Kennedy Space Center visitor center sign
Our first port call, at Port Canaveral, Florida, was scheduled for early morning arrival. Looking out the cabin window at 6:30 a.m., I could see we were already slipping up Port Canaveral channel in the predawn darkness. We'd booked an in-depth tour of the Kennedy Space Center that was to depart at 8:00 a.m. Accordingly, we ordered breakfast in our cabin and it arrived at 7:15.
The normally busy passenger terminal was very quiet as we disembarked. Among others leaving the ship early in the morning like us were those bound for a day at DisneyWorld. The Kennedy Space Center tour buses were right outside and we boarded for our tour. I was very interested to finally see the Kennedy Space Center. I grew up during the space race and remember seeing the manned launches and the moon landings on TV.
Kennedy Space Center Visitor Center entrance
The bus took the group over to nearby Merritt Island
, where the space center is located. First stop was the Visitor Complex
. I'd been to two NASA visitor centers previously, at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, MD, and the Wallops Flight Facility in Chincoteague, VA. Those have interesting displays and films. This one was more on the order of a theme park! (NASA has definitely taken cues from DisneyWorld.) In fact, you enter though a theme park-like main entrance gate. The group was even admitted an hour before the visitor complex opened to the general public, sort of like Disney's early openings. Our guide first took us through the Rocket Garden
, a collection of historic NASA rockets used in space exploration from the 1950s to the 1970s.
Looming astronaut greets visitors
Next was the impressive IMAX film
on the story of the moon landing missions and future possibilities.
At this point, we were to reboard buses for a tour of the space center itself. I was most struck at how huge and vast the Kennedy Space Center and adjacent Cape Canaveral really are! I had imagined an installation where the main structures could be seen from the visitor center and then one could take a tour over to see them up close. In fact, everything was miles away and apart. As we neared the main administrative area, the guide explained that the Vehicle Assembly Building, imposing and visible in the distance, was five miles away. The road took us out to the causeway over the Banana River connecting to Cape Canaveral.
Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex entrance plaza
Here we stopped to get out and look around. In the distance to the north were the Vehicle Assembly Building and the launch pad where the Space Shuttle Discovery was waiting to blast off. To the east was Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, where rocket testing began in 1950. The many gantries and buildings visible on the "Cape" date to the Mercury and Gemini programs and are still used for satellite and space probe launches. Returning to the bus, we drove around the administrative area, seeing NASA Headquarters
, the International Space Station Center
, and other support facilities.
Now was the main event on the up-close tour. We drove over to the huge Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB), the largest building in the world when completed in 1966.
It was constructed to assemble the Saturn V rockets and Apollo spacecraft for the lunar missions. During the Space Shuttle program, it's been used to assemble the Space Shuttles together with their booster rockets. A "crawler-transporter" vehicle carries assembled spacecraft from the VAB to Space Launch Complex 49A or 49B for launching. The immense crawlerway is the size of a multilane highway (100 feet or 30 m wide), but is used by only the one vehicle. We drove by the two launch pads and then disembarked at a viewing area used for cameras during launches. The Space Shuttle Discovery could clearly be seen on Pad 49A, ready for launch on April 5. The two pads are the ones used to launch the Apollo missions and all the Space Shuttle missions and there is much history behind them.
Continuing on, we saw the three mile long runway where the Space Shuttles land. Sharing the Kennedy Space Center property is the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge
. Evidence of the abundant wildlife was everywhere: waterfowl, egrets, two large bald eagle nests, and many alligators. (We saw three alligators during the course of the tour. Not a place to walk around on foot!)
The tour concluded at the Apollo/Saturn V Center. This is a museum of the lunar exploration era. But what a museum! The Apollo Launch Control Center has been rebuilt at the site. Visitors watch the Apollo 11 launch unfold as controllers would have seen it. A restored Saturn V dominates the main exhibit floor. The 363 foot long (111 m) three-stage rocket is the largest built.
Apollo Command, Service and Excursion modules hang from the ceiling. A darkened room houses the Treasure Gallery: flight plans, mission logs, astronaut's written notes, space suits, and the Command Module from the Apollo 14 mission.
The Apollo/Saturn V center is out near the VAB, so visitors must take another bus to return to the main Visitor Complex. There was time to look around here before we had to return to the ship. The theme-park setting has many exhibit halls in addition to the IMAX theater and Rocket Garden. A full-size Space Shuttle mockup is on view in Space Shuttle Plaza. The Shuttle Launch Experience ride was a highlight! This motion simulator ride gives you the feel of a shuttle lift-off.