Kennedy Space Center’s Visitor Complex Provides the Spaceflight Experience

Space shuttle Atlantis, which completed 33 spaceflights during 306 days, on display at the KSC Visitor Complex. (Charles A Atkeison)

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — Exploring space with top simulators and witnessing the thundering launch of a rocket into Earth orbit and beyond are a few of the highlights designed to educate and excite the public at the Kennedy Space Center’s Visitor Complex.

As families look toward America’s Space Coast for its sugar beaches and great seafood, the excitement of the Kennedy Space Center is also tops on their list. The next generation of space explorers and engineers are leaving their princess dresses and superhero outfits behind for flight suits and NASA caps, and interacting with STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Math) core values not provided in most schools.

The Rocket Garden is a popular attaction displaying rockets of yesteryear. (Atkeison)

One of many jewels located on the Merritt Island wildlife refuge is NASA’s fourth space shuttle orbiter Atlantis, on display with a 43.21 degree tilt to allow guests the only unique opportunity to view the inside of a payload bay. Atlantis helped deliver supplies and hardware to assist in the construction of the International Space Station, and she served as a platform in space as astronauts made the final servicing call to the Hubble Space Telescope.

A Journey Through Space Flight History

The Visitor Complex is also host to updated exhibits featuring artifacts from both the early days of the space program and the space shuttle, and today includes a high quality mission to Mars simulation aboard a future Orion spacecraft. The newly added Cosmic Quest allows visitors to take a realistic mission to Mars, the space station, ride a rocket launch, or test your steady hand as you capture an asteroid.

“Never before have we been able to offer our younger guests the opportunity to engage directly with NASA designed missions in this way,” KSC Visitor Complex chief operating officer Therrin Protze said. “By introducing Cosmic Quest, guests discover firsthand how to launch a rocket, redirect an asteroid, and build a habitat on Mars – all based on real NASA missions. This game play experience is designed to inspire and educate young people about STEM.”

As you move from the historic rocket garden toward the Orbit Cafe, you will likely meet up with a former astronaut during your tour. Astronauts from the Apollo and shuttle programs provide both insight and behind-the-scenes details of their space flight and what it took for him or her to earn a space flight.

The Apollo – Saturn V building is home to space flown hardware and a moon rock. (Charles Atkeison)

“I always enjoy coming back to the Kennedy Space Center as it brings back a flood of memories from my days launching on the space shuttle,” said former NASA astronaut Dr. Don Thomas who flew four times aboard the space shuttle. Thomas is one of a handful of astronauts who visits the space center to speak with children, both young and old, about what it is like to travel in space.

“It’s great fun participating in Dine With an Astronaut,” Thomas noted as we stood near shuttle Atlantis on Sunday. “Besides a discussion of what space food is like and how we prepared our meals in space, it is a great opportunity to share some personal stories from my four missions in a more informal setting. I think the astronauts enjoy it as much as the visitors.”

Thomas discusses in length about one of his favorite shuttle missions in his book Orbit of Discovery. A popular book located in the Visitor Complex gift shop, it expands upon his own discussion and a personal question and answer session with the guests.

Experience the Thrill of a Launch

Adjacent to Atlantis at Kennedy Space Center is the Shuttle Launch Experience and the ability to simulate the feel of a real shuttle launch. The astronaut engineered and test-flown flight simulator rotates into a launch position and provides a rumble and G-forces during lift-off. You’ll likely hear the clanging of loose change and keys from pockets following the 45-degree rotation prior to flight so be warned.

“To get my launch fix these days I enjoy the Shuttle Launch Experience which does a great job simulating what a launch aboard the space shuttle was like,” Dr. Thomas explained. “All the vibrations, rattling, and rolling takes me back to launch days when I was all strapped in and ready to go.”

One longtime NASA engineer who rose to chief of the processing of the space shuttle orbiters for flight appreciates what the center has accomplished in sharing the whole story of the shuttle program. He later notes that the newly added Challenger and Columbia exhibit is an added value to the Visitor Complex.

