Quick Visitors Guide to Kennedy Space Center

Riley and an astronaut raise thumbs up in front of the Mars Rover Vehicle Navigator prototype
The Kennedy Space Center earns two thumbs up

When I was a little girl, I wanted to be an astronaut.

I actually started out watching Jurassic Park, obsessing over dinosaurs, and aspiring to become a female Dr. Alan Grant. But something changed along the way, and I wanted to explore outer space and discover the future instead of the past.

When I was young, probably in elementary school, I remember visiting the Arizona Challenger Space Center with my grandfather. That’s when the dream changed. We saw real simulations our astronauts go through and I got queasy just watching them spin around and around for what seemed like forever. We participated in a simulation of Houston’s Mission Control, which seemed a little more my speed but very intense. I wasn’t so sure about my career path anymore.

But that didn’t end the fascination. I remember wanting to write a book about outer space. I was at my grandparents’ house in Colorado and I printed out photos of each planet in our solar system, along with pages of facts about each one so I could put them together and become a famous author and space expert. Those were the glory days.

I suppose I’m still writing, and today I am going to write about space. It’s like I’m ten again.

My childhood fantasies were brought back to life on my recent visit to Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida. Even if you didn’t have aspirations of becoming an astronaut when you were little, this visitor complex will bring out the child in you.

There are more galaxies in our universe than there are grains of sand on every beach on Earth. Take a closer look by visiting Florida's Kennedy Space Center. Click To Tweet

Journey to Mars

Riley places herself in an astronaut suit on planet Mars
In the Journey to Mars exhibit, you can visit Mars

We started our space adventure by visiting the Journey to Mars exhibit. I hope to see astronauts on Mars at some point in my lifetime, and it was neat to walk through and see the technology bringing us toward that milestone. The Mars rover is on display, you can photograph yourself on Mars, and see what the desolate planet looks like. The theme of the exhibit hall is recruitment. Maybe you’ll pass the various computer tests and simulations with flying colors, and perhaps work for NASA one day.

Space Shuttle Atlantis

A replica of shuttle Atlantis and its fuel tank
A replica of shuttle Atlantis and its fuel tank

Our next stop was the Space Shuttle Atlantis building. We had no idea what we were walking into, but there was a huge replica space shuttle and fuel tank outside and it got our attention. So we walked into the building, up and up the rounding ramp and found: a line. A line of people waiting to see whatever this thing was that was scheduled to begin in four minutes. Why not check it out?

I was pretty nervous. Usually, a line implies a ride, and a ride implies motion. I don’t do so well with motion.

It turned out to be really, really incredible (like everything else). We walked into a room that showed a short video orientation about Atlantis, the first reusable space shuttle NASA designed. It was a cheesy reenactment, but very helpful for people like me who weren’t alive at a time when space travel didn’t exist. I don’t think I realized before stepping in that NASA has reused so many of their shuttles.

After the short video, you walk into another room that simulates boarding Atlantis. All around you are layers of thin screens to help make the effect seem real. The video plays and you launch into space, and once there you are floating. Somehow, standing on Earth with gravity very much intact, it really does feel as if you’re weightless. It’s quite the sensation.

Once you land back on earth, a screen becomes transparent to reveal the Atlantis. Not a replica this time – the actual shuttle that traveled into outer space. Then the screen lifts and you can walk over to observe. What follows is an amazing museum, and where we spent the most time.

The space shuttle Atlantis lives on display at Kennedy Space Center

The space shuttle Atlantis lives on display at Kennedy Space Center
The space shuttle Atlantis lives on display at Kennedy Space Center

Exploring the Atlantis Museum

My friend Matt tries out one of the many simulations
My friend Matt tries out one of the many simulations

The center is filled with simulations. These vary from activities like Wii games where you move your hands and help repair telescopes and space shuttles on a screen to landing the shuttle safely on a runway. There are places where you crawl through tunnels as if you were on the International Space Station. You can sit in a replica of the Atlantis and pretend like you’re a real astronaut.

