennedy Center’s Rocket Garden acts as retirement home for all out-of-use NASA rockets, dating all the way back to the first vessel to enter space. Guided tours are available several times a day, but it’s just as fun to take a wander around for yourself, climbing aboard the Mercury-Redstone, Gemini and Apollo capsules to get a true insight into the cramped living quarters.
Although accommodation within the center is only available to licensed astronauts, there are a wealth of hotels and bed-and-breakfasts within ten miles of the Kennedy Space Center, closely located to the beach and nearby Port Canaveral. The Space Center’s website lists a wide variety of hotel partners in nearby Titusville, Cape Canaveral, Cocoa Beach and Melbourne Beach, ensuring a reliable and affordable stay.
Holiday Inn Titusville is one of the nearest hotels, a mere 20-minute drive from the center itself. Acutely aware of its prime location, the hotel offers a competitive attraction package, which includes two adult tickets, a one-day pass to the Astronaut Hall of Fame and breakfast for two.
For a slightly more personal stay, Casa Coquina is a family-owned bed and breakfast that overlooks the Indian River. Each set of accommodation is unique, but all feature a bedroom, sitting room and private bath, furnished to high standards. Although they do not offer ticket deals, their second-floor deck is the perfect viewing platform for a rocket launch. Make sure to be extra nice to your hosts – the owners are often keen to offer carpooling and lifts to and from nearby attractions to their guests.
What’s in the area?
Although the Kennedy Space Center initially appears somewhat isolated, a short drive west on Merritt Island quickly reveals a multitude of further entertainment. For shoppers, Merritt Square Mall is an expansive outlet, housing fast-food restaurants, fashion retailers and department stores, as well as a movie theatre.
Merritt Island is also home to a wildlife refuge, which seeks to mimic 140,000 acres of natural marshes, estuaries and coastal dunes, designed to keep the local bird, fish and mammals thriving. Initially established in 1963 as an overlay of the Space Center, there are all manner of interactive opportunities at the refuge, ranging from manatee observation to boating and fishing.
For those who want to opt for a more relaxed experience, Cocoa Beach is among Florida’s most beautiful. With a range of eco-tours, water sports and beachside shopping on offer, Cocoa Beach is just a short stretch away from Port Canaveral, where you can sail away on the Disney or Royal Caribbean cruise line.