Last week I had a couple of friends over from the UK, so it seemed a good time to visit the Kennedy Space Center [sic]. This fitted in nicely having watched First Man the day before, which I would recommend watching.
What follows is a rough overview of what we saw, and could form guidance for your own visit. I'm by no means an expert in space travel though, I just have a passing interest, so there will be much better guidance elsewhere - I could probably describe the technical functions of NCC-1701-D far better than its Space Shuttle namesake (review of the technical manual coming at some point soon). I'll also apologise now for the lack of (quality) photos - given that the centre has been visited by plenty of good photographers, who's work is likely easily found online, I felt my time was better spent actually looking at the stuff directly.
After driving over the really long causeway joining the cape to the rest of Florida, we arrived. The Centre is set out much more like a theme park than a museum, which is probably worth knowing before you visit - many exhibitions are accompanied by audio-visual experiences, so may take longer than anticipated.
We started off walking around the rocket garden, home to around a dozen or so rockets, mostly pre-Apollo-era. It was surprising how small they were - I've always thought of rockets as massive, and this showed how they don't always need to be (more on that later).
Pretty quickly we got in line for the bus tour, which goes past several launch complexes, the vehicle assembly building and ends up at the Saturn V & Apollo complex. The line took a while to clear - on our return it was much shorter, so it could be worth waiting a bit.
The tour itself was great, with a good commentary. It took in lots of sites, nice and close up, including Launch Complex 39A, currently used by SpaceX and previously used for Apollo and Space Shuttle launches. The driver, whilst we waited for the tour to depart, gave us a very brief lecture in orbital mechanics to pass the time.
At the end of the tour is the Saturn V & Apollo centre. After watching a couple of videos about the Apollo program, and a presentation of the Firing Room, we walked out to be greeted with the tail end of the Saturn V. Where the Titan II looked smaller than expected, the Saturn V was the opposite - it was huge. All three stages, and the service & command modules, are shown on their side, and are still several stories tall. The five F1 engines are vast, and remain the most powerful single chamber liquid-propellant rocket engine ever developed¹
. There's plenty of information about the rocket and the missions, along with plenty of other memorabilia on display. There's a nice model of the Saturn V that describes the various components in more detail.
After this we went back to the main visitor complex and watched an IMAX film narrated by Patrick Stewart. My friends both really enjoyed this, so I should probably recommend it. However, there's a lot to see (too much for a single day), so consider what else you want to see before you commit to an hour of movie-watching.
We then went into the Space Shuttle building. This is a prime example of how what could just be a museum has been made more of an attraction. On the whole, I didn't feel this added that much - the visitors are shown a couple of videos (presumably after a queue if it's busy), one of which features an obscene amount of projection mapping. However, this ends in a spectacular reveal of the Space Shuttle Atlantis, which is a good gag.
The Space Shuttle is close enough to see in good detail, but what I really liked was that an RS-25 engine is displayed off to one side, only a foot or two behind a chain barrier, giving a really good look at how it's built. Although I've seen a couple of videos explaining how the fuel is fed through the perimeter of the nozzle, actually seeing these tiny tubes in person was impressive.
Downstairs there's the entrance to the Shuttle Launch Experience, which is a fairly standard simulator affair the tips you back and shakes your chair a bit. I expect kids would quite enjoy this, but I mostly found it uncomfortable, and had to take everything
out of my pockets - if the centre were busy, I would happily give it a miss.
With that, it was closing time, so we drove home. I plan to go back to have a look at some of the exhibits we didn't have time to see, and hopefully take in an actual launch at some point. For me, the top sights were definitely the Saturn V and Space Shuttle Atlantis, seeing this scale of engineering up close was well worth the nearly two hour drive.