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Visiting Kennedy Space Center: a weekend guide

Kennedy Space Center is one of the coolest places in the entire state of Florida. Use this quick guide to make the most of your one or two day trip to Kennedy Space Center...

When I was a young kid, one of the most memorable places we visited on a family vacations to Florida was Kennedy Space Center. Then I grew up and never came anywhere near the Space Coast for the next 20 years, but this summer, I finally made my triumphant return to Kennedy Space Center. With all the changes and additions since visiting few decades ago, Kennedy Space Center is even more memorable as an adult NASA nerd…

Visiting Kennedy Space Center is fairly self-explanatory, but we do want to give folks a little guide to make the most of their trip to this remarkable place.

First, how much time should you allot to visit Kennedy Space Center?

A trip to Kennedy Space Center is EASILY a full-day affair. If you’re a real space geek, you might even consider giving it a day and a half to two full days. (Special events such as launches could also dramatically impact how much time you should allot, so keep that in mind.)

Ok, now for what you have to see and do while you’re there…

The Kennedy Space Center Must-Sees and Must-Dos

Kennedy Space Center is divided into “Mission Zones” to help keep you from missing any of the amazing exhibits and experiences, but, the first things you can’t miss are before you even walk through the main gate…

You’ll want to get plenty of photos right off-the-bat with the giant NASA insignia, the John F. Kennedy Fountain, and the old countdown clock.

Once inside, you’re free to experience each “Mission Zone” at your leisure, but, in our humble opinion, you should start with either Behind the Gates (and Race to the Moon) or Shuttle: a Ship like no Other. Since “Behind the Gates” is a bus tour that connects you with the Race to the Moon, it’s a popular attraction, and if you can beat the crowds you’ll spend less time waiting in line for the next available bus. The Space Shuttle exhibit is also an “experience” with paced admission, so getting inside to see the shuttle before the crowds will also help you have more time (and better pictures!)

Now, here’s a little of what to expect at each “Mission Zone”

Heroes and Legends

For most, the highlight of the Heroes and Legends mission zone is the “Rocket Garden.” Here you’ll find a collection of rockets, most from the Mercury and Gemini eras of NASA. While you’re free to walk the garden at your own pace, we HIGHLY recommend checking the schedule for their brief guided tours. These passionate NASA guides bring the Rocket Garden to life in a way you wouldn’t experience on a self-guided walk.

After spending some time in the garden, be sure to stroll through the Astronaut Hall of Fame.

Behind the Gates/Race to the Moon

When I first visited Kennedy Space Center as a child, the giant Saturn V rocket was just an outdoor display. These days, it's the centerpiece of the “Race to the Moon” mission zone, one of the highlights of a visit to Kennedy.

But to get to the Race to the Moon, you have to hop on a bus. Well, we shouldn’t say “have to.” It’s actually a pretty great tour of the property which is full of wildlife and historic spots like the massive Vehicle Assembly Building.

Once at the “Race to the Moon” zone, you’re in for a real treat, from viewing the giant Saturn V to experiencing a simulated launch to browsing countless artifacts from the Apollo missions, it’s definitely one of the most memorable parts of visiting Kennedy.

Keep in mind, you’ll need to take the bus to get back, so timing it so the lines aren’t huge will again help you.

Shuttle: A Ship Like No Other

There are very few places to see a space shuttle. This is one of them. After a pretty stellar video presentation, you’ll come face-to-face with Atlantis. If you have kids, they’ll love the play “tubes” they can explore and use to get up and down through the building and the room of hands-on simulators (heck, you’ll enjoy it too.)

For adults, the “Forever Remembered,” memorial to those lost on the space shuttle missions STS-51L Challenger and STS-107 Columbia is particularly moving with shadowboxes honoring each astronaut as well as rare pieces recovered from both shuttles.

Also well-worth waiting in line for is the space shuttle launch simulator. To be honest, we had very low expectations for this little ride, but we thought, “why not?” The simulator completely exceeded our expectations and was a nice little free addition to our experience.

NASA: Now and Next

While there are a few fun little things to see here, the real draw is the IMAX theater. Take a break and enjoy one of 2 different movies offered daily with your general admission ticket.

Kennedy Space Center Add-ons and upgrades

Of course, there are plenty of “extras” you can tack on to your general admission ticket. For the hardcore NASA nerds, an upgraded bus tour can take you to places like launch control or up-close to different launch pads and the Vehicle Assembly Building. If you plan on purchasing any of these upgrades, we’d highly suggest extending your time at Kennedy to 2 days.

Our favorite add-on, however, is “Lunch with an Astronaut.” For just under $30 ($16 for kids), you get a pretty decent lunch buffet and a chance to hear from a real-life astronaut about their time in space.

For us, it was worthy every penny. First of all, you’re going to end up eating lunch at KSC during your time there anyway so why not spend a few extra dollars on your lunch and walk away with a lifelong memory?

So whether you just have a passing interest in space exploration or are a complete NASA guru, there’s a Kennedy Space Center experience that’ll suit you. Spend a day or two at one of America’s most important places, and you will not be disappointed.

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