As seen in The News-Herald and Morning Journal

By Paris Wolfe

If you’re trekking to central Florida for amusement parks, include at least one day to visit the nearby Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex. And if you’re a space enthusiast, reserve an extra day because this place is full of things to discovery.

Just 60 miles east of Orlando in Cape Canaveral, the visitor complex offers an intense orientation to NASA’s past, present and future through simulator rides, edutainment videos and interactive displays. We enhanced our visit by reserving add-ons — Astronaut Training Experience Exploring with Lockheed Martin and Dine With an Astronaut.

The visitor complex is just a few miles from NASA’s official launch site at Kennedy Space Center, and, if your timing is good, you may be able to observe a rocket launch from launchpad 39A.

The early 2019 government shutdown affected the timing of the launch that may have happened during our January visit to the area. Although the actual center was unavailable for visiting, the visitor center remained open because it’s operated by a private contractor, not federal employees.

While my partner and I are interested in science and appreciate a starry night, we’re far from space nerds. Or at least we were. Being so close to things that have been touched by space — such as Atlantis — and gaining perspective on our place in the universe changes things. Perhaps our biggest takeaway was the importance of conserving and preserving our unique and limited habitat.

But that’s digressing. July 16 will mark 50 years since the Apollo 11 mission launched from Kennedy Space Center for its historic journey to the Moon. Anticipated since President John F. Kennedy’s 1962 speech about reaching for the moon, it became a reality in 1969.

Interestingly, the moonwalk took place just 66 years after Orville and Wilbur Wright experienced the first powered, controlled, sustained flight in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, and just 42 years after Charles Lindbergh soloed the Atlantic. In one lifetime, technology leapt from the skies to space.

The campus, on the 140,000-acre Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge, shows how space exploration went from imagination to reality. To track U.S. progress chronologically, it’s best to start at the Apollo/Saturn V Center, about 15 minutes from the visitor complex. Buses run continuously to make the commute easy.

At the center, three videos explain the Apollo program from idea to the first launch to the Moon landings. A Saturn V moon rocket, one of only three remaining in the world, impresses with its size.

The logical next experience is the Atlantis. That experience starts with a video about the importance of developing a reusable shuttle. That provides perspective before stepping into the great hall where the real Atlantis is hanging from the ceiling. Atlantis is one of five shuttles — Columbia, Challenger, Discovery and Endeavor the others — that logged a total 135 missions. Atlantis, which traveled 33 missions, is still covered with black-and-white heat shields complete with reentry scorch marks.

An engineer who worked on the shuttle program was available to answer questions and explain the crew quarters, cargo bay and mission goals. Interactive screens and a model cockpit offer even more information.

Still, it’s hard to imagine being in space. To boost imagination, you can be strapped into a shuttle simulator for a fantasy launch — without the mach three speeds and unpleasant physical effects of breaking sound barriers. The ride is like being back at Walt Disney World. In fact, I’d characterize the visitor complex as being like an amusement park heavy on video edutainment.

After the shuttle experience, you’re ready to cross the courtyard to the Astronaut Training Experience Mars Simulator Training. Introduced in 2018, this experience requires reservations and is an additional cost. The virtual-reality experience is worth it to those unfamiliar with the technology.

The first training experience straps a team of two into a Land-and-Drive-on-Mars full-motion simulator. The simulator is programmed for easy, medium or hard, meaning you rock, roll or spin while strapped into the contained unit. While inside, one person uses a joystick and video screen to land the rover. The other takes over and navigates the surface of Mars. I did it twice, once with my partner and once with a random teenager. Let’s just say my “score” was better with the video game-savvy teen.

My partner and I were far better together when it came to the virtual-reality tasks on Mars. When I wore the VR mask and headphones while he directed my moves, we scored within the real astronauts range. I wanted to keep working this exercise until I got it perfect, but others were waiting.

The astronaut lunch was different from what I expected. Instead of a small group event, a veteran astronaut talked to a room full of eager listeners. After a buffet lunch, which included the “space beverage” Tang, astronaut Mark Lee talked through his presentation and video about space travel and answered questions. Guest astronauts change weekly.

Lee, 66, had been on four missions and traveled more than 13 million miles, going around the world 517 times and spending 33 days in orbit. From him, we learned both serious and fun stuff, like you can’t eat bread in space because crumbs can float away and hurt machinery AND you get up to two inches taller in space without gravity AND you have to be strapped to a space toilet so you don’t float away.

The biggest thing Lee said he learned was that damage from pollution could be seen from space. Space travel made him more environmentally conscious and inspired him to plant 140,000 trees on his property in Wisconsin.

We learned more about environmental impact during “A Beautiful Planet,” an IMAX 3D documentary with footage of Earth from the International Space Station. The film is one of two 3D space documentaries included with admission.

We had planned our day to flow from one highlight to the next, and it’s the only way we were able to see and do so much. If we’d had more time, we would have spent it in the U.S. Astronaut Hall of Fame, the Rocket Garden or a second IMAX film. Check out the itinerary planner at to help maximize your day.