A guide to watching the last space shuttle launch in person

David Panian

There is one more chance to see what has been called a “magic day when super-science mingles with the bright stuff of dreams.”

One more chance to see a space shuttle carry astronauts into space. The launch of Atlantis in July will be the 135th and final mission of the 30-year-old space shuttle program.

Going to see one in person can mean anything from being at the John F. Kennedy Space Center where Atlantis will lift off from Launch Complex 39A, to being just outside the space center in Titusville, Fla., or being pretty much anywhere within 70 miles of the launch pad.

Where to settle in on a beach towel or on one of those collapsible camp chairs depends on a few factors: How much does the sound mean to you, how flexible can you be on travel dates and how much do you want to spend?

If sound isn’t a big deal, there’s no need to battle the crowds closest to the space center. The launch can be seen from Daytona Beach, Cocoa Beach or even as far away as Orlando on a clear day. But if you want to hear — and maybe even feel — the launch, you’ll want to be as close as possible.

Getting there

Driving down for the launch could provide the most flexibility in traveling because you don’t have to worry about changing flights if the launch date changes.

But if spending hours and hours in a car just to get there isn’t your thing, there are lots of flight possibilities. Because schedules can change — space shuttle Endeavour’s launch date changed several times from September to the eventual launch on May 16, including two or three times (depending how you count them) from what seemed like a solid launch date of April 19 — Southwest Airlines may be the most attractive option because it doesn’t charge to change reservations other than any differences in fares.

Orlando is the closest major airport to Cape Canaveral and the Kennedy Space Center — about an hour and 15 minutes away by car — and has tons of hotel options. Jacksonville is an option if you would rather stay in Daytona Beach. Tampa is only an hour and a half west of Orlando, or about three hours from the space center.

Launch day

STS-135, as the last shuttle mission is known to NASA, is scheduled to launch no earlier than 11:40 a.m. July 8. Because the mission is going to the International Space Station, there is only a 10-minute launch window, and NASA aims for the middle of that window. The launch is timed so the shuttle can meet up with the ISS 220 miles above the Earth. Any delays will push back the launch time by about 22 minutes each day.

Lots of things can cause a delay on launch day. Weather is the most likely culprit. Thunderstorms are an obvious concern. Crosswinds at the shuttle landing facilities at the space center or the emergency landing sites in Europe can scrub the launch. STS-134 was delayed three hours before liftoff on April 29 because of an electrical problem. A weather delay would likely push the launch back a day. Something like what happened to STS-134 could lead to a delay of weeks.

It’s possible to see the last shuttle launch without spending an arm and a leg. Free viewing areas are all up and down Florida’s Space Coast, primarily along U.S. 1. The prime areas are in Titusville, especially Space View Park on the Intercoastal Waterway. The area has unobstructed views across the water to the launch pad. Some property owners will charge for parking. Cocoa Beach and Daytona Beach are also popular areas. Daytona International Speedway sometimes opens its grandstand for launch viewing.

The catch is getting there early, at least six hours before the launch. That means packing like you’re going on a picnic and maybe bringing games, books, music — whatever you might want to pass the time. With the last launch scheduled for late morning on a Friday, the crowds will probably be huge. Some estimates say 1 million people will flock to the Space Coast. For STS-134’s launch attempt on the afternoon of April 29, a Friday, there were probably more than 600,000 people in the area. For the eventual launch on May 16, which happened at 8:56 a.m., there were far fewer people in the area, but probably still more than 100,000.

Another option is to watch the launch from the space center. Tickets are sold through an online lottery system to watch the launch from the Astronaut Hall of Fame, the space center visitors center or the NASA causeway across the Banana River.

Tickets will go on sale soon. Those interested in registering for an opportunity to buy tickets to the space center to see Atlantis’ launch may do so until 5 p.m. Sunday, June 5. To register, visit www.ksclaunchtickets.com. Registration may only be done online.

To receive alerts about the sale and other launch information, you can sign up for email alerts at kennedyspacecenter.com, “like” the Kennedy Space Center on Facebook or follow ExploreSpaceKSC on Twitter.

The most coveted tickets are for the causeway, a stretch of road across the Banana River due south of the launch pad. It runs northwest to southeast, with the center of the causeway 6.7 miles from the pad. Unless you know an astronaut or someone else at NASA, it is the closest a civilian can get to the launch. It also has a clear view of the launch pad. The tickets cost $61 for adults or $51 for kids 3 to 11 years old.

Those buying causeway tickets will get one ticket to enter the space center visitors center and another to board a bus to go to the causeway. They’ll also get a parking placard and a time to arrive at the visitors center that is well in advance of the liftoff time.

The visitors center and nearby Astronaut Hall of Fame are about seven miles southwest of the launch pads. The view of the pad is obstructed by trees and buildings, so the shuttle can’t be seen until it’s already in flight. Tickets for the visitors center are $43 ($33 for 3- to 11-year-olds); the hall of fame is $20 for adults, $16 for children. These also come with a parking placard and a time to arrive.

