The giant engines begin to rev up. Even
from where youre standing, a safe 10 miles away, you can see the
smoke billowing out from underneath.
The very air seems to vibrate, as much
with anticipation as with the hum of the powerful rockets.
Now comes a reverberation strong enough
to rattle your molars. And you tilt your head back, back, back as you
follow the space shuttle streaking through the azure Florida sky on its
trip toward the cosmos.
They simply dont have this at the
theme parks, folks. Welcome to the Space Coast, a high-tech haven in northern
Brevard County thats home to Kennedy Space Center, the nations
largest launch facility and the only facility to handle human-occupied flights.
If you dream of touching the stars, even by proxy, youve come to the
right place. (If youre a real back-to-nature type, you, too, are in
the right place. Click here for the all-natural
side of the Space Coast.)
Before we get into what you can see and
do, we need some background. American scientist Robert Goddard launched
what is considered to be the first guided rocket in 1926. They were proven
as weapons of destruction in World War II. Humans didnt use them
as transportation until the 50s and 60s, when the U.S. and
the Soviets competed to be the first into space (uh, they won). American
space efforts centered around the east-central Florida coast, largely
because it had decent weather, an ocean nearby for splash landings and
very few people.
The rocket industry has become a major
tourist industry, luring more than 2 million people a year to an area
that has considerably more people than it used to, but still retains a
lot of wilderness.
Early launches went off from Cape Canaveral. These
days, the shuttle goes off from KSC, either from pad 39A or 39B. Unmanned
rockets -- Delta, Titan and Atlas/Centaur -- are still launched from the
The U.S. has had some amazing successes -- putting
men on the moon (July 1969) and launching a craft that could go into outer
space and come back to be used again -- as well as some close calls --
Apollo 13s explosion and loss of power that nearly stranded three
astronauts in space.
Watching a launch
If you want to get a gander at a launch,
you'd best plan ahead. It's tough to overstate how crowded the area
can be. Those who tarry can end up on the shoulder of the road somewhere
trying to see around some tall guy wearing a hat.
Assume you plan ahead -- where can you go?
If you're really somebody, like Bill Clinton, you get the best spot:
NASA's VIP site, accessible only by special bus. The press has its
own viewing area, but you have to be a bona fide member of the fourth
estate to qualify. If you know anybody who works at KSC, kiss up:
employees have access to special passes that'll get you near the
If you're just J.Q. Citizen, you still have
some pretty good options:
-- A car pass. These allow you to park on
KSC property. The primo spot is the NASA Parkway Causeway over the
Banana River; it's just south of the launch pads with an unobstructed
view of the action. But apply early: Tickets are issued on a first-come,
first-served basis. Send a postcard with your name, address and
the mission number of the launch you want to see to: Car Passes,
PA-PIB, KSC, FL 32899. You'll get the pass about three weeks before
For all on-site viewing spots, you need
to arrive about two hours before the launch and be prepared to stay
through the entire launch window.
-- KSC Visitors Complex has an all-inclusive
ticket price. $26 for adults, and $16 for children ages 3-11. Groups
can get reduced rates. That price includes the bus tour, both IMAX
films (The Dream is Alive & L-5, First City in Space a 3-D IMAX
film), Astronaut Encounter (a real astronaut appears daily), Space
Shuttle Replica, Rocket Garden, Robot Scouts, Exploration in the
New Millenium, Universe Theatre and all exhibits and displays.
You can call ahead to reserve: 321-452-2121.
-- On your own. Try these locations:
-- Anywhere along the Indian River on U.S. 1, especially in Titusville.
A few particular goodies: Sand Point Park, the Mercury 7 Monument
at the Space Walk Hall of Fame, on the water side where U.S. 50
meets U.S. 1, and Astronaut Hall of Fame at the entrance to NASA
-- State Road 528 where it crosses the Banana River.
-- Jetty Park near Port Canaveral.
-- Along the beach in Cocoa Beach, and especially at the end of
the Cocoa Beach Pier.
-- Couch-potatoes take note: Several area hotels have clear views
of the launch, either from a special shuttle watching area (usually
a deck) or from some of the rooms (Holiday Inn-Kennedy Space Center
in Titusville is a good one for this). You also can watch from your
boat, just remember that some areas are off limits.
A couple other tips: This is an outdoor
spectacle. Humidity, high temperatures, bugs, even a little rain
won't stop the show. Bring an umbrella, bug spray and water. You
may want to tote your own chair or blanket as well. If you're on-site,
make sure the car has enough gas; the nearest station may be 10
There have been tragic failures as well: Three Apollo
astronauts, Gus Grissom, Edward White and Roger Chaffee, died when fire
swept through their capsule during training tests in January 1967. And in
January 1986, in an event televised worldwide, the shuttle Challenger exploded
and crashed into the ocean; five astronauts and two non-NASA personnel,
including teacher Christa McAuliffe, died.
Though shuttle launches have been safe and successful
since Challenger (though a recent flight was delayed by hail damage),
recent rocket launches seem to be harkening back to the difficulties of
the early days. Six rockets have failed since last August, costing taxpayers
and aerospace firms some $3.5 billion and prompting President Clinton
to order a Department of Defense investigation. Its the worst string
of failures since the mid-80s.
For space junkies, the top of the "right
stuff" pyramid is Kennedy Space Center, called KSC by those in the
know. The first stop is the Visitors Center, and -- heres the best
part: its free. (By the way, real work goes on at other parts of
KSC and many locations are off limits.)
At the center, Space Shuttle Plaza offers a full-size
model of a shuttle that you can walk through. A small fee (about $4, but
prices do change) gets you in to a Galaxy Theater IMAX film, shown on
an eye-popping 5 1/2-story screen. One of the features, Blue Planet, is
an incredible look at earth from space.
Then its time for a tour ($7 for adults).
Unless youre a real Mercury freak, go for the one that takes you
out to the shuttle stuff.
Other space-related sites to check out:
-- Astronaut Hall of Fame: Astronaut history
and fun trivia (even Buzz Aldrins report card). 321/269-6100.
-- U.S. Space Camp: Studying science has
never been so cool. 321/267-3184; 800-637-7223.
-- Space Walk of Fame: A memorial to Project
Mercury, which put the first Americans into space. On the western
bank of the Indian River in Titusville.
-- Astronaut Memorial Planetarium and Observatory:
Houses the states largest public-access telescope, which you
can look through for free. 321/532-1111, ext. 63504.
-- Warbird Air Museum; OK, technically not
a space thing, but it has exhibits of historic military aircraft
from World War I through Vietnam. Titusville; 321/268-1239.