Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex - A WDW Detour Worth Takingby Donna Fesel, contributing writer
Located in Titusville in Central Florida, about halfway between Jacksonville and Miami is a bona fide piece of American history. Hop in your car at Walt Disney World, and in a little over one hour and ten minutes (66 miles), you and your family can revel in the history, drama, and excitement of America’s space exploration program at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex (KSC). We visit WDW often, and are always looking for a fun and educational daytrip to enhance our vacation experience. Last summer, we visited KSC with our son, and we had a blast. It was truly a full day of learning about history and science, mixed with some thrills along the way, and a little surprise sprinkle of natural Florida beauty.
The Kennedy Space Center played a pivotal role in our nation’s history of space exploration. It was the departure site for America’s first journey to the moon. But did you know that KSC stretches out over 140,000 acres on the Florida coast, or that it is the site of a stunning national wildlife refuge, and home to many endangered species including the Southern bald eagle and the manatee? This stunning natural beauty exists in harmony with the enormous man-made structures created to support America’s space program. KSC has a bit of something for everyone of all ages.
Your journey begins by parking in one of the parking lots, each named after a famous astronaut. We parked in the Gordon Cooper lot. Next, stroll on up to the board that provides you with all the visitor info you’ll need to purchase your ticket. The tickets are not cheap, but there are discounts for Seniors, U.S. Military, and Brevard County Residents. Many travel programs offer generous discounts as well if you plan in advance. I belong to Working Advantage through my day job, and their ticket prices were a decent amount below face value. After some research at home, we bought standard admission tickets, as well as the KSC up close tickets, to get the Launch Control Center experience.
The first thing you’ll encounter at KSC upon entry are the many replicas of vehicles used for all of the most famous space flights in American History. The replica of Alan Shephard’s tiny (just 9.5 feet across) Mercury capsule in which he was the first man in space in 1961 is here. Just try to squeeze into the wee space, and picture yourself thrilled and terrified as you hurtle into the unknown. The Gemini capsule where Frank Borman sandwiched in snuggly with Jim Lovell to orbit for 14 days is here too. Try to imagine those close quarters, then actually get to scoot in there. We had a blast trying out all these incredible space explorer spaces.
Next we boarded a comfortable coach bus for a narrated tour of the KSC grounds. We saw the launch complex (site of vehicle assembly), the launch pads, and the areas where families and media sat during launch. We were also treated to the surprise of a drive filled with acres and acres of unspoiled wildlife leading up to the sites at KSC that see active use. I could just picture one of the astronauts riding in his convertible (all of the Mercury astronauts were gifted with new cars and homes), passing all that beauty on his way to an unbelievable and historic space flight.
We experienced a simulated space launch, complete with Mission Control, and it was thrilling. I really felt like I got to glimpse a real launch. My son loved the simulated Shuttle Experience, a virtual reality trip intended to mimic space flight. We were wowed by the full size space shuttle Atlantis, and the full size Saturn rocket on view. We saw moon rocks and space suits, and even learned the significance of Snoopy to the American space program.
Right around the time we travelled, I had just finished the wonderful book Astronaut Wives Club (Lily Koppel’s page turning account of just what it was like to be right in the thick of the Gemini and Mercury programs). I had also just watched the mini-series, so it is fair to say, I was primed and jazzed for the KSC experience.
KSC is a monument to the history of American space exploration (rockets, equipment, space and aeronautic exhibits, and space science), as well as a symbol of the promise of the American space program in the 21st century and beyond (travel to Mars with the Orion program, and continued unfathomable space discoveries with the Hubble telescope). KSC covers the history of the American space program's fearless pioneers—Alan Shepard, John Glenn, Gus Grissom, Walter “Wally” and Gordon “Gordo” Cooper—who were so passionate about space exploration that they hurtled themselves into the unknown, sometimes with tragic result.
The KSC also highlights the impact of John F. Kennedy’s 1961 proclamation that man would go to the moon. The Gemini program:mdash;with Neil Armstrong, Jim Lovell, Michael Collins and Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin, Jr.—advanced Kennedy’s mission statement, creeping ever closer to that first historic moon landing. I was three years old, and I remember sitting wide-eyed in front of my television as Armstrong stepped out on the moon.
“That’s one small step for a man. One giant leap for mankind.”
The moon landing is etched in my memory. It was amazing, and remains so today. Those first astronauts were celebrities, famous for what they did and what they could do. They were national heroes and stars on the world stage. They visited the White House, and were celebrated in countless parades. In the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s Americans knew who all the astronauts were, who their families were, and how they lived. Life magazine famously featured regular articles about the astronauts’ home lives.
KSC continues your space education with Skylab in the 1970s, which permitted Americans to stay in space longer—sometimes for months—gaining vast amounts of scientific knowledge. In the 1980s, the space shuttle program permitted lay people to travel into space alongside astronauts to collect and share more widely the majesty of what they had experienced.
There is disaster too. A monument to the indelible Challenger space shuttle is particularly moving, featuring the childhood effects of the astronauts and lay people who lost their lives. There are monuments to the other doomed astronauts before Challenger, making it clear that the wealth of knowledge gained for all of our benefit sometimes came at a steep price. Lastly, there is hope and the future, in the 2017 unmanned mission to Mars with Orion.
The wonder, bravery, and wide-eyed discovery evident at KSC is enough to make any visitor tear up at this uniquely American experience. We had an incredible day, and walked away from it a little richer with knowledge about this wonderful chapter of American history that we shared as a family. If you know nothing about the American space program, you should go. Take your whole family and see where American’s space past happened, and where it’s heading. If you are a bit of a space nerd, you’ll love it too. The immersion will bring all the things you know and love, right to life.