As NASA and the part of Florida known as the ‘Space Coast’ is trying to reshape its selfimage after the permanent grounding of the Space Shuttle program, the agency’s last surviving vehicle, Atlantis.
During NASA’s heydays, the agency drew crowds from all over the world to every new rocket launch at Cape Canaveral. But the days of government organized and financed space adventures are long gone, and as the Traveling Reporter discovered during our visit to the Space Coast, some people seem to believe the space agency is pretty much out of work since the shuttles have been grounded for good.
Rob, tour guide onboard one of NASA’s buses that carry tourists around the Kennedy Space Center, asks the inevitable rethorical question as the bus departs from the visitor’s complex: “How many of you think we’re out of business after the shuttle program has ended?”
Nobody dare raise their hand.
In fact, NASA still has plenty of things going on — rocket launches are planned throughout the year, and the agency is working to adapt its various lauch pads to accommodate several private space companies, all racing to fill an expected arising market for commercial space flight within a few years. Some of these outfits are Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic and XCOR Aerospace – although none of which are currently based in Florida, but in Nevada, along with a bunch of other enterprises reaching for space.
“There’s just one private space company operating here at Kennedy Space Center now,” Rob the guide admits. “And much of the development is done elsewhere too.”
So it’s no wonder that things are a little more quiet these days around the Kennedy Space Center and Merritt Island, where NASA has fired off rockets for more than 40 years. But that doesn’t mean visiting the place is less exciting now. Quite the contrary.
A ticket to the Visitor’s Complex will set you back $53 (kids $42), with $25 extra for each of a row of optional tours around the vast compound. These tours are actually the whole point with the visit, as the attractions within the actual Visitor’s Complex are, let’s say, mildly exciting at best. For example, NASA’s experience where you travel with a space shuttle falls way behind a similar ride at Disney’s Ecpot park in nearby Orlando.
Instead, Traveling Reporter headed for a two hour NASA tour including a visit to the bizarrely large Vehicle Assembly Building (see photo below) where both shuttles and rockets, such as the gigant Saturn V of the Apollo program, were put together and prepared for launch. This trip is well worth the money, with the building’s proportions so enormous that it defies the human mind. The structure rises 526 feet/160 meters above the flat ground, itself a monument of man’s building capabilities.
You’ll also get to see one of the launch pads, standing seemingly desolated on the flat steppe.
Another place of interest is the building where NASA has put a Saturn V rocket in full size, lying down, so that the enormous machine can be studied closely. The rocket is a fantastic sight — 363 feet/110 meters in length, it is still the largest vehicle yet to be constructed and launched off the planet. A visit to the Saturn V rocket is included in the Assembly Building tour.
No theme park attractions can match these real places, for it was here that it really happened, in a world of TV viewers following every second of a new rocket launch.
Those days may be gone. NASA now aims for March — but if the business of getting there will be located to Cape Canaveral, and financed fully by American tax payers, remains to be seen. Meanwhile, enjoy the relatively good access to Florida’s past space adventures.