Up, Up and Away

Up, Up and Away photo

Located within an easy drive of Orlando, the NASA Kennedy Space Center offers a fascinating and educational place to spend the day with your family. For those seeking a more affordable holiday in Orlando, aim for the less touristed months of May or September

As with the Central Florida's theme parks, crowds pack the Space Center daily. Two narrated bus tours, departing every 15 minutes from the Visitor Center, give you a behind-the-scenes look at operations. You'll get to know about this mammoth 220-square-mile complex during the two-hour narrated "Red Bus" tour, which departs regularly. After first crossing the "crawlerway," the tracks on which the massive six-million-pound crawler/transporters carry the Space Shuttles to their launch pad, your double-decker bus will stop at the unmanned rocket launch sites, the mission control building, then proceed to the 52-story Vehicle Assembly Building where technicians assembled the shuttles and fitted them with their payloads.

Afterwards, you'll ride out to Launch Complex 39 and Pad A and B, where NASA prepared and launched the space shuttles. The Flight Crew Training Building, where you can experience a simulation of the Apollo 11 launch and see an actual lunar module, is probably the tour's most interesting stop.

The "Blue Tour," shows you the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, as well as the sites where America's first astronauts rocketed into space in the Mercury and Gemini space capsules. You'll also stop at the Air Force Space Museum to see its collection of space memorabilia and missiles.

You'll began and end your tours at the Visitor Center, Spaceport U.S.A.. Here, you can climb aboard the Ambassador, a 68-ton replica of a space shuttle orbiter to receive an astronaut point of view. Then you'll stroll through Satellites and You, an exhibit showing how satellites affect your daily life, using interactive videos and animatronics.

For a look at artistic interpretations of space travel, browse the Gallery of Space Flight. Allow time to see at least one of two films. In the Spaceport U.S.A. 's IMAX Theater, you'll join shuttle astronauts in flight in "The Dream Is Alive." In "Blue Planet," crews of five space shuttle missions show you the environmental effects of man and nature from 300 miles up. There's also a collection of Mercury, Saturn, and Gemini rockets, as well as models of rocket engines and the Lunar Module, Lunar Rover, space suits, the Viking craft used on Mars, and the recovered capsules of a number of manned flights.

Just beyond the Rocket Garden, the Astronauts Memorial honors the courage and spirit of the U.S. astronauts who have given their lives while exploring space. The Astronaut Hall of Fame stands next to the Kennedy Space Center entrance on the NASA Parkway. Here, you can get to know the accomplishments of America's first team of seven astronauts through videotapes, photographs, and professional mementos, plus feel the pull of four Gs in the G-Force Simulator and take a virtual walk on the moon.

Spaceport U.S.A. now has a new exhibit, Space Shuttle Atlantis, a comprehensive and interactive, 90,000-square-foot attraction built around the Atlantis and devoted to the 30-year Space Shuttle Program. All 135 space shuttle missions from 1981 to 2011 took off from the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral. The facility includes four multimedia cinematic productions and over 60 interactive experiences, such as conducting a virtual spacewalk, docking a shuttle to the International Space Station, creating sonic booms and gliding through re-entry, experiencing the sensation of floating in space, and strapping in to the sights, sounds and sensations of a shuttle launch.

The drama begins outside the entrance, as you're greeted by a full-scale, 184-foot vertical replica of the space shuttle's external tank and two solid rocket boosters. The new building has two wings — one representing the shuttle's launch and the other its return. Much of the building glows in iridescent orange and gold, representing the fiery glow of re-entry, while the taller wing, covered in gray tiles, represents the underside of the orbiter. Before reaching the shuttle itself, you'll view multimedia cinematic presentations showing the evolution of the 30-year Space Shuttle Program and NASA's five space shuttles.

Displayed tilted on its side at a 43.21-degree angle, the Space Shuttle Atlantis looks as if it's floating in space just after being undocked from the International Space Station, with its payload bay doors open and robotic arm extended, offering a nearly 360-degree view.

In addition, you can also visit the Hubble Space Telescope Theater, with a detailed 43-foot-long replica of the telescope, and a cinematic production in the 40-seat theater with stunning images of deep space, and the International Space Station Gallery, where you can enter a scale replica of an ISS module and experience the sensation of floating in space.

Arrive at the Space Center early to avoid the crowds or visit on weekends when there are fewer people.