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Launch your summer vacation

Though travel costs and temperatures are reaching record highs this summer, students should not feel obligated to sacrifice their vacation. Florida’s East Coast offers residents a quick, out-of-this-world, getaway.

The Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex is located near the beaches of Brevard County, rougly two hours from Tampa. The 6,000-acre complex is nestled within the sprawling 140,000-acre Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge, giving visitors the chance to learn about the space program and visit some of Florida’s native creatures at the same time.

“Kennedy Space Center is a great way to learn about the past, present and future of the space program.” Public Relations Manager Andrea Farmer said.

The complex is loaded with displays, interactive attractions, an IMAX movie theatre and the new Shuttle Launch Experience. The Experience is designed to simulate a shuttle launch for visitors.

Upon entering the complex, large video screens play personal accounts of astronaut voyages into orbit. In the area before the new attraction, footage of astronaut Charles F. Bolden tells visitors what they are about to see and feel.

The virtual ticket to orbit is a large canister that rests in the shuttle’s cargo bay. As “liftoff” begins, the shuttle appears to tear through the stratosphere. After solid rocket booster separation, passengers feel weightless for a few seconds as they enter orbit. Once the cargo bay doors open, the Earth can be seen glowing below. Passengers return to Earth via a long spiral walkway with plaques commemorating each shuttle mission. The ride is brief but memorable.

“You get to experience all the sounds and vibrations of a shuttle launch,” said astronaut Mike Mullane, who has flown three shuttle missions. “It’s as close to riding the shuttle as you can get.”

The IMAX theater plays 3D films, including Magnificent Desolation: Walking on the Moon and Space Station. The former sheds light on NASA’s past while the latter displays events taking place above our heads right now.

The Astronaut Encounter gives visitors a chance to ask astronauts about their experiences in space. The Encounter includes a 45-minute presentation and photo opportunity. Those who want to learn more can have “Lunch with an Astronaut.” Lunch costs extra, but you get an autographed souvenir and a good meal, so it is well worth the price.

Other attractions include the Rocket Garden, where visitors can see all the rockets that helped pave the way for missions to the moon, and view the massive Vehicle Assembly Building, which holds the crawlers that carry the shuttle to the launch pad.

The Apollo/Saturn V Center is an essential stop in the Visitor Complex. The center is a control room in which large screens show the story of Apollo 8, the first manned mission to the moon. As the story (and launch) unfolds the control panels light up and the whole room trembles under the massive power of the Saturn V rocket during a simulated liftoff. The side doors open to reveal one of only three of these rockets that still exist.

“Students used to ask me what they could see here.” said Billy Specht, a manager of education at the Visitor Complex. “Now they ask me what they can do here.”

“Space exploration is at full throttle and it all starts at the Kennedy Space Center,” Mullane said.

Upcoming special events at the complex include the Space & Air Show and Fall Concert Series. For tickets or more information, visit