Editor’s note: This article about Cape Canaveral, The Kennedy Space Center, and the space program is part of WRAL TechWire’s weeklong contribution to the Triangle’s “Lift Off NC: Apollo + Beyond” celebration which features events throughout 2019.

CAPE CANAVERAL – The past few years, the Space Coast of Florida resembled a ghost town. The beach villages of Cocoa, Melbourne and Titusville grew along with the space industry centered on Cape Canaveral. But budget cuts, and the end of the Shuttle program in 2011, put space flight on the back burner and sent engineers and technicians looking for jobs elsewhere.

After a decade or so in mothballs, however, the Space Coast is roaring back. Opening the space industry to private firms allowed young billionaires – Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos among them – to pursue their boyhood dreams of exploring space. Several of them have based their company’s rocket launches at the Cape. Once deserted parking lots now overflow and you just may have to dodge a rocket stage being trucked in to the Assembly Building on your way out of the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex.


We dodged this rocket stage moving down the road as we left the Kennedy Visitor Complex. Photo by Renee Wright copyright Capital Broadcasting A.R.R.

The prospect of manned flights resuming from the Cape has changed the mood of the region from respectful awe of the past to one of excited anticipation of the future. Musk’s SpaceX regularly launches its Falcon rockets on resupply missions to the International Space Station (ISS), with manned flights aboard the Crew Dragon scheduled to begin in Spring, 2019.

The first launch of the Falcon Heavy Rocket, carrying Musk’s personal Tesla into space, attracted more than 100,000 viewers to the Space Coast to watch its spectacular takeoff, and the simultaneous soft landing of two of its boosters, in February, 2018. The Falcon Heavy (known to rocket watchers as the BFR, an acronym we won’t explain – use your imagination) is eventually headed for Mars.

The lift-off of the Falcon Heavy is the most spectacular since the Saturn V. Credit: Space X (public domain)

Bezos’ company Blue Origin is aiming at manned flight as well, and will launch its New Glenn rocket from the Cape’s Launch Complex 36 as early as 2020. Moon Express, founded by Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, is pursuing plans to deliver commercial payloads to the moon at Launch Complexes 17 and 18. Orion is yet another manned space effort, with Lockheed Martin and Airbus working on development in partnership with NASA. Test flights have already begun.

Meanwhile, United Launch Alliance (ULA), a cooperative venture by Lockheed Martin and Boeing, continues to launch satellite payloads atop its reliable Atlas V. ULA also plans manned flights in the near future, with an unmanned test of Boeing’s Starliner scheduled for later this year and manned flights to the ISS in 2019.


The Orion escape rocket will ensure future astronauts are safe in the early stages of flight. Photo by Renee Wright copyright Capital Broadcasting A.R.R.

NASA is anxious to get the Boeing and SpaceX spaceships certified for manned flight. Buying space aboard Russian rockets for ISS astronauts is currently costing the agency $82 million per seat – and the contract runs out this year.

The Best Seats For A Launch

It all adds up to quite a bit of launch action at the Cape and watching a rocket blast off is always a thrilling sight. Although notoriously subject to delays and scrubs, a launch is something that most Americans, and plenty of foreign tourists, want to witness. Locals will tell you that the rumbling in your chest as rockets lift-off is like no other sensation.


The Saturn V viewing area provides one of the best spots to watch a launch. Photo by Renee Wright copyright Capital Broadcasting A.R.R.

The Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex, run by NASA contractor Delaware North, offers the closest viewing spots for every launch and keeps an up-to-date list of future events. The LC-39 Observation Gantry at the historic Launch Complex 39 where the Apollo moon missions blasted off is the closest of all, and commands the highest price ticket for viewing a launch. Other viewing areas within the Cape Canaveral complex include bleacher seating at the Saturn V Center, along the NASA Causeway, and at the Visitor Complex itself. Ticket prices vary.

The Banana Creek Launch Viewing stands next to the Saturn V building. Photo by Renee Wright copyright Capital Broadcasting A.R.R.

For “big ticket” launches, such as the Falcon Heavy, Kennedy sells tickets in advance, even before a launch date is announced. You can sign up for launch alerts on the Kennedy Space Center website or download the new Launch Console phone app, available free for Apple and Android systems. Developed by the Space Coast Office of Tourism, the app includes a launch schedule, mission details, information on each rocket type, a compass to locate where each launch will occur, live video streaming, even suggestions on the best places to watch.

