TITUSVILLE, Fla. - When I first moved to Central Florida, I was enamored by all the amazing attractions: Disney, Universal, Sea World, the beach - all within an hour drive from my home. However, what I have been most impressed with is the fact that all things space are all less than an hour away, too. To be able to see a SpaceX rocket launch while standing in my front yard - that is truly spectacular. It never gets old.
When I discovered that the Space Shuttle Atlantis -- I used to watch on TV as a kid -- and the Apollo rockets that put humans on the moon were all just a quick drive down the Beachline Expressway, I had to go.
I recently spent a Saturday at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Center exploring the past, present and future of space travel. The "Disney World of space" did not disappoint.
Here are the top five things I recommend for anyone visiting for the first time or if you haven't been in a long time.
1. Take the bus tour first
When you first arrive to the visitors complex, you will be compelled to go to the rocket garden first, since it is right in front of you, but I recommend you save that for later and head back to the guided bus tour instead. You avoid big lines by doing so and get a current lesson on what's happening in the world of space exploration.
Something new to the bus tour is the video narrated by Emily Calandrelli, also known as "The Space Gal." The MIT engineer turned Emmy-nominated science TV host takes you on a behind the scenes tour of the Vehicle Assembly Building, known as the VAB, and helps explain the significance of all the landmarks you see on the tour.
It was amazing to see the launch pads across the river at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station and Kennedy Space Center's historic launch pad 39A, where Apollo 11 launched to the moon and where Space X launches its Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets.
[PHOTOS: Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex]
Additionally, seeing launch pad 39B, and hearing what the future could hold was also incredible.
The video on the bus was also a great way to learn more about NASA's Space Launch System. NASA officials say it will be the most powerful rocket they've ever built and that it will hopefully put astronauts back on the moon soon.
Another unexpected treat on the bus tour is getting to see the eagle's nest up in one of the trees along the route. You might get lucky to see the two eaglets that are currently there.
2. Visit the Apollo/Saturn V Center
At the end of the bus tour, guests arrive at the Apollo/Saturn V Center, which takes you back in time to show you all the dynamics behind America's race to the moon in the 1960s.
Seeing the Saturn V rocket suspended up above for the first time is jaw-dropping. It is massive and takes up the length of the building. You can walk up, around and under all three rocket stages and see every detail of the type of rocket that put humans on the moon.
Being inside the firing room and watching the Apollo 8 launch video was also very powerful. You can feel the room shake and see the coverage from that historic day in 1968. Watching the Apollo 11 moon landing mission in the Lunar Theater and seeing the racer land in front of you was also inspiring, challenging all of us to do more, be more and not limit ourselves.
The Lunar Theater recreates exactly what happened that historic day in July 1969. In the movie, it states that to NASA workers, "impossible" is not a word because anything is possible. This alone can definitely inspire kids and even adults to not let any challenge stand in their way. These astronauts never did, and they were willing to risk their lives in order to prove it.
Speaking of the ultimate sacrifice, the Apollo 1 Tribute to the three astronauts who died while training for the Apollo 1 flight was very well done. It shows the dedication, the risks and ultimate sacrifice these brave astronauts face and are willing to take - all in the name of space exploration.
3. Don't miss Space Shuttle Atlantis with the Shuttle Launch Experience
This was my favorite part of the tour, probably because I grew up watching Space Shuttle launches, even the tragic Challenger launch that resulted in a midair explosion, killing all on board. I still remember that day like it was yesterday.
It was fascinating to see all the work and time and effort it took just to create the space shuttles all those years ago, and to then see the Space Shuttle Atlantis on display right in front of us was incredible! You see every square tile of the specially made material that surrounds the shuttle. You see the open payload right in front of you. There are interactive display hubs that take you behind the scenes of the many shuttle space missions. There is even a simulator that tests your skill at landing a space shuttle back on earth. But the best interactive display was the Shuttle Launch Experience, which straps you in and takes you on board to experience what it feels like during a space shuttle launch. The presentation states veteran astronauts claim this is pretty close to what it feels like during the real thing.
Finally, no visit would be complete without paying tribute to the brave men and women who died during the Challenger and Columbia tragedies. The tribute wall is very well done, showing personal items from each of the 14 astronauts who perished.
In the words of President Ronald Reagan, "The future doesn't belong to the fainthearted, it belongs to the brave."
4. Save time for the Heroes and Legends exhibit
Do you want to get close up to pieces of space history? Want to see the names and faces of the brave astronauts that have been to space or to see pieces of the moon? Then you must make time to walk through this encompassing museum of space exploration. Inside the U.S. Astronaut Hall of Fame, you see all the men and women who have been inducted into this exclusive and revered group of space travelers. The 4D multi-sensory theater gives you an amazing perspective and view of what these space explorers see and experience, and to see the Redstone rocket, Sigma 7 capsule and Gemini capsule up close makes you truly excited to see the past, present and future of space travel and exploration.
I truly believe a visit here will inspire generations of boys and girls to continue to reach for the stars, and to get involved in science, technology, engineering and math courses so they, too, might one day be a part of space history.
5. Don't forget to look up and see rockets all around
We decided to save the Rocket Garden for last. To walk among these giant space vessels is truly awesome and talk about an Instagram-worthy photo. There's Juno I, Juno II, Delta, Mercury-Redstone and Mercury-Atlas, Atlas-Agena and Gemini-Titan II. We did a self-guided tour, but I recommend you take part in one of the many guided tours offered during the day. To know the brainpower and collaboration it took just to create such rockets is both daunting and inspiring. This is truly a great tribute to the scientists and engineers who were able to turn a dream into a reality.
Final takeaway: Inspiration is everywhere at the Visitor Complex
I can honestly say there is so much more we could have done, and I highly recommend spending more than just one day at the Visitor Complex. I will definitely be coming back to explore more of what KSC has to offer, maybe even visit with an astronaut or two on my next visit -- or send my son to Space Camp. Yes, you can do that and more at the Visitor Complex.
If I had to sum up the visit in one word, it would be this: inspiring. And with the SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket set to launch the Arabsat 6A communications satellite this week, I now have a better understanding and appreciation for all the hard work that goes into these missions with and without astronauts.
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