Last week, I was in Orlando to speak at a conference. I had planned to come in a little early to play tourist as I’d never been to Florida before and had a few things I wanted to see and do. The Kennedy Space Center was on the top of the list. It’s located about an hour west of Orlando so we rented a car for the day to get out there.
When I had originally booked my trip, the first thing I did was check the Cape Canaveral launch schedule. There wasn’t any scheduled launches when I booked my trip but then things changed a few weeks later and a launch was scheduled for Monday at 4:30pm – 2 hours BEFORE I landed in Orlando. SpaceX was going to launch a Falcon 9 rocket with the Dragon capsule in a re-supply mission to the International Space Station.
As the trip got closer, the weather forecast was calling for thunderstorms (a common thing there I’ve since found out) so I was optimistic that the launch would be scrubbed and I’d get to see a launch. I had already set aside Tuesday as my “NASA” day. As it turned out, the launch did get scrubbed and because of the storm, I almost didn’t get to land. It took over 2 hours for the storm to pass so that the ground crew could even get the luggage off the plane.
Entrance to the space center can be purchased online or from the tour operators located in most hotel lobbies. I was able to save $5 a ticket by getting it at the hotel before leaving. If you’re going to be there when a launch is scheduled, you have a number of viewing options to choose from with entrance to the space center. For an extra $50, you can get access to a much closer spot at the LC-39 Observation Gantry (3.4 miles from the rocket versus 6.7 miles from the Atlantis viewing area or 6.2 miles from the Apollo/Saturn V Center which is an additional $20 for the bus ride). You must call 855-475-8415 to purchase tickets for the LC-39 area. Tickets are limited. I figured this was a once in a lifetime opportunity to see a launch so spent the extra money. Turns out it was actually a great deal since it includes the bus ride to the site, a surprisingly good lunch once you arrive there and a free t-shirt (which apparently varies by launch). I got a SpaceX/Falcon 9 shirt:
We arrived around noon and once we got into the complex, the first thing I saw was the Rocket Garden – an outdoor museum of various spacecraft.
We headed straight for the bus tour around the complex but the staff saw that we had tickets to the launch and strongly suggested we stay onsite and explore the buildings or we wouldn’t make it back in time to get on the bus for the launch. We listened. After grabbing a late breakfast at the Rocket Garden cafe (where you get beer!) we headed inside to the Space Shuttle Atlantis building.
Once inside, I was blown away by the shear scale and size of the Atlantis that was right in front of me…it’s one thing to see it on tv and in movies but to stand underneath it was truly something to behold.
There was so many things to see in person that I had dreamed about as a kid and continue to as an adult, I was truly a kid in a candy store.
I highly recommend taking the time to do the Shuttle Launch Experience simulator inside the Atlantis building. You basically get to feel the same sensations as if you were launched into space from the payload bay of a Shuttle. The vertical takeoff, the vibrations of every bone in your body, everything an astronaut experiences.
The day before, the SpaceX launch was scrubbed 3 minutes before it was scheduled because the thunderstorms were rolling in, despite it being clear and sunny at the launch site. Once you get on the bus to head to the launch site, you’re handed one of these:
I’d guess that about 90% of the people on the bus with us were there the day before. The weather was holding and it was a beautifully sunny and hot day with no storms on the horizon.
There were gator-friendly swamps and ditches all around as well as signs warning of poisonous snakes everywhere. Until I saw the alligator in the ditch (the second one during the bus trip), I thought the signs were just to scare off the tourists.
One of the cool parts about driving around the complex is the history everywhere. You can see familiar buildings off in the distance just about everywhere you turn and even the crawler that moved the Space Shuttle into position. No sign of Jawas though.
Once we had lunch and got settled on the observation gantry, someone was on the PA system giving us a description of the grounds around us, how the launch works and what to expect. He did mention that due to the SpaceX webcast being streamed from California, there would be a delay from the launch and the countdown we’d hear. Fortunately, everyone was watching as the countdown begun a few minutes after the rocket had already lifted off:
Here’s NASA’s dramatic footage from the launch:
and this is our view of the launch (shot by Marc Smith on his iPhone 6) – listen to the people in the background…everyone was VERY excited as it took off:
It’s really hard for a space geek like me to put this experience into words…it was simply an amazing experience and something I recommend everyone try to do at least once. I’ve definitely got a few more days worth of exploring to do at Kennedy as well so hopefully I’ll get to do that in the near future.
Lots more photos from around the space center can be found in my Flickr album.