Space Shuttle Atlantis being prepared in the VAB at the Kennedy Space Center, Florida, by Ned Levi/NSL Photography, http://www.nslphotography.com

NASA’s John F. Kennedy Space Center (KSC) is the launch site for NASA’s manned flight programs. While manned flights are currently on hiatus, the KSC continues to manage, operate and launch unmanned rockets for America’s civilian space program.

More than 1.5 million people visit the Kennedy Space Center annually. The suspension of manned flight operations from the KSC has created a wonderful limited opportunity for visitors to the KSC. For the first time in more than 30 years, limited numbers of the general public can visit and enter the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB), the tallest single story building in the world, at 526 feet. This is where the Apollo rockets and Space Shuttles were put together and readied for launch.

Adding to the VAB visit opportunity, for a limited time, a special treat awaits visitors there, a chance to see a slice of history, close-up. More on that later.

The KSC is about 45 miles east of Orlando, Florida. It’s easy to get there by car or tour bus. Be aware when driving, if you use Google Maps to get directions, the website misroutes users to the VAB in KSC’s restricted area, instead of the KSC Visitor Complex (KSCVC). Mapquest, on the other hand correctly routes visitors to the KSC Visitor Complex. Your best bet is to use KSC Visitor Complex website directions.

Launch Pad 39A from where the final Space Shuttle mission was launched on July 8, 2011, as seen from the crawler-transporter road at Kennedy Space CenterThe KSC Visitor Complex and its tours offer adults and families a great tourist opportunity, considerably different than the standard type of amusement opportunities available in Orlando. There is so much to do at KSC for a day trip, you should plan your visit in advance. Use the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex website.

You can purchase tickets when you arrive at the KSCVC, but I recommend avoiding the always slow lines, and purchase your tickets in advance through the KSCVC website. Then print them before you leave. If you wish to take one of the special tours, definitely purchase your tickets in advance, or you could be shut out from them.

KSC admission tickets are $43 adult/$33 child, in person, or in advance, and include admission to all tours and exhibits except the “KSC Up-Close” ($25 adult/$19 child) and “Cape Canaveral: Then & Now” ($21 adult/$15 child) which are both guided tours. It also doesn’t include the “Lunch With an Astronaut” program ($24.99 adult/$15.99 child). Children’s tickets are for kids 3–11. Taxes will be added to all ticket purchases. The cost of the special tours or program are in addition to the cost of the KSC admission ticket.

While the KSCVC tries hard to be a great place for youngster of all ages, as well as teens and adults, I can’t say that I could highly recommend it for children under 8. I think the exhibits and tours are generally too sophisticated for those youngsters.

I suggest parents and grandparents need to prepare youngsters, to some extent, for the visit. This isn’t a trip to an amusement park, even though the “Apollo/Saturn V Center” and the “Shuttle Launch Experience” make the attempt to be a “Disney-like.”

I find visits to the KSC more like a hands-on, up-close “Nova,” than a Disney World experience.

While the KSC Visitor Complex with its “Shuttle Launch Experience,” IMAX films, Hubble Telescope, and “Exploration Space” exhibits are very good, the best of a KSC visit are the tours during which you are actually in the Kennedy Space Center itself.

Apollo/Saturn V Center at Kennedy Space CenterThe unguided Kennedy Space Center Tour (KSC Tour) is included with the price of admission. For the tour you take a KSC bus to travel through some of the KSC, see the VAB, the crawl-way over which the Apollo vehicles and Space Shuttles were transported to the the launch pads, and get a panoramic view of the space shuttle launch pads from the LC-39 Observation Gantry. At the end of the tour you go to the Apollo/Saturn V Center to experience a simulated Apollo 8 launch and see a full mock-up of the 363-foot-long Saturn V moon rocket.

To me, the current highlight of a visit to the Kennedy Space Center is the “KSC Up-Close Tour.” It is only on this tour that you can enter the VAB. Not only that, instead of having to view the Space Shuttle Launch Pads from the distant LC-39 Observation Gantry, the bus takes you along the crawl-way to just outside both launch pad complex 39A, which is as it was after the last Shuttle launch, and 39B, already being converted for future launch use. It also visits the Apollo/Saturn V Center.

As to the special treat awaiting visitors inside the VAB, I spoke of earlier, it’s likely you’ll be able to see an actual Space Shuttle being prepared for display at locations across the US, but only for a limited time. Right now, you can see the Shuttle Atlantis in the VAB, and get within about 50 feet of the orbiter, as seen in my photograph at the top of this article.

The KSC “Up-Close Tour” was an amazing experience for me, especially having lived through the Mercury, Gemini, Apollo, and Shuttle programs, and more than worth the price of admission.

(Right now the VAB portion of the KSC Up-Close tour is expected to continue through this summer, but that could change. How long any of the Space Shuttle Fleet will continue to be available for viewing in the VAB is unknown.)

For addition photographs of the KSC Up-Close tour, please visit my Kennedy Space Center gallery.

Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) at Kennedy Space Center. The VAB (left) is the largest single-story building in the world at 526 feet tall.