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. With the shuttle Atlantis in 2011, NASA concluded its manned launch programme for the foreseeable future; hundreds of workers were phased out and the area businesses that catered to them have taken a bit of a hit.
Crowds are thinnest at weekends and in May and September – but at any time, allow an entire day to see everything. 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 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, which 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, check the website, or sign up for event reminders by email.
Near the Space Center, on Hwy-405 in Titusville, the Astronaut Hall of Fame (included with regular 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.