“It’s pretty amazing to have Atlantis right here, and I tell guests we never had this view while we were working on it,” said Terry R. White, former shuttle processing chief who today serves as a NASA docent near shuttle Atlantis. “It was in a hanger all surrounded by steel. So the only one who had this view — until this display was set up — was an astronaut on a spacewalk, or an astronaut aboard the space station.”

Space shuttle engineers are nearby to explain the inner-workings of the spacecraft. (Charles Atkeison)

“It’s a little bit heartbreaking to see it in this state, but now it serves a whole new role as to educate people,” White explained. “Hopefully we can educate in the needs to continue flying in space, and get everybody around the world to fund it because we receive so many benefits from space.”

White adds he prepared Atlantis for each of her 33 space flights in one way or another. He also worked to process space shuttle Challenger for flight, including her ill fated final flight in 1986. He recognizes the benefits of the Visitor Complex newly opened memorial to Challenger and Columbia.

“Recently they opened a nice memorial to both crews and the vehicles — they did a nice presentation,” White said as he gave a nod of appreciation. Fourteen windows peer into the life of each astronaut lost aboard Challenger and Columbia in 2003. From the music they performed, sports they played, and the hobbies they enjoyed, the Visitor Complex pays tribute to the two crews.

The astronauts of Challenger and Columbia are remembered at the space center. (Charles Atkeison)

As you pass from the crew remembrance you next embark upon a dark room highlighted by two blue illuminated large windows each framing a section of debris from each of the lost orbiters. A section of Challenger’s left fuselage and the burned window frame from Columbia’s cockpit are on permanent display several meters from their sister ship.

I asked Terry White if placing the orbiter debris on public display felt right with him, “From my point of view, let people see it, understand it, and maybe that will make them make different choices in the future. Let people analyze what we need to do to make things safer.”

As White spoke to admirers of Atlantis, this aerospace journalist watched as his friendly manner and motivated discussions brought visitors together to lean in and learn more about the storied spacecraft. In 2011 and after 30 years of processing space shuttles, Terry White was named a Kennedy Space Center Living Legend by his peers and NASA management.

Bus tours of the business side of the Kennedy Space Center will take you to historic areas such as the space shuttle runway, a real Saturn 5 moon rocket, and the massive Vehicle Assembly Building. The 526-foot tall building, featuring a huge United States flag and the NASA logo on one side, is one of the largest single story buildings in the world by volume.

The VAB provided NASA a place for the precise stacking both the Saturn V and 1B stages, and later, the stacking of the shuttle’s solid rocket boosters and subsequent mating of the space shuttle’s three key components, orbiter, external tank, and boosters. Shuttle pilots called it the “sugar cube” as its small white box shape was the first space center landmark returning crews saw on approach to its three-mile long runway.

The Hall of Fame for Space Heroes

Heroes and Legends featuring the U.S. Astronaut Hall of Fame is an exciting new exhibit designed to inspire future space explorers and open their minds. Simulated holograms and virtual reality will allow you to soar with astronauts as they detail the story of a selected mission.

The newly upgraded Astronaut Hall of Fame is also located in the new building following its move from its former location at the main gate of the space center. In April, two former shuttle astronauts, James Buchli and Janet Kavandi, will be inducted into the Hall during a public ceremony beneath Atlantis — only Kavandi flew aboard this orbiter.

Historic Kennedy Space Center is short drive east from Orlando along highway 50 with a right onto the 405 at Titusville and into the space center. Travel north or south on I-95 will also make travel easy as you take exit 215 and stay east.

Gates open at 9:00 a.m. EDT, and the multiple ticket options will allow guests to explore different regions of the space center based on your schedule. Tickets are available online via or at the entrance to the space center.

(Charles A. Atkeison reports on aerospace and technology. Follow his updates via social media @Military_Flight.)