Planning vacations around lift-offs is a tricky endeavour



anne tobin/Canadian press


Tourists look at a space shuttle in Cape Canaveral, Fla. For those who booked mid-March vacations to Florida, it seemed a stroke of incredible good luck that the shuttle Atlantis was scheduled for a pre-dawn liftoff on March 15.


Even the souvenir mugs sporting the words “Let’s do Launch” in the gift shop are a reminder that a visit to the Kennedy Space Center did not go according to the original plan.

For those who booked mid-March vacations to Florida, and then began exploring the possibility of a visit to Kennedy, it seemed a stroke of incredible good luck that the shuttle Atlantis was scheduled for a pre-dawn liftoff on March 15.

Alas, it was too good to be true.

In late February, a storm rolled in and Atlantis, already on the launch pad, was pummelled by golf ball-size hailstones. The external fuel tank and a wing suffered hundreds of dents that needed repair.

Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex

Veteran Shuttle Astronaut John Blaha checks out the crew cabin inside Shuttle Launch Experience, slated to open in May at Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex, in Florida.

During an “astronaut encounter” session at the visitor complex on the day before the original launch date, astronaut Jon McBride commiserated with those who had been hoping for the ultimate Kennedy Space Center experience.

“We’re all upset that we weren’t able to launch tomorrow,” said McBride, who piloted the shuttle Challenger when Canadian astronaut Marc Garneau had his inaugural flight in 1984. But, he noted, NASA can’t control the weather and the hail “just beat it up real bad.”

“Hope you can come back,” said McBride. Sadly, a second vacation to Florida wasn’t in the cards for many visitors who had already travelled from near and far for a first-hand look at the US space program. The centre has about 1.5 million visitors per year, mostly Americans eager to see how their tax dollars are being spent.

International travellers account for almost one-third of the take at the gate. Tom Olson, director of marketing, said visitors from England are the biggest group, followed by Canadians — close to 80,000 last year — and then Germans.

Even without a launch, the Kennedy Space Center on Florida’s east coast has an awe-inspiring number of things for moon gazers and fans of rocket science to see and do — in fact, there’s too much to fully absorb it all in a single day.

In addition to the opportunity to hear from a real astronaut about space travel and ask questions, two Imax films are included in the admission. The Apollo/Saturn V Center, also on most itineraries, is a tribute to those who made the moon missions a reality, and contains a gigantic fully restored Saturn V moon rocket.

About 10 kilometres west of the main visitor complex is the Astronaut Hall of Fame, displaying personal astronaut memorabilia and telling the stories of numerous missions into space including the early days of Mercury, Gemini and Apollo flights. There’s also a nifty attraction that allows people to experience the feel of a moon walk, and a G-force simulator ride.

But to really get a sense of the magnitude of the work that goes on at Kennedy, it’s necessary to hop on and off the gleaming white, red and blue buses that shuttle (no pun intended) tourists to different locations on the sprawling site on Merritt Island.

Those who do wish to view a shuttle launch in person should pay close attention to the launch schedule at, advises Olson. Tickets to view liftoff from the NASA Causeway — one of the best viewing locations for the public — can be bought online or by telephone, but they get snapped up quickly.

And they’re non-refundable; if a launch is postponed, the tickets are good for the new date, but that won’t help if firm travel plans have already been made. “The launches are when they happen,” said Olson with a laugh. “It’s not a schedule that’s directly friendly to ‘Let’s get up at 9 and go see a launch at 10.’ That doesn’t work.”

“It’s a high demand ticket so you have to really work at it to get a ticket to be there.”