Every time a space shuttle launches from Kennedy Space Center, Florida’s Space Coast fills up with an eclectic mix of onlookers who are united by their fascination with the U.S. space program: visitors from Germany and Great Britain who happen to be in Orlando on holiday, motorists from other parts of the Southeastern United States, and locals from Titusville and Cocoa Beach who never tire of watching that spectacular plume of smoke and fire trail behind the shuttle as it leaves the Earth’s atmosphere.
Florida’s Space Coast is the only place on this planet where you can watch a shuttle launch into space, so if the timing of your Florida vacation coincides with the next shuttle mission, here are a few places you can go to catch the next launch.
Before you make any plans, check out the launch schedule at Kennedy Space Center’s Web site at www.kennedyspacecenter.com. The KSC Visitor Complex is open year round with the exception of Christmas and certain launch dates. Tickets for shuttle liftoffs as well as rocket launches from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station are available on the KSC Web site or by calling 321-449-4400.
Seating at KSC is very limited for these launches, so the vast majority of the viewing audience usually finds a spot in the local parks, beaches, and highways in the immediate vicinity. The two main routes to the Space Coast from Orlando are State Road 50 (Colonial Drive in Orlando) and State Road 528 (the Beach Line Expressway, which is closer to the attractions). Drive due east from Orlando until you reach the inevitable traffic jam of motorists who are also trying to view the launch.
Be sure to fill up your gas tank beforehand; there are no gas stations beyond the Orlando metro area until you reach the Space Coast. Traffic on these main routes will be lighter the closer you get to launch time, but if you plan on going back to Orlando immediately after the launch, be prepared to spend a few hours in the car on the return trip (and park your car in the direction you will be heading so you’ll be at the head of the pack).
Space Coast residents populate the Brevard County parks hours ahead of time; two of the most popular sites are Space View Park in Titusville and Jetty Park in Port Canaveral. Most day trippers from Orlando take S.R. 50 east to U.S. 1 north to Titusville or U.S. 1 south to Cocoa; the other option is S.R. 528 east to the Bennett Causeway or Cocoa Beach. The causeway hooks up with A1A in Cocoa Beach and the public beaches at Fischer Park and Lori Wilson Park.
If you pull off to the side of the road on U.S. 1 and find a viewing spot along the Indian River or park on the shoulder of the Bennett Causeway, you will get an unobstructed view of the launch pad in the distance. At the public beaches, the launch pad is obstructed by beachfront hotels and condos, but onlookers will still enjoy the sights and sounds of the launch as they watch the shuttle leave a thick trail of white smoke across the sky.
Keep in mind that the scheduled launch dates are subject to change, even at the last minute. Repair issues could shift the launch window to sometime later in the year, and inclement weather might scrub a launch until the next day. Follow the local news reports closely on launch day; technical glitches and the threat of thunderstorms have been known to scrub a launch just minutes before the final countdown. Better yet, bring your beach gear and plan on spending the day on Florida’s Space Coast, where shuttle watching is one of the biggest games in town.