Up, up, up… and away

For all you future astronauts — and anyone who wants to experience the thrill of being in outer space — head to Florida’s Space Coast, but not just to experience a shuttle launch.

Over Memorial Day weekend, NASA’s Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex launched its newest attraction: the Shuttle Launch Experience, the first interactive visitor experience of its kind.

The shuttle launch simulator, which took three years and $60 million to build, relied on the guidance of design experts and veteran NASA astronauts, who worked together in creating a simulator that sends visitors fully vertical into space through the sounds and sensations of launching.

Prior to its opening, I took a tour of the new attraction, and here’s what you can expect: first, the Shuttle Launch Experience is indoors. The simulator is housed in a large, six-story building near the entrance to the visitor’s center. (By the way, the cost of the Shuttle Launch Experience is included in general admission to the center: $38 for adults, $28 for children.)

Next, it’s time to queue up. The Shuttle Launch Experience has a large ramp leading to the entrance to the building — and along the way, you will hear prerecorded, detailed accounts by former NASA astronauts sharing their experiences on the steps of a real shuttle launch.

Once you enter the facility, the attraction continues with a walkthrough to the shuttle tower as well as a pre-launch briefing on a couple of large plasma screens.

You will then be lead to the Shuttle Launch Experience — a replica of a space shuttle cabin that seats 44 people. You will be seated, asked to fasten your seatbelts and prepare for a simulation of the space shuttle’s eight-and-a-half-minute ascent into orbit.

Here, expect some impressive high-definition audiovisual effects: the platform on which you are seated will jolt to simulate the 3-G experience of liftoff; before you know it, your seat will thump to simulate a shuttle’s booster separation; and finally, there is a sudden stop — to signal that the main engine has been cut off.

Sure, you’re also watching video, experiencing an impressive light show and your seat is being bumped around — but that’s part of the fun: putting yourself in the shoes of a first-time astronaut.

The Shuttle Launch Experience is not like being on a roller coaster or a theme park ride. Kids and adults of all ages can enjoy this experience — one that only a handful of space travelers have actually experienced.

Impressively, the Shuttle Launch Experience is completely ADA-compliant. Closed-caption screens are available, and the facility is accessible to wheelchairs. And in the rare case a person in a wheelchair can’t experience simulation from the space shuttle cabin, the Kennedy Space Center has arranged for those visitors to observe from the Shuttle Launch Experience’s “main control” room. The only restriction that the simulator has is that a visitor must be at least 4-feet tall.

Of course, like any good attraction, you will need to pass through a very well-stocked gift shop on the way out.

The simulator is a great educational tool — and one of its greatest strengths is that it relies on real-life memories — as well as our imaginations — to enjoy the experience.

For more information, call (321) 449-4444 or visit www.kennedyspacecenter.com.

Visit NASA and see wildlife, too

As the most popular destinations for space tourism, the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex is conveniently located one hour east of Orlando on an island wildlife refuge. In fact, the one thing that I didn’t expect to see on my visit was a bald eagle’s nest the size of a king-sized bed — and an eagle.

To see a nest — or a family of wild boars, 12-foot-long alligators and hundreds of birds — take a bus tour of the property. The two-hour tour will take you to see things that you can’t see at the visitor center — including an up-close look at gigantic crawler transporters which are used to transport real shuttles to the space center’s massive Vehicle Assembly Building.

Also on the bus tour — and my favorite attraction, aside from the eagle — is the Apollo/Saturn V Center, a tribute to the Apollo astronauts and the machines that got them to space and home safely. First, relive the historic launch of Apollo 8 from the center’s Firing Room Theatre, which simulates the final harrowing moments before man landed on the moon (Honestly, this is one of the best simulations of any historical moment that I can remember). After the show, view a fully restored, 363-foot Saturn V moon rocket, the most powerful rocket ever built.

Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex is open every day of the year, except Dec. 25 and certain launch days. Current operating hours are from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Admission, which is $38 adult/$28 child (ages 3 to 11 years old), includes a three-hour bus tour of the space center’s grounds, admission to IMAX space movies, and access to all exhibits, shows, the Astronaut Hall of Fame and all interactive space-flight simulators. Tickets are valid for two days of admission — but must be used within seven days of first use.

In addition, you can sign up for a guided tour, which costs an extra $21 for adult, $15 child (ages 3-11). This two-tour is money well spent: it includes the closest viewing for the space shuttle launch pads, the shuttle landing facility, a panoramic view of all launch pads from NASA causeway and a stop outside the vehicle assembly building. Reservations are required.

Finally, avoid lines altogether and print admission tickets at home by using the center’s e-ticketing system at www.kennedyspacecenter.com.

If you go


» By Air: From the Bay Area, AirTran Airways offers affordable flights from San Francisco International Airport to Orlando or Daytona (via Atlanta), which is less than an hour’s drive to the Kennedy Space Center and the beach towns of Florida’s Space Coast. Sample one-way fares from SFO to Orlando are $159 for economy, $394 for business class. For more information, visit www.airtran.com.

» By Car: Interstate 95 skirts the East Coast; follow it to State Road 407, then go east to State Road 405 and continue east. Hertz offers several summer discounts from Orlando airport; sample weekend rates for an economy car start at $23.99 per day. For more information, visit www.hertz.com.


» Among all the towns dotting Florida’s Space Coast, I make Melbourne Beachmy home base. Less than an hour from the Kennedy Space Center, the area is filled with long stretches of unspoiled sand, lots of Florida wildlife and a good share of surfers. For more information on towns on the Space Coast, visit www.space-coast.com.

» Hotels: The Crowne Plaza in Melbourne Beach features 270 large, newly furnished guest rooms with high-end bedding and pillows, flat-screen TVs, Internet access and large bathrooms. Rooms start at $127 per night. For more information, visit www.cpmelbourne.com or call (321) 777-4100.


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