There’s also the Shuttle Launch Experience, a simulation that mimics blasting off into outer space. I was terrified of this. Anyone who has read this blog before is probably aware of how sensitive my motion sickness is. But I decided to be brave and relive my childhood dream, and it wasn’t so bad.

You enter the simulation like you’re in astronaut training, taking a photograph before getting in line and watching videos.

A manipulated photo of Riley in an astronaut suit
My childhood ambitions came to life thanks to some editing

After a safety briefing, you take your seat and strap in. The simulation begins and you are titled back so you’re at a 90-degree angle with the earth, ready to launch.

I thought for sure this contraption was going to spin me around like I was Rocket Man in my dryer at home, but it never happened.

Instead, it shook. Very abruptly. Once the shaking ends you’re tilted forward. The seatbelt holds you in but the goal is to make you feel like you are floating in space. Then you gently return to Earth (probably not very realistic).

When we got off, my cheeks actually hurt. The jury is still out on whether that’s due to the shaking or my hysterical laughter.

You can watch the simulation from another room, but I would venture to say that if I left unscathed, you will, too.

The Rocket Garden

The Rocket Garden towers over the entrance to the Kennedy Space Center
The Rocket Garden at the entrance to the Kennedy Space Center; Photo: NASA
Riley and her friend Matt onboard a replica spacecraft
The coolest thing in the Rocket Garden wasn’t a rocket at all

The Rocket Garden is one of the first things you see when you enter the facility, but it’s one of the last things we explored. Walking among them and taking in the sheer size of these masterpieces is something else. They are real rockets but have never been launched. A tour guide leading a school group nearby could be overheard comparing rockets to groceries. Sometimes, it’s better to buy in bulk. These rockets are the extras created in case others failed.

There’s also a replica of a spacecraft used in Apollo and Gemini missions that Matt and I climbed into. It’s harder than it looks to squeeze in there, but more than anything it’s tough to exit.

Nature and Technology

The NASA logo spins in front of the Kennedy Space Center
The NASA logo spins in front of the Kennedy Space Center

Next, we walked through an exhibit about surrounding nature. You’ll walk across a boardwalk and spot various wild animals as you pass through forest and beach habitat. You’ll also see historic artifacts found nearby. This was a pretty small experience that didn’t take much time, but as a nature enthusiast, it was nice to walk through. I’m very interested in how the alligators react when rockets blast off, causing the ground to rumble. Apparently, it disrupts their mating rituals. Who knew?

Eyes on the Universe

A replica of the Hubble Space Telescope in the Space Shuttle Atlantis museum
A replica of the Hubble Space Telescope in the Space Shuttle Atlantis museum

Next, we watched a live presentation from a NASA employee discussing NASA’s telescopes. His narration was accompanied by a 3D 4K film where you travel back 13.4 billion years through the eyes of the Hubble Space Telescope. He also discussed NASA’s newest telescope, the James Webb, with one of my favorite facts from the day:

The Hubble is so powerful, it could make out your headlights in the Kennedy Space Center parking lot from California. The James Webb is so powerful, it could make out your check engine light from the Moon.

How amazing is that? With these developments, we’ll be able to see much, much farther into space and see what’s out there. Including, perhaps, other life forms.

A Beautiful Planet

A quote from Carl Sagan reads, "The Sky Calls to Us."
A beautiful quote from astronomer Carl Sagan

We ended our trip with an IMAX movie about planet Earth. It was amazing to see because many parts of it were filmed by astronauts. They flew around the Earth’s surface and took amazing photographs and videos. Additionally, scenes inside the International Space Station were filmed by the crew, offering a glimpse into their unique everyday lives.

My favorite element of the film was its overall theme of working together. It showed many moments where individuals from countries across the globe joined forces to accomplish amazing goals. One astronaut, Italian Samantha Cristoforetti, had a wonderful comparison of the earth and the space station.

Residents of the earth are crew members, not passengers with a free ride, and we need to work together to help our planet.