My kids are space nerds! For as long as I can remember my oldest child has been enamored with space, Mars and NASA to the point of telling everyone she’s met for the past 7 years that she’s going to be a NASA engineer when she grows up. She’s now 13. She’s still very much enamored with space, but is now planning to find alternate ways to work for NASA other than being a rocket scientist. My younger child has latched on to her enthusiasm. And I love it! Both of them were absolutly over the moon when we took a family vacation that included seeing the Space Shuttle Atlantis at the Kennedy Space Center on Florida’s Space Coast.
Let me preface that you should plan to spend an entire day at Kennedy Space Center. This is not a quick detour on your way to the cruise ships. There is so much to see and do.
The visitor complex is broken out into 5 different zones.
- Heroes and Legends – Celebrate the pioneers of NASA’s early programs.
- Behind the Gates – Access historic launch sites and other spaceflight facilities.
- Race to the Moon – See the Saturn V rocket and learn more about the Apollo missions.
- Mission Zone – Up close with the Space Shuttle Atlantis and train like an astronaut.
- NASA Now and Next – Learn about NASA Missions now and what’s next.
Behind the Gates
I purchased tickets ahead of time online (see current pricing), and I definitely recommend pre-purchasing for anyone wanting to add-on a special Behind the Gates tour. These are specialized tours that range from 1-3 hours long. Some may not be suited for toddlers and babies, but that’s a personal decision.
Our family chose to add-on the Kennedy Space Center Explore Tour. It’s two hours long, but it’s AMAZING! We boarded an air conditioned bus and toured the complex, making several stops to see the Vehicle Assembly Building, Historic launch pads – including the one being used by SpaceX, and a very detailed tour of the historic Launch Complex 39.
If you take a look at the picture below, you can see one of the launch pads in the far distance. When we visited, SpaceX was preparing for another launch. If you time your visit right, you can watch a space launch from Kennedy Space Center.
Kennedy Space Center Shuttle Atlantis
Following our Behind the Gates tour, we spent a good amount of time in the Mission Zone, where you can get up close and personal with the Space Shuttle Atlantis. Words cannot even express the magnificence of this space craft and all that it represents for space exploration, science, technology, and the people of the United States.
To see the Space Shuttle Atlantis up close brings it all home – the many accomplishments of the space program and the devastation our country has endured and then overcame to allow the space mission to persevere.
As someone in their 40’s, I remember watching on tv the first launch of the Space Shuttle Columbia in 1981. It made history as the first reusable manned spacecraft to travel into space. I also remember watching on live tv when the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded in 1986 just after liftoff. The entire nation grieved. It was the first time I watched in real time as lives were taken before my eyes, but it wouldn’t be the last time. In 2003, I was working in tv news when the Space Shuttle Columbia disintegrated upon reentry. The shuttle program was grounded. It eventually resumed until the remaining shuttles were retired.
Train Like An Astronaut
The Mission Zone also includes more than 60 interactive exhibits, including this slide from the second floor of the exhibit center to the main floor. My kids spent almost 20 minutes climbing the stairs and going down the slide over and over again. Kids and kids at heart can also train like an astronaut and see how astronauts live, eat, and even use the restroom in space. There’s even a space launch simulation – note there is a height restrictions on that one. There’s also an entire section where you learn more about the Hubble Space Telescope and see some of the incredible pictures taken from the Hubble.
The Other Zones
Like I mentioned earlier, plan to spend an entire day at Kennedy Space Center. There are several restaurants on site and even a playground for when you and the kids need a break, or between shows. We were exhausted by the time we left, but I would do it all over again in a heartbeat.
Other Places to View the Shuttles
If you can’t make it to Florida to See the Space Shuttle Atlantis, there are three other remaining shuttles at different locations across the country. The Space Shuttle Endeavour at the California Science Center in Los Angeles. The Space Shuttle Discovery is at the James S. McDonnell Space Hangar at the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Virginia. And The Enterprise Test Shuttle is the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum in New York.