Florida’s Space Coast has a must-see new galactic attraction – Gateway at the Kennedy Space Center, which offers a fascinating glimpse into the future of space travel.

“Three, two, one…we have takeoff!” The countdown echoes from huge loudspeakers as Ground Control shouts the sequence to a large group of assembled onlookers who cling to each number. The countdown to a rocket being blasted into space is something I vaguely remember from a Space Race-themed childhood, but this is the first time I’ve experienced it in real life.

In preparation for launch, I manage to maneuver myself into an observation position on the lawn behind the visitor’s complex with only 10 minutes to spare. Surrounded by children, toys and equally delighted adults, it’s clear that interest in rockets is something that crosses generations. Liftoff of the SpaceX Falcon NileSat is scheduled for 5:00 p.m. Eastern Standard Time, and the excitement is palpable.

There is only a very small chance (around 20%) that a launch will go ahead as planned as it is often postponed or cancelled, mainly due to bad weather conditions. So when he lifts off and the delayed roar of the two-stage rocket’s propulsion engines reaches us minutes later, he’s partially drowned out by the cheers and elated shouts of the crowd.

The supersonic rocket soon appears, with red and white hot flames blasting it into the sky. Moving at a speed of almost 25,000 miles per hour (40,000 km/h), it reaches a certain point in the heavens before curving towards the Atlantic Ocean. Less than five minutes after initial liftoff, the first section of the rocket ran out of fuel and fell. The second part, which has its own completely separate propulsion unit, then transports the rocket into space.

SpaceX Falcon Nile Sat launch at Kennedy Space Center, Florida (Image: Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex)Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex

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Gateway: the deep space launch complex

I had arrived that afternoon to see the Kennedy Space Center Visitors Complex and its new gateway: the Deep Space Launch Complex. Recently opened to the public, this is a futuristic exhibit highlighting artifacts and designs that paved the way for human space travel. Anyone remotely interested in space will want to see today’s cutting edge innovations in interstellar exploration and experience the fun and interactive displays.

There is some type of dark glow in dark space. Many screens are surrounded by goblin green and purple lighted patterns and inscriptions reminiscent of sci-fi movies. If a capsule or rocket has been on a mission in space, it has a prominent sticker reading “Flight Flyn Artifact.” Often these vehicles show signs of re-entry burns and other wear and tear – one of the truly fascinating aspects of this exhibit.

Kennedy Space Center Skywalk exhibit in Florida (Image: Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex)Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex

As the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex highlights past accomplishments of NASA’s Mercury, Gemini, Apollo and Space Shuttle programs, this 50,000 square foot (46,450 m²) attraction was designed to be visionary and highlight new NASA commercial partnerships. The most important display is the Falcon 9 booster which I will see in action later. It hangs from the ceiling to allow 360 degree viewing and is quite an impressive sight.

Other companies with artifacts on display include SpaceX, the first private company to take humans into space in 2020, and its Cargo Dragon COTS-2. Boeing, now active in the space sector as well as in aircraft and airliner manufacturing, provided a CST-100 Starliner spacesuit, a CST-100 Starliner simulator and a CST-100 Starline capsule.

Aerojet Rocketdyne holdings, which created the Saturn V rocket that took the first humans to the Moon, showcases its high-performance RL10 rocket engine on the upper stage. The RL10 has been in use for 50 years and continues to carry on the legacy of this rocket.

As the next generation of space transportation emerges, Sierra Space’s Dream Chaser will perform cargo supply and return missions for NASA, beginning in late 2022, delivering up to 12,000 pounds (5,500 kg ) cargo to the International Space Station (ISS) at a time.

Walkway at Kennedy Space Center in Florida (Image: Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex)Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex

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KSC Spaceport

Are you, like me, ready to discover what it could be like to travel to uncharted regions of our galaxy? Spaceport KSC, a new 4D attraction within Gateway, simulates what an “airport” of the future could look like. With typical airport chatter in the background, there are futuristic advertisements showcasing new destinations, while in the main hall there is destination and arrival information. Outside the “windows” of the galactic spaceport are striking scenes of launches and landings.

Spaceport KSC’s space travel experience takes place in a two-story movie theatre. Guests board ‘spaceships’ to experience the sights, sounds and sensations of space travel. Four voyages are offered – Cosmic Wonders, Daring Explorers, Red Planet or Uncharted Worlds – and each offers a unique perspective. I board the “ship” from the Red Planet and am taken on a realistic journey to the surface of another planet. The rapid movement, hissing, bumping and banging are quite realistic while the noise effects and the blast of air from the passenger seats are an added bonus.

Kennedy Space Center Spaceport in Florida (Image: Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex)Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex

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Wall of robotic space explorers

The third and final element (and also my favorite) is the interactive satellite exhibit. The 30-foot (9m) floor-to-ceiling wall of robotic space explorers is fully interactive. Using touchscreens, you can choose one of 40 different satellites and probes in space and learn more about each one. I especially love seeing LEGO astronauts who have traveled on different satellites.

I feel a particularly close connection to this exhibit because it features the Huygens probe with its Cassini satellite – a mission my other half had worked on at the European Space Agency in conjunction with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and the Space Agency Italian. The mission visited Saturn’s moon Titan on a seven-year, five billion mile (7.9 billion km) journey. Upon arrival, Huygens detached from the satellite and traveled to Titan to send back data on Saturn’s moons, rings and natural satellites – one of the truly amazing collaborative projects of the early 21st century.

To infinity and beyond

The Kennedy Space Center has long been the destination of choice for space lovers, offering an up-close and personal look at some of humanity’s most incredible achievements. From the dawn of space exploration to current missions, the center is divided into mission zones, Gateaway not only celebrating today’s cutting-edge space technology, but also looking into the future of what could and most likely will be. . And if you manage to time your visit with a launch, it’s a truly remarkable experience that felt like science fiction in the not-too-distant past.

For more information, visit Kennedy Space Center and Gateway: The Deep Space Launch Complex.

Main image: Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex