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An out-of-this-world day out: Kennedy Space Center

30th June 2015

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“The first time I went into space..” can’t be beaten as a conversation opener.

This was how my chat with J.R. Reilly, a real-life NASA astronaut, began on meeting him a few months back at Wembley Stadium where he was promoting the attractions at Kennedy Space Center.

Offering just a slight glimpse of the awesome experiences Jim told us of, visiting became a top priority from that day on. So, finding myself in Florida earlier this month, I made a beeline for the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex, the tourist attraction that takes you into the NASA experience.

Atlantis Space Shuttle

“Experience” is at the heart of this space-related tourist spot as it gives you a glimpse of what it was like to be part of some of the greatest feats of human endeavour.

My own whistle-stop tour only gave me a glimpse of what was on offer, but it took in real rockets, real astronaut heroes, real working space flight operations, and NASA’s real Atlantis orbiter.

It may not have the scale and hype (or cartoon mice) of some of the other nearby Florida attractions but Kennedy has something monumentally ‘epic’ about it.

With more than 1 million visitors a year, the redevelopment that has been ongoing since 1995 has paid off.

When you consider the scale of the human achievement that was reached there it is hard not to feel how special it is as a site.

Simply the size of the site highlights the scale of the achievement. It might not sound that exciting to take a bus tour around the launch sites and buildings but with expert guides giving you the lowdown of what happened (and happens) there it is hard not to feel a little emotional about where you are.

Just standing on the ground where the Apollo missions launched is pretty awe-inspiring.

Inside the visitor complex you can view actual artefacts from the NASA space program, such as spacesuits, transporters and other paraphernalia, which is undeniably cool to see. The highlight of this is definitely real Space Shuttle AtlantisSM, it’s the world’s most comprehensive attraction devoted to the 30-year Space Shuttle Program.

A stunning feat of human engineering, Atlantis has been central to our trips into space - and standing next to it, it complete with scorch marks from re-entry, is magnificent.

But what makes your visit is the interactive experience that has been developed to give you a real feel of what happened at Kennedy, and beyond.

For example I witnessed the Shuttle Launch Experience, which puts you at the centre of a rocket launch. Designed under the guidance of veteran space shuttle astronauts, this is a brilliant and immersive experience as you go through pre-launch, strap in and “go vertical,” travelling at simulated speeds up to 17,500 miles per hour. Once in orbit you get a breathtaking view of our Earth from space. It gives you just a taste of the pure adrenaline rush and wonderment of being blasted into space.

And this is by no-means the only ‘experience’ on offer - the Visitor Center is home to two five-and-a-half-story IMAX screens. Space was meant for the big screen and these screens are BIG. Narrated by Sir Patrick Stewart, Journey to Space shows the massive risks that come with human spaceflight and gives you a whole new respect for the bravery of our astronauts.

It’s safe to say my quick stop-off at Kennedy left much of it unseen and un-experienced, but a walk around the ‘Rocket Garden’ (yes a ‘garden’ full of replica, full-sized rockets) and the other exhibits of space history was enough to satisfy my space fascinations.

Despite all this, Kennedy’s real coup is the chance to spend time with, and question, real-life NASA astronauts. Having now done this with two such people I can say there are no more interesting people with which to chat. On site Tom Jones (astronaut, not singer) took us on a tour of the Atlantis Space Shuttle and the personal context brought the whole thing to life. If you visit don’t miss the chance to go face to face with one of the more than 500 people who have experienced space travel for themselves.

Held daily at the Astronaut Encounter Theater, the half-hour interactive programme features a question-and-answer session and an opportunity to take a picture with the astronaut.  An impressive roster of astronauts has appeared since the program’s inception in 2001, including Apollo astronauts Al Worden, Walt Cunningham and Charlie Duke; and space shuttle astronauts Wendy Lawrence, Susan Kilrain, Jack Lousma and Jon McBride. 

In case that isn’t enough, Kennedy Space Center is a beautiful ecological sanctuary, in the middle of Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge. Throughout 140,000 acres of estuaries, marshes and coastal dunes are seven distinct habitat types and more than 500 species, from manatees to alligators, bald eagles to ospreys, and butterflies to sea turtles. There are five hiking trails, a seven-mile driving tour and millions of photo opportunities to help bring you down from space to more earthly wonders.

In short, Kennedy Space Center might not have the hype of other Florida attractions but it is an epic day out that puts you right into the middle of some of mankind’s greatest achievements.

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