The launch-day tickets to the visitors center are also good for any subsequent launch attempts if the launch is delayed. The tickets for the buses to the causeway will also be good — unless they’ve already been collected to get on the buses. There is a process to get new causeway tickets that will be explained at the space center if that happens.

Tickets for the causeway and visitors center have two-day admission to the visitors center because not all of the activities at the visitors center are operating on launch days, specifically the bus tours of the complex. Most of the exhibits and the IMAX movies are open, though, even at 1 a.m. if the launch happens early in the morning.

The exhibits review everything from the early days of space exploration to NASA’s future exploration plans to the history and ecology of Cape Canaveral and Merritt Island, which is a federal wildlife preserve with bald eagles, manatees, dolphins and lots of alligators. The tour guides like to make jokes about feeding the alligators.

There are three bus tours. One is included with the admission; two are add-ons. The included tour goes to the launch pad 39 launch gantry, which is a viewing area about 2 miles from the pad, and the Apollo/Saturn V Center, which has an entire Saturn V rocket from the Apollo moon missions and a small piece of moon rock visitors can touch among other displays.

One of the additional tours takes visitors to places associated with the shuttle program, such as the shuttle landing facility and the massive Vehicle Assembly Building. The other goes to locations familiar to those who remember the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo programs.

The extra bus tours are $22.26 for adults or $15.90 for kids. The space center suggests not planning to do both extra tours on the same day. In fact, squeezing in the regular tour plus an extra one is tough. All the tours end up at the Apollo/Saturn V Center.

The visitors center is open every day except Christmas. Tickets to the space center on non-launch days are $45.58 (tax included) for adults, $34.98 for children 3-11, and are also good for two days.

If you miss out on launch-day tickets directly from the space center, there are two tour companies, Florida Dolphin Tours and Gray Line-Orlando Gator Tours, that are NASA’s tour partners. Their packages include round-trip charter bus transportation to the space center from the Orlando area and, for FDT, Port Canaveral. Both sell their packages for about $170 for causeway packages and $120 for the visitors center.

When I went to the first STS-134 attempt, my aunt, cousin and I used FDT tickets we bought on eBay from someone who couldn’t make the launch after the date was changed from April 19 to April 29. We happened to get them for face value plus shipping, but many more people sell their tickets for well above face value. The best chance to get face value is if the launch date changes after tickets are sold. Some people are nice enough to just give others the same shot at going to the launch that they had.

The tour packages may be attractive to those who don’t feel like spending six or more hours in the post-launch traffic, especially since the buses have bathrooms on them and your typical rental car does not.

What to expect

On launch day, once you get to the visitors center you’ll have a few hours to check out the exhibits. They’re definitely worth seeing. Many are geared toward kids, but adults won’t find them annoying. Many of them encourage kids to work toward becoming engineers or scientists who might someday become astronauts or work on NASA missions to the moon, Mars or beyond.

The largest attractions at the center are the Rocket Garden, with many examples of rockets used by the U.S. space program; a full-size mock-up of a space shuttle; and the Shuttle Launch Experience, which shuttle astronauts say comes closest to simulating what a launch feels like.

The two IMAX movies showing at no extra cost are “Hubble 3D” and “Space Station 3D,” though “Space Station 3D” may not be shown until after the launch.

All of these attractions are included with admission.

Food is available for sale, but the prices are similar to those at a Major League Baseball game. Selections range from scones and tea to barbecue sandwiches to salads. However, visitors can bring in their own food.

There is an airport-like security check to get into the visitors center, but they allow people to bring in things like soft-sided coolers, folding chairs that fit in over-the-shoulder carry bags, and radios and scanners that can be tuned to NASA’s radio frequencies.

The visitors center and Space View Park have big video screens set up with the NASA TV feed. The causeway has the mission control audio playing over loud speakers, though it can be hard to hear at certain areas of the causeway.

Those with causeway tickets will be taken there three to four hours before the launch. Food vendors are there along with portable toilets. Those who enjoy wildlife can watch different kinds of birds and keep an eye out for dolphins and manatees while waiting for the launch.

As the final minute of the countdown begins, there will be a buzz throughout the crowd. Most will rise to their feet. From any of the viewing areas, you’ll see the liftoff before you’ll hear it. From the places with views of the pad, there will be a brief flash of orange when the shuttle’s main engines fire. From the causeway, the view of the pad will become obscured because the exhaust is vented north and south of the pad. But in a few seconds, the shuttle will emerge as it begins its ascent.

The sound rolls across the viewing areas about 20 seconds later. First is the thunder of the main engines, followed a few seconds later by the fireworks-like popping and crackling of the solid rocket boosters. If launch day is cloudy like May 16 was, the sound will last longer than the view of the shuttle flying away to space.

Then the crowd on the causeway boards the buses and either returns to the visitors center or, for the tour companies, heads back to the pick-up locations. The visitors center stays open after the launch, so it might be best to hang out there and let some of the crowd around Titusville clear out before hitting the road.

In any event, seeing space shuttle Atlantis make the last launch in the shuttle program’s history would be a special occasion for any fan of America’s space program.

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