Cocoa Beach has cool kitsch. A weekend here might include a stop at the Surf Museum, shopping at a tiki gallery and a trip down I Dream of Jeannie Lane (yes, it’s a real street). Yes, master. This is a beach town with a sense of humor and a serious case of nostalgia – a lively, beloved throwback that also happens to occupy a crucial spot on America’s timeline.
Cocoa Beach and its environs, including Titusville and Cape Canaveral, are all part of the Space Coast, a designation that emphasizes the area’s rich ties to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s John F. Kennedy Space Center. All manned spaceflight in the United States has lifted off from Cape Canaveral and Kennedy Space Center. The Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex pays tribute to circa-1960s space culture (the Mercury 7 team flew six times between 1961 and 1963), especially in its collection of rare memorabilia at the U.S. Astronaut Hall of Fame.
Outside the Kennedy Space Center, the beachy landscape still has the power to evoke the moment when the popular imagination was gripped by the possibilities of space travel. In the early days, Virgil “Gus” Grissom, Alan Shepard, John Glenn and the rest of the Mercury 7 crew tooled around what was known as Missileland, U.S.A., where crowds once gathered on the beach to watch launches through binoculars – and still do.
In the late 1950s and early 1960s, when the Air Force’s missile test center was well established on Cape Canaveral and the space program was tuning up, the local population swelled from 23,000 to 70,000. The town’s character also became more expansive: Motels named after space themes such as The Sea Missile and Satellite popped up alongside trippy diners like The Moon Hut. These mod motels hosted launch parties out by their pools for industry-insiders and boasted extravagant signage. We pay homage to the “Mercury 7” era with seven top sights from the time of Mercury and Apollo.
John F. Kennedy Space Center
Think of this place as the base camp around which the other Space Coast sites orbit. The Visitor Complex is command central for families looking to engage with the universe, which feels awfully close here.
At the complex’s U.S Astronaut Hall of Fame, commissioned by the Mercury 7, you’ll find Gus Grissom’s smaller-than-you’d-expect space suit (the original flight capsules were only 6 feet by 10 inches high). The Sigma 7 Mercury craft is also on display, as well as Deke Slayton’s on-board knife, in place, if necessary, to pry open the capsule door. You’ll see Mercury 7 equipment and hardware, Gordo Cooper’s cue cards from the first TV broadcast from space, transmission recordings, space rocks and dirt.
KSC has added new ways to experience space other than just buying astronaut ice cream in the gift shop; you can now go through astronaut training as part of the Astronaut Training Experience program at the Astronaut Hall of Fame, feel what it's like to launch aboard the space shuttle on the Shuttle Launch Experience at the Kennedy Space Center Visitors Complex, smell the moon and have lunch with a real astronaut.
In 1962, John Glenn and his family worshipped at Riverside Presbyterian Church at 3400 N. Atlantic Ave. on the A1A. It was here that Glenn was mobbed by autograph seekers; Glenn also spoke from the pulpit of what is now the church’s Knox Hall.
This riverwalk at 8 Broad St. in Titusville (which includes a Mercury monument with a giant “7” and astronaut handprints) includes interactive displays and plaques that celebrate the achievements of the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo astronauts, as well as the hundreds of engineers, mechanics and others who made the space program possible. Head to the accompanying museum at 4 Main St. to see launch consoles and Titan memorabilia. The museum even has Soviet space memorabilia. Look across the water and you can see the mammoth (and historic) Vehicle Assembly Building in the distance.
In 1962, the original Mercury 7 astronauts invested in this hotel, which was originally called the Cape Colony Resort. You’ll find a plaque commemorating the 7 outside by the front pool entrance.