The Kennedy Space Center is the nucleus of the US space programme: it’s here that space vehicles are developed, tested and blasted into orbit. Merritt Island has been the centre of NASA’s activity since 1964, when the launch pads at Cape Canaveral US Air Force base, across the water, proved too small to cope with the giant new Saturn V rockets used to launch the Apollo missions.
To reach the Visitor Complex (daily 9am–6pm; $38 adults, $28 children; t 321/449-4444, w www.kennedyspacecenter.com), take exit 212 off I-95 to Hwy-405, and follow the signs; you can also get here by connecting with Hwy-3 off Hwy-A1A. The best times to visit are on weekends and in May and September, when crowds are thinner – but at any time, you should still allow an entire day for everything the Space Center has to offer. Check the weather, too, as thunderstorms may force some attractions to close.
The various exhibits in the Visitor Complex – mission capsules, spacesuits, lunar modules, a mock-up Space Shuttle flight deck – will keep anyone with the slightest interest in space exploration interested for a couple of hours. Afterwards, be sure to watch the two impressive IMAX movies dealing with some space theme or other and take a stroll around the open-air Rocket Garden, full of deceptively simple rockets from the 1950s, cleverly illuminated to show how they looked at blast-off. The newest attraction is the Shuttle Launch Experience, a simulation ride, where passengers get to see what it’s like to be an astronaut, vertically “launching” into space and orbiting Earth aboard the Space Shuttle. The remainder of the visit is comprised of a two-hour guided bus tour. The bus passes the 52-storey Vehicle Assembly Building (where Space Shuttles are prepared for launch), stops to view the launch pad and winds up with an opportunity to inspect a Saturn V rocket and witness a simulated Apollo countdown. For the dates and times of real-life launches, call t 321/449-4444 or check the website listed above.
Near the Space Center, on Hwy-405 in Titusville, the Astronaut Hall of Fame (included with regular $38 admission) is one of Florida’s most entertaining interactive museums, where exhibits allow you to experience G-force and a bumpy ride along the surface of Mars.
Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge
NASA doesn’t have Merritt Island all to itself: the agency shares it with the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge (daily sunrise–sunset; free). Alligators, armadillos, raccoons, bobcats and an extravagant mix of birdlife live right up against some of the human world’s most advanced hardware. Winter (Oct–March) is the best time to visit, when the skies are alive with birds migrating from the frozen north and mosquitoes aren’t part of the equation. At any other time, especially in summer, the island’s Mosquito Lagoon is worthy of its name: bring repellent.
Eight miles off I-95’s exit 220, Hwy-406 leads to the seven-mile Black Point Wildlife Drive, which gives a solid introduction to the basics of the island’s ecosystem; pick up the free leaflet at the entrance. Be sure to walk in the refuge, too: off the Wildlife Drive, the five-mile Cruickshank Trail weaves around the edge of the Indian River. Drive a few miles further east along Hwy-402 – branching from Hwy-406 just south of the Wildlife Drive and passing the visitor centre (Mon–Fri 8am–4.30pm, Sat & Sun 9am–5pm, closed Sun Nov–March; t 321/861-0667) – and then hike the three-quarters-of-a-mile Oak Hammock Trail or the two-mile Palm Hammock Trail, both accessible from the visitor centre car park.