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Feb 23, 2017

6 min. read

One of the many draws: Space Shuttle Atlantis | Photo couresy of Kennedy Space Center

For more than five decades, the Kennedy Space Center has been the heart and soul of America’s space program. It was from this sprawling complex on Florida’s east coast that some of NASA’s most famous missions were launched, including Apollo 11, which sent the first humans to the moon. Here are some highlights you shouldn’t miss.

The Rocket Garden

These eight rockets—including the massive Saturn 1B—hail from the earliest days of NASA’s manned flights. The collection includes a Mercury-Redstone 3, the type of booster that hauled the first American, Alan Shepard, into space. Interesting fact: the rockets were originally designed to carry intercontinental ballistic missiles, not astronauts.

Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB)

If NASA has a garage, this is it. The cavernous VAB, as it’s affectionately known, is where NASA used to assemble space shuttles and their predecessors, the towering Saturn V rockets. The VAB’s doors stand nearly 45 storeys tall, and the building is so massive that rain clouds can apparently form inside. Today, the building is being overhauled to house NASA’s Space Launch System: rockets that may one day carry humans to Mars.

Space Shuttle Atlantis

In 2011, following 30 years of service, NASA retired its fleet of three space shuttles. One, Atlantis, is now arguably Kennedy’s biggest attraction. The shuttle sits in a massive atrium, offering visitors an up-close look at the most complex vehicle ever made. (The shuttle has more than 2.5 million moving parts.) Space geeks can marvel at Atlantis’ pockmarked heat shield, fully extended Canadarm and human-sized main engines.

Saturn V Rocket

Many people are awed by the size of the space shuttle, which is about as long as a Boeing 737. But it is just an amuse-bouche for the 36-storey-tall Saturn V. Rockets like this carried the first men to the moon and could hit 9,000 km/h. This version has been splayed out on its side and diced up into its three stages, giving visitors an inside look at what is still the most powerful engine ever made.

Apollo 8 Firing Room

In December 1968, the first crewed Saturn V rocket launched from Kennedy. On board were three astronauts hoping to become the first humans to orbit the moon. But the Saturn V had been plagued by problems, and NASA was worried the mission could end in devastation. This audio/visual show takes visitors through the nervous days leading up to the launch and through the rocket’s final countdown. (Spoiler alert: everything went off without a hitch.)

Shuttle Launch Experience

Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield once described a shuttle launch as like being in the “jaws of some enormous dog, [with] a foot in the small of your back pushing you into space.” This simulator, near the Atlantis exhibit, lets you experience first-hand that bone-shaking voyage. You’ll get a recorded briefing from former shuttle commander Charles Bolden before the ride kicks into action, hurtling you on the Kennedy equivalent of an eight-minute spin cycle.

Journey to Mars

Since the shuttle program was shelved in 2011, the big question facing NASA has been, What comes next? The answer: Mars. NASA, as this exhibit explains, is developing the next generation of spacecraft, designed to carry humans on the months-long journey to the Red Planet. Those missions, though, probably won’t happen until at least the 2030s.

Making the drive to Florida? Don't miss these attractions along the way.

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