The Gemini monument in Titusville’s Space View Park, a good spot to watch a launch. Photo by Renee Wright copyright Capital Broadcasting A.R.R.

Kennedy Space Center is far from the only spot for watching rocket launches. In fact, the spectacular burn of nearly every rocket can be seen throughout the Brevard County region, and beachfront parks up and down the coast fill up as a countdown nears. Standouts include Playalinda Beach in the Canaveral National Seashore, just 5 miles from the launch pads; Alan Shepard Park, next to the Ron Jon Surf Shop in Cocoa Beach; the Cocoa Beach Pier; and Titusville’s Space View Park, with memorials honoring both the astronauts and the engineers and technicians who built their space crafts along with a clear view of the pads directly across the water.

The Apollo monument at Space View Park. Photo by Renee Wright copyright Capital Broadcasting A.R.R.

Port Canaveral, once a quiet fishing dock, now probably the most laid-back spot to board a cruise ship in the country, is another hot spot for rocket watching. For the best view, pay the admission to the observation deck atop the Exploration Tower, seven stories up with an unimpeded view of the launch pads.

The Exploration Tower in Port Canaveral offers a bird’s-eye view of a launch from seven stories up. Lower floors house interactive exhibits on nature and science. Photo by Renee Wright copyright Capital Broadcasting A.R.R.

Discover The History of Manned Flight

The history of space flight pervades the region. Most visitors make the journey to the Kennedy Space Center, where our country’s voyages into space are immortalized. The new Heroes & Legends building, sponsored by Boeing, houses the moving U.S. Astronaut Hall of Fame. The enormous Atlantis exhibit, built around the last space shuttle to fly, gives a close up view of the space plane – and would have to be torn down to get it out. The Shuttle Launch Experience, Kennedy’s answer to Epcot’s Mission: Space, shares the building with Atlantis. 

A statue of Alan Shepard, first American in space, greets visitors at the U.S. Astronaut Hall of Fame. Photo by Renee Wright copyright Capital Broadcasting A.R.R.

The most memorable portion of a trip to the Kennedy Center is the bus tour out to the Saturn V building dedicated to the Apollo moon missions. The building houses an enormous Saturn V rocket, the largest rocket ever fired, stretched out on its side.

The Lunar Theater in the Saturn V building recreates the unexpectedly tense final moments, nicely dramatized in the new film “First Man,” before Neil Armstrong took that giant leap for mankind. Another exhibit honors the memory of the astronauts lost in the Apollo I fire, while the vault-like Apollo Treasures exhibit displays actual capsules, spacesuits and tools, most on loan from the Smithsonian.

A helmet worn in space. Photo by Renee Wright copyright Capital Broadcasting A.R.R.


One of NASA’s treasures: the Apollo 14 capsule, singed during reentry. Photo by Renee Wright copyright Capital Broadcasting A.R.R.

The bus tour out to the Saturn V building holds some eye-opening moments as well, including a drive-by of the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB), where the Saturn and Shuttle spacecraft were assembled, and the crawler that carried them on a specially built road to the pad. The VAB is currently once again in use, assembling a new generation of rockets, so no tours go inside.

Even miles away at the Saturn V Center, the VAB looms huge on the horizon. Photo by Renee Wright copyright Capital Broadcasting A.R.R.

Other sights along the bus tour are of a more timeless nature. The Space Center sits within the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge, and the route passes a huge eagle’s nest, occupied by bald eagle pairs for over 50 years and often containing chicks waiting for dinner. Alligator sightings in the roadside canals are nearly guaranteed.

Florida alligators are frequently seen during the bus ride to the Saturn V building. Credit: US Forest Service

Kennedy isn’t the only spot to learn about the history of space flight, however. The Sands Space History Museum, a free museum near the entrance of the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, details the history of each launch pad at the Cape and the early years of the space program. In Titusville, the American Space Museum & Space Walk of Fame honors both the astronauts and the aerospace innovators and engineers who made it all happen.

Space View Park honors many people involved in the U.S. space program. Neil Armstrong’s handprints are among the moving tributes. Photo by Renee Wright copyright Capital Broadcasting A.R.R.

The website of the Space Coast Office of Tourism, www.visitspacecoast.com, offers a full rundown of attractions, restaurants, beaches and more in the area.

WRAL Techwire writer Allan Maurer contributed to this story.

Previously on WRAL TechWire:

NASA vs Disney: Space experience face-off