Travel: Blast off for Florida's Space Coast

Paul Ring

Florida's Space Coast is a place where you can feel what it's like to blast off in the space shuttle and get a peek behind the scenes at the Kennedy Space Center where NASA sent men to the moon 40 years ago.

Situated along the central eastern coast of the Sunshine State, endangered species like sea turtles and manatees live there alongside the high-tech machinery of the space race.

The area got its name from the Space Center. It is still used to launch space shuttles, and seeing a shuttle launch is a breathtaking experience that offers a sound and light show that is a rare treat.

And, it's becoming all the rarer as the shuttle program winds down this year. There are only three more chances to watch a launch. Atlantis is scheduled to lift off on May 14, Discovery is to take off on Sept. 16, and Endeavour will close out the program sometime in November. Tickets and launch information is available at www.kennedyspacecenter.com.

If you can't get tickets, don't worry. Shuttle launches are visible for miles up and down the Space Coast, so there are a lots of free locations where you can see the launch.

Whether you see a launch or not, the center's 70-acre visitors complex will show you what it takes to send men and women into the final frontier. Just be prepared for a "Disney-fied" experience.

It's pricey (admission is $38 for adults, $28 for kids), but that buys you two days at the complex (definitely needed) and admission to the U.S. Astronaut Hall of Fame down the road. Also, the place will be crowded -- about 1.5 million people visit each year.

However, the Kennedy Space Center offers one-of-a-kind exhibits and attractions.

If you're old enough, and fit enough, the Shuttle Launch Experience is a must-do ride. NASA Administrator and former astronaut Charlie Bolden leads you through a simulated liftoff that will leave you weak in the knees.

The complex is also the gateway for a pair of bus tours. They cost extra ($21 each for adults, $15 for kids), but offer a close look at the facilities. The most popular tour snakes around Kennedy Space Center proper, making stops at the Launch Complex 39 Observation Gantry, Apollo/Saturn V Center and the International Space Station Center.

The Apollo/Saturn V Center is the centerpiece of the tour. After a brief presentation on what it took to develop and launch the 365-foot rocket, you enter the center at the business end of the beast. Walking alongside the type of rocket that sent 27 men to the moon offers a sense of scale not available on TV or in textbooks.

For a more intimate look at the space program, head west on Route 405 and visit the U.S. Astronaut Hall of Fame. Though smaller than the Visitors Complex, it offers a wealth of intimate details of the lives of the astronauts.

About half-an-hour north, in Titusville, is a small, storefront museum that is a favorite among hardcore space fans. The U.S. Space Walk of Fame Museum is on Main Street in an unassuming building with a stunning view of the space center across the Indian River.

The free museum is filled with artifacts not from the astronauts, but from the technicians, engineers and safety personnel who work behind the scenes at Kennedy Space Center.

Another aviation-themed attraction nearby is Valiant Air Command Museum, at Space Coast Regional Airport. This small, privately funded showcase features an extensive museum of aviation artifacts. It also has 25 aircraft on display from World War I through modern fighter jets ($12 for adults, $10 for seniors and military, and $5 for kids).

If your interests are a little more down-to-Earth, across the street from the Astronaut Hall of Fame is the American Police Hall of Fame. This museum is part tribute to fallen officers, and part interactive learning experience.

Shuttles Dugout Sports Bar & Grill on N. Courtney Parkway in Merritt Island is an ideal place to stop after working up an appetite at the Space Center. As its name implies, this little gem excels in down-to-Earth pub grub.

Shuttles is a popular hangout for Kennedy Space Center workers, and photos autographed by astronauts and engineers are scattered among the sports memorabilia hanging on the walls. Each booth has a small HDTV and remote control, a nice touch.

It's only an hour's drive from Melbourne International Airport to Kennedy Space Center and the Space Coast's beautiful beaches are closer, mere minutes away.

Coconuts on the Beach in downtown Cocoa Beach offers a lively atmosphere. The owners cater to a young crowd, offering a great place to dance the night away on its oceanfront deck. The menu is outstanding, featuring locally caught seafood. Be sure to try the coconut encrusted mahi-mahi, hand-battered in coconut, fried and served a coconut curry sauce.

If you go:

Melbourne International Airport, www.mlbair.com

American Police Hall of Fame, 6350 Horizon Drive, Titusville, 321-264-0911, www.aphf.org

Coconuts on the Beach, 2 Minutemen Causeway, Cocoa Beach, 321-784-1422, www.coconutsonthebeach.com

Kennedy Space Center Visitors Complex, SR 405, Kennedy Space Center, 1-866-737-5235, www.kennedyspacecenter.com

U.S. Astronaut Hall of Fame, 6225 Vectorspace Blvd., Titusville, www.kenedyspacecenter.com

U.S. Space Walk of Fame Museum, 4 Main St., Titusville, 321-264-0434, www.spacewalkoffame.com

Valiant Air Command Museum, 6600 Tico Road, Titusville, 321-268-1941, www.vacwarbirds.org

MetroWest Daily News