Visitor facilities at Kennedy Space Center adapt to changes in space program

At the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex east of Orlando, getting ready for tourist season is a little more complicated than at the theme parks. What visitors can see depends on what’s happening with government and commercial space launches.

Two behind-the-scenes tours of launch pads and the Vehicle Assembly Building, initiated about 2 1/2 years ago after the space shuttle program ended, were cancelled early this year.

Both facilities, unused after the shuttle program ended, were temporarily opened to the public. Now, NASA and private companies need the facilities for the next generation of the space program, which is well under way.

In April, Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) took over operation of Launch Complex 39A, the pad that launched numerous Apollo and space shuttle missions, for commercial missions. The enormous Vehicle Assembly Building and its bays are being redeveloped to work on different kinds of rockets, government and commercial.

Ending public access was bittersweet, said Therrin Protze, chief operating officer of the visitor complex, but “the next chapter is being written inside” the Vehicle Assembly Building.

A tour of the Launch Control Center continues to include Firing Room 4, where shuttle and Apollo launches were supervised. However, NASA is modernizing the firing room, so the tour no longer goes to the lower level of the room. The tour is limited to the upper level, from which visitors can see the work stations on the lower level as well as a terrific view of the launch pad three miles away.

In the meantime, other activities for visitors have been launched, and there’s a new tour to replace the two canceled ones.

No other tourist attraction works quite like the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex, a tangle of museum, government science, private enterprise and the military. Some of what goes on here — or is launched here — is classified. Some of it is proprietary, closely guarded by commercial entities.

“Things are changing at the space port,” said Michael Curie, news chief at Kennedy Space Center. “A number of facilities that once were totally managed by NASA are being operated or shared with commercial companies. The whole idea is to open up space to anyone who cares to fly.”

No other taxpayer-funded government program has quite the marketing mechanism that the visitor complex has become. You don’t have to be a space nerd to be fascinated by the history on view here.

Kennedy Space Center has two faces: the space program, now morphing into a partnership of government and private enterprise whose goals include taking us to Mars, and the visitor side, where the retired shuttle Atlantis, Saturn rockets and other space hardware keep the public excited about space exploration.

Delaware North, the for-profit company that operates the visitors complex, and NASA constantly work together to reconcile those two sides, Protze said.

For example, they have replaced two of the tours with a new one that doesn’t go as close, stopping outside the Vehicle Assembly Building and again between two launch pads.

“There was a lot of interest in the tours, and NASA was thrilled to be able to share a look inside such an iconic facility like the Vehicle Assembly Building,” Curie said.

“The Vehicle Assembly Building is the heart of the operation. It’s the place where the final assembly of rockets has been done since the Apollo era,” Curie said . “It was wonderful that people had the opportunity to come inside instead of just viewing it from afar.”

NASA has a new class of astronauts, and Protze said his crew is looking for a way to introduce them at the Visitors Center to a public that loves astronauts.

Former astronauts are a popular attraction at the Visitors Center. A daily Astronaut Encounter Briefing and Q&A with a rotating cast of astronauts is included in the basic entrance fee. Or, for $29.99 ($15.99 for kids), visitors can have “Lunch with an Astronaut.” The astronaut doesn’t necessarily dine with the visitors but gives a talk while they’re eating, answers questions and poses for photos with participants.

In April, the complex started offering visitors three new science-based “Activity Adventures”: designing and building a water rocket, landing rover or jet-propelled race car, then putting them into action, for a fee of $25-$35.

Protze also would like to put pieces of Orion — the next generation of spacecraft being developed to carry astronauts into deep space — on display.

“NASA is always open to discussion with Delaware North in trying to identify ways to bring space to the American public,” Curie said. “Part of NASA’s mission from the inception of the space program has been to share with the taxpayers what they get for their money.”