Eschew the Orlando Theme Parks to see the Real Deal, the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
After a long wait, I am looking forward to the thrill of seeing artefacts, space suits, rockets and the Space Shuttle Atlantis at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
After leaving the theme parks and attractions of Orlando and travelling along Hwy 50, I feel as if I am traversing a swampy wilderness. Low lying mangrove trees are on either side of the road and, apparently, have to be cut back frequently so as not to overwhelm this stretch of pavement completely. Our tour guide informs us that alligators are prevalent here and drivers must keep an eye out for gators sunning themselves.
Before long our tour group is nearly to Merritt Island on the Atlantic Ocean and approaching the world's first ever space centre. Soon, the enormous VAB (Vehicle Assembly Building) comes into view on the distant horizon. This is next to where the actual launches take place and everyone on our tour bus is in awe.
As I arrive at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex, I spot the full-size mock-up of a space shuttle looking ready to launch. It has the orange twin solid rocket boosters on either side of it and is 184 ft. tall. During the tour I find out that Atlantis flew 125,935,769 miles in space. Wow!
I am very excited to be here as, two years ago, I had secured a significant newspaper commission to cover the last shuttle launch. I couldn't source a flight or accommodation for love or money, and so was not able to go. EVERYONE wanted to be there for the momentous event and I didn't have the clout, at the time, to get it organised. But I am here now and enjoying every minute of my visit.
Gemini Titan Rocket
Cape Canaveral was an air force base before the NASA programme even existed. This was in the 1950's, before the Russian Cosmonaut, Yuri Gagarin had achieved an incredible feat, to orbit the earth and return back safely...once he had accomplished this, the space race had officially begun.
So my anticipation has, quite literally, been building up for years.
The Rocket Garden (or Graveyard)
I view the space garden with all its historical rockets that were part of the build up to the moon landing. They are all here: Gemini, Mercury, Saturn, Apollo; a graveyard of rockets that may or may not have been in space.
Astronaut Tom Jones
But we are all here to see the latest exhibit: the Atlantis Space Shuttle is now permanently in residence here. As we approach and enter the complex, we are greeted by real-life astronaut, Tom Jones, who partook in many shuttle missions. Tom has heard all the Tom Jones jokes before and fields a few more that are thrown his way. But to talk to someone who has actually been on missions was astounding.
The experience of living in space on the International Space Station, the excitement of travelling through space and then, on returning, landing an aircraft such as the shuttle as it pummels from space.
The video detailing the incredible challenge of creating a rocket that would return to earth and not be disposable was remarkably moving.
You get a sense of the endless frustration, of the years and years of tireless work that went into the creation of the Space Shuttle. And the Atlantis Space Shuttle display does not in any way disappoint. It is truly remarkable to see the 'real deal', the actual space craft that flew so many missions.
The tour continues with a drive to the Vehicle Assembly Building (about three miles from the Visitor Complex) with the opportunity to see the enormous Crawler Transporter that moves rockets from the VAB to nearby launch pads.
Rocket Boosters on Space Shuttle Atlantis
The Launch Control Center and Apollo/Saturn V Center are in the same vicinity and are fascinating parts of the tour. The sheer number and quality of displays in the Apollo/Saturn V Center is riveting: Alan Shephard's original space suit; an unflown lunar module as well as the Apollo 14 command module are all on view.
I suppose this article might be more interesting if I could find something negative to say about the visitor experience here. I do think the $50 per adult price is steep but you are purchasing a chance to see an important part of scientific history. To be honest, it is well worth the price tag.
There is also an Astronaut Training Experience for those who want to find out if they have the 'right stuff' to go into space. The future beckons for those who are brave enough.
For more information visit Kennedy Space Centre Tours
Unless stated, all images copyright Lynn Houghton 2015