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A Theme Park Experience You Missed in Florida

For many years when I was growing up, my family's trips included Florida's Space Coast. We would wake early to watch rockets launch from the beach. My parents would bring hot chocolate for the kids and coffees for the adults, and we would sit on the beach in the early morning to watch the bright fire of rocket engines fill the sky.

Whether it was the launch of a small rocket or a Space Shuttle, the idea that there was a world beyond our own always fascinated me, as it continues to do today. It's a tradition we have kept going with our own children.

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Now with the Pluto flyby and more access to images from space than ever before, I decided to take my space-crazed boys, ages 9 and 6, to Kenney Space Center on Cape Canaveral to be fully immersed. It has been 30 years since I had last visited as a fourth-grader, and I remember it being a mind-bending experience at the height of the space shuttle program's popularity.

Cape Canaveral itself is a beautiful area. Because of the sensitive nature of the work done at Kennedy, the 1,400 acres that surround the center is virtually uninhabited. According to NASA, Cape Canaveral was chosen as the space program's base because of its remote location. It enabled them to inspect, fuel and launch missiles without danger to nearby communities. The Floridian climate also permitted year-round operations, and rockets could be launched over water instead of populated areas.

The first launch from the Cape was conducted by a military-civilian team July 24, 1950. The rocket, a modified German V-2 with an attached upper stage, attained an altitude of 10 miles. By the late 1950s, the military services had elevated their sights from missile testing to launching artificial satellites. On Jan. 31, 1958, America's first satellite, Explorer I, launched from Launch Complex-26 at Cape Canaveral by a military-civilian team from the Army's Missile Firing Laboratory.

Although the funding for NASA has been severely cut in recent years, they still use the launch pads, conduct research, create new spacecraft and support the International Space Station. But on the visitor's side, much has changed at Kennedy since my first visit.

The changes are for the better.

Kennedy Space Center has taken some cues from other Florida theme parks and has been able to make the serious science behind space exploration interesting to everyone by grouping its subjects into different areas of interest like early space travel, missions to Mars, even the environment and history of that area of Florida.

The kids enjoyed seeing how space equipment has evolved over the years, roaming amongst a collection of space suits, capsules and through the Rocket Garden, which is now home authentic rockets from the past, including a Mercury-Atlas rocket. The garden also features a climb-in Mercury, Gemini and Apollo capsule replicas, seating pods and informative graphic elements.

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Included in the price of admission was the KSC Tour, which takes guests on a narrated excursion with self-paced stops at the Launch Complex 39 observation gantry to view space shuttle launch pads; the Apollo/Saturn V Center to relive the launch of Apollo 8 from mission control, walk beneath a massive Saturn V rocket and enjoy "front-row seats" as a human lands on the moon.

Guests can also feel what it was really like inside a space shuttle launch with the "Shuttle Launch Experience" simulation facility. New additions to the complex include "Eye on the Universe: The Hubble Space Telescope," a pathway where guests can enjoy the powerful imagery taken by NASA's crown jewel; "Treasures Gallery," an exhibit in the Apollo/Saturn V Center with artifacts from the Apollo moon missions; and "Exploration Station," a 10,000-square-foot interactive classroom that is always staffed with a member of Kennedy's Educator Resource Center. Long-time favorites include the Rocket Garden and Shuttle Plaza.

The kids particularly enjoyed a film on the Hubble Space Telescope at the on-site IMAX theater. It made a massive impression, one they continue to discuss today.

There is also another side to the spaceport. All but the operational areas of Kennedy are designated as the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge, including 25 miles of undeveloped beach that forms the Canaveral National Seashore. More than 500 species of birds, mammals, reptiles and amphibians are found here. Some, like the American bald eagle, sea turtle, wood stork, alligator and the ponderous manatee, or sea cow, are on the endangered or threatened species list. Most of the refuge and all of the seashore is open to visitors during daylight hours, except when space operations require a closure.

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At $50 per adult and $40 per child, it is best to plan an entire day at Kennedy to get your money's worth. When we return, "Lunch with an Astronaut" will be on our agenda. For $30, a buffet lunch includes a presentation by a veteran astronaut, followed by a question and answer session.

Overall, the experience has ignited a great interest in space, science and exploration in our children. And Kennedy Space Center is a place we will return with them again and again.

Image via Kenney Space Center

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