The Kennedy Space Centre Visitor Complex is not necessarily the first thing that springs to mind when talking about major visitor attractions in Orlando, Florida. Jutting out from the Florida coast on Merritt Island, it is nonetheless older than both Universal Studios and Disney World and attracts over 1.5 million visitors each year.
The roots of the Visitor Complex can be traced back to 1963 when NASA was forced to respond to growing demand from the public for a closer look at their rocket-launching facilities. Once a week, visitors were allowed to drive their cars on a predetermined route through what is now called Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, the next-door neighbour of the modern-day Kennedy Space Centre (KSC). These drive-through tours gave them a distant view of the launch pads and assembly buildings and proved such a success over the next couple of years that permission was granted for the creation of a proper and permanent visitor centre and museum.
Construction began in 1966 and featured several rudimentary exhibitions and the first bus tours. Numerous name changes, expansions and improvements have been made since, with the Visitor Complex now sprawling over 40 acres in size. It receives no funding from the US government or from the American taxpayer and is instead funded through the sales of tickets and merchandise.
There is too much at the Visitor Complex to be able to cover everything in a single article – I visited for nine hours last July and probably left a third of the site unvisited – so for the sake of avoiding rambling I will instead cover the two major exhibitions/attractions that are the main drawing points for visitors: the Apollo/Saturn V Centre and the Space Shuttle Atlantis.
The Apollo/Saturn V Centre is separated from the main Visitor Complex and is reached by free bus tours that run throughout the day. Members of staff often recommend that visitors head for the bus tours upon arrival to avoid the queues that build up throughout the day, so for many people the Apollo/Saturn V Centre is the first thing they properly encounter at the Complex.
After watching a video about the development of the Saturn V in an auditorium that overlooks the consoles used to monitor Apollo launches in the late 1960s and early 1970s, you file into the cavernous main space and find yourself staring at the business end of a Saturn V. Laid out on its side and split into its separate stages, it’s one of only three Saturn Vs on display anywhere in the world and the only one where visitors can walk under all 360-feet of it.
Various other unused Apollo hardware is dotted around the rocket, including a lunar module, command module and service module. Simulators allow you to practice docking the lunar module to the command module and to see how far a golf ball can fly in the Moon’s lunar gravity. Outside is the Moon Tree Garden, opened as part of a revamp of the Centre in the summer of 2019 to coincide with Apollo 11’s 50th anniversary. Apollo 14 astronaut Stu Roosa flew a collection of sycamore seeds with him to the Moon and back in 1971, with the fully-grown descendants of those seeds forming the Moon Tree Garden. There are 12 sycamores in total, one for each crewed Apollo mission, planted in a figure-of-eight around life-size bronze statues of Apollo 11’s Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Mike Collins.
Back inside, as well as the obligatory gift shop and café, there is an exhibition called the ‘Apollo Treasures Gallery. It is a Smithsonian-affiliated exhibition with many of the items on loan from the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, DC. These include the Apollo 14 command module that took Alan Shepard, Stu Roosa and Ed Mitchell to the Moon, Shepard’s dust-covered spacesuit, and a 3.7 billion-year-old piece of the Moon collected during Apollo 15. You can also get dressed up in NASA flight suits and get your picture taken in front of a green screen that makes it look like you’re in zero-gravity onboard the International Space Station!
One of the more solemn exhibitions at KSC is also in the Apollo/Saturn V building. Named ‘Ad Astra Per Aspera’, it’s a tribute to the three astronauts killed in the Apollo 1 fire of 1967. Among various personal items, it rather somberly includes the hatch of their command module which, due to a design flaw, they could not open to escape. Amid the more wondrous and light-hearted exhibitions of the rest of the Complex, it’s a reminder of just how dangerous spaceflight really is.
Once you are done with the Apollo/Saturn V Centre – and it takes a good couple of hours to look around everything there – you get the return bus tour back to the main Visitor Complex. You are dropped off not far from the Space Shuttle Atlantis building; it’s not exactly hard to miss, what with the 154-foot-tall bright orange external fuel tank and two solid rocket boosters on display outside.
Inside, a couple of videos in two rooms detail the origins of the Shuttle programme and some of its major milestones. The second of these videos is projected onto the wall and ends with a life-size image of the Shuttle Atlantis. With the music swelling, the wall then rises up to reveal the real Shuttle right behind it. Sure, it might be slightly corny, but it still works a treat (even if, on the day I visited, they ran into technical problems with the wall and we were denied the big reveal, being led to the other side through the fire exit instead).
Atlantis is one of three surviving Shuttles, and is the only one in the world displayed with its payload doors open as they would be in space. It’s tilted on its mounts at a slight angle, allowing you to see into the payload bay and to get a great view of the CanadArm, the robotic arm used to deploy, grapple and move cargo around in space.
According to the Visitor Complex’s website, there are over 60 interactive displays in this one exhibition alone. These include a life-size replica of the Hubble Space Telescope, a mock-up of several modules of the International Space Station that are meant for children to crawl through, but which frequently sees adults give in to their child-like urges and join them, and several simulators. The biggest of these simulators – titled the ‘Shuttle Launch Experience’ – seats 40 people at once, and sees you rattled and shaken around in what is apparently an extremely accurate approximation of what it was like to lift-off in the Shuttle.
Much like the Apollo/Saturn V Centre, the Space Shuttle Atlantis building also features a gallery that pays tribute to lost astronauts, this one titled ‘Forever Remembered’. It focuses on the Challenger and Columbia accidents of 1986 and 2003 and displays personal items belonging to each of the 14 astronauts as well as debris recovered from the wreckage of both Shuttles.
It’s a testament to the Visitor Complex that it knows how to balance the serious with the wondrous. It doesn’t overwhelm visitors with things related to NASA’s darkest moments, and makes sure to place more emphasis on the things that were learnt from the Apollo 1, Challenger and Columbia accidents and on the stories of the humans involved as opposed to focusing on the specifics of what went wrong.
The interactive nature of the KSC Visitor Complex is also a point of note. There are so many hands-on displays and exhibitions and simulators that it is impossible to come away from your visit having not learned anything.
The sheer scale of the Visitor Complex, however, cannot be overstated. This may suit visitors who have no knowledge of NASA’s history and who might be satisfied to see only the ‘highlights’, but for people like myself who have a lot of interest in spaceflight, a one-day trip is not enough. Not that I would complain. It just means I have an excuse to visit again one day, something I would recommend to anyone in a heartbeat.
Opening times: The Visitor Complex opens at 9:00 every day, 365 days a year, while closing times depends on the season.
Admission: Entry to the Visitor Complex costs $57 per adult and $47 per child with concession prices for senior citizens and members of the military. Yes, this is expensive, but it is still over half the price of a single-day, single-park ticket to Universal Studios or Disney World. Add-on enhancements like special interest tours are available at additional cost.
Accessibility: A large carpark is available at the site, with parking costing $10 for a car, $5 for a motorbike and $15 for motorhomes or other oversized vehicles. There is no public transport to the Visitor Complex, but buses from Orlando are available through Gray Line Orlando and Florida Dolphin Tours. The site is very flat and ramps are available to get into all buildings.
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Jenny Rowan is currently studying for an MA in Museum Studies with the University of Leicester, having graduated in 2019 with a First Class degree in History from the University of Exeter. She is interested in all things Cold War and spaceflight, and runs a blog about the lesser-known and more light-hearted stories of the Space Race at goforlanding.wordpress.com