The Jumbotron was bellowing “T -6, 5, 4…” when suddenly the sky ahead burst into flames. We were on the shore of Banana Creek, about 4 miles from Cape Canaveral’s Launchpad 39A to see the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket launch a Crew Dragon spacecraft to the International Space Station.
Our NASA host had said, “Watch, don’t listen.”
The livestream from SpaceX Mission Control in Hawthorne, California, was 3 seconds behind reality at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) viewing event in Florida. And, he warned, the tremendous roar of the rocket’s liftoff would be another 4 seconds behind that blinding sight.
It’s time to watch a rocket launch
With NASA taking on commercial partners like SpaceX and Blue Origin, rocket launches are becoming more frequent at Cape Canaveral and the Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. Spaceport America is expecting to begin manned, sub-orbital Virgin Galactic flights from New Mexico in 2019.
A live rocket launch is thrilling, and having expert guidance — as we did at KSC — makes it even more engaging for all ages.
With a new generation of rockets using powerful super fuels, space buffs don’t need to buy tickets to most viewing events. You can pull up a lawn chair and watch spectacular live launches from miles away.
It just takes planning, timing and luck as – no matter how far in advance you plan – a scheduled launch window may close without a rocket going up. The risk of a scrub is part of the thrill.
Kennedy Space Center Visitor Center, Florida
Seeing rocket launches is most likely to happen at the at Kennedy Space Center (KSC), the launch site for more than 30 NASA and U.S. Air Force missions annually in Cape Canaveral, Florida.
Fortunately, go or no-go, the KSC Visitors Center is a fascinating introduction to outer space, where man has been and hopes to go. Put it on your bucket list and plan your visit around a launch.
Why a rocket launch and why now?
KSC provides context to understand the enormity of any space effort. It was July 20, 1969 when Apollo 11 astronaut Armstrong descended the steps of a lunar probe, set his boot upon the moon’s surface and announced, “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”
During the seven years spent growing the Apollo program, more than 400,000 people worked full time to put a man on the moon because then-president John F. Kennedy declared it would be so.
And 50 years on, it’s still a big deal, at KSC and around the world, as you can see from FTF’s roundup of the top 50 events commemorating the moon landing.
The Apollo / Saturn V Apollo Center
Please, start your visit to KSC first thing in the morning with the bus tour. Your guide will point out the launchpads, Mission Control building, working NASA facilities and commercial operators such as Elon Musk’s SpaceX, Boeing and Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin.
The tour is the only way to see the huge VAB, Vehicle Assembly Building – so large that clouds form inside when it’s raining. Understand the impact the moon landing had on our world and world view. In the imposing Apollo/Saturn V Center hangar, the center of all #Apollo50 celebrations, a Saturn V rocket that made space exploration possible hangs above memorabilia of all Apollo missions including Apollo 11.
Kids love this place
At KSC, the multimedia displays make the history of space exploration accessible to kids and their grown-ups.
Expect guided tours, options to try flight simulators and educational activities all around the facility; some for additional fees. If you’re a kid, KSC also runs Space Camps and regular sleepovers, when ages 7 to 14 can choose between sleeping under the Space Shuttle Atlantis or the Apollo/Saturn V rocket.
Debrief astronauts at KSC
The newest KSC wing, Heroes and Legends, introduces visitors to the astronauts who made the early space missions possible. Pause at the Rocket Garden to see the different rockets that propelled people and cargo into space; the frequent tours add context to each spent rocket.
For us, much more interesting than any one exhibit was the opportunity to have Lunch with an Astronaut. On our visit, the unflappable Astronaut Winston Scott, who had flown two missions on the Space Shuttle after retiring as an Air Force test pilot, did the Q&A with diners.
Ever wondered, like a little boy at our table did, how you make a poop without gravity? Scott’s candor and humor, both personally and in his professional stories, was a highlight of the visit. The buffet lunch was pretty good, too.
Feel the rocket’s red glare
Another high point is the KSC Shuttle Launch Experience, a simulator attraction in the Atlantis Space Shuttle wing developed to help astronauts train for the physical stresses of sitting atop a rocket launch.
Pry yourself out of your harness when it’s over and you’ll understand where that expression having your stomach in your throat comes from…. Within the enormous orange Space Shuttle Atlantis building, visitors can see Atlantis suspended from the ceiling, so close that you can’t get it all in on one photo even in panorama mode.
What’s next in space?
See a Boeing Starliner and a SpaceX Crew Dragon, examples of how the commercial space industry will transport astronauts next.
A Mars Rover and several exhibits about Mars focus visitors’ attention on the direction that most interests NASA – Mars.
Don’t miss a rocket launch
The space industry operates in strange and mysterious ways, and a Kennedy Space Center viewing event is guaranteed to give you a taste.
Vandenberg Air Force Base in Lompoc, California, is also a spaceport and rocket testing range where rockets can fall into the sea in case of a failed liftoff. There are few public tours of its facility or the cool-sounding Space and Missile Heritage Center, but locals say it’s possible catch a rocket launch from a distance.
Spaceport America can be seen on tours organized by the tourism department for Las Cruces, a city about 50 miles from El Paso, Texas and, at 60 miles, the closest urban center to Spaceport America. Contact them about Spaceport America tours.
KSC Trip Planning Tips
If you’re going to KSC before or after a rocket launch, you’ll want more than a day to improve your rocket science IQ. Spreading out the visit over a few half-days worked well for our family.
Since central Florida is only an hour’s drive from Orlando, make your star trek a reprieve from the theme parks.
And you don’t have to be a rocket scientist to understand that the Space Coast is a very pleasant place to spend a few days.
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