Cape Canaveral – Canadian space enthusiast Roger Hill paid $190 each for two tickets to see the last launch of the NASA space shuttle Atlantis – and drove all the way from Toronto to see it.
"I'm an astronomy space buff," he said on a recent tour of the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex. "We've been trying to get to see a launch since I was 17."
Now Space Coast tourism experts are hard at work to get people like Hill and his son Jonathan to return to Central Florida – without a spectacular shuttle as bait.
For the first time since the end of the Apollo program in the 1970s, the Space Coast has to reinvent itself. Tourism gurus want everyone to know that despite the end of the shuttle program, space exploration is still alive at Cape Canaveral – and so are alligators, nesting turtles, migrating birds and a host of other wildlife tourists can come see between rocket launches.
"This is a national treasure unlike any other America's got," said Hill, a computer repair technician. "I'll come back if they go to Mars."
An unmanned rocket launch took place in 2011. How about an asteroid? Jupiter? All those and more are planned in the next phase of NASA's unmanned commercial space program, where private companies are paid to run missions to the international space station among other journeys. The trick will be creating the kind of buzz around those events that lured visitors from around the world for shuttle launches.
See the schedule here.
"On Aug. 5, we went to Jupiter, September to the moon and in November to Mars," said Andrea Farmer, public relations manager for the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex. "Rocket launches have always attracted a crowd. We hope to create excitement that these are really cool events as well."
In August, the Atlas V launched NASA's solar-powered Juno spacecraft on a mission to orbit Jupiter's poles 33 times to find out more about the gas giant's origins, structure, atmosphere and magnetosphere. In September, it'll be the Delta II rocket's GRAIL, the Gravity Recovery and Interior Laboratory – a mission to determine the structure of the inside of the moon "from crust to core."
In October, the company Space X's Falcon 9 third Dragon spacecraft took off on a supply mission to the international space station.
The Kennedy Space Center Visitors Complex is hardly expecting a lull in business: The center recently announced a $100 million, 10-year expansion program. That project includes relocating the shuttle Atlantis to the center in 2013, and moving the Astronaut Hall of Fame to the visitors complex.
"Space exploration is a part of our culture," Farmer said. "This is the place where every American astronaut has lifted off from. People will want to come to see that."
Rob Varley, executive director of the Florida's Space Coast Office of Tourism, says his agency is also making sure visitors know what else there is to do besides see rockets soar. The issue is critical: Each shuttle launch brought up to $6 million to the area.
The agency's logo is no longer a shuttle. Now it's a rocket-launching surfboard.
"The end of the shuttle had us questioning: ‘How do we deal with this big change in our lives?' We came to the conclusion: We need to let people know what else there is to offer," Varley said. "At the east end of most streets, you can go to the beach. We have the only zoo you can kayak through."
A task force formed and came up with "Hidden Gems," a series of self-guided nature tours in Central Florida, which show visitors where to see alligators, manatees and migrating birds. The tours are still being tested, and maps will be available soon at area hotels.
Among the attraction, the Canaveral National Seashore offers tours of nesting sea turtles.
"We have 24 miles of undeveloped seashore you won't be able to find anywhere else on the eastern seaboard of Florida," said Laura Henning, chief interpreter at the Canaveral National Seashore.
"No hotels. No condos. Nothing but nature."
More About Attractions on the Space Coast
- Florida's Indian River and Mosquito Lagoon: Explore via nighttime bioluminescent kayak bay tours.
- St. John's River airboat rides
- Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge: The refuge has one of the highest populations of threatened and endangered species among national wildlife refuges, including the Florida scrub jay and West Indian manatee. Peak season is December to February, when hundreds of thousands of migratory birds stop here.
- Canaveral National Seashore: 24 miles of undeveloped barrier island provide the pristine Atlantic beaches of Playalinda, Klondike and Apollo. It's the largest sea turtle nesting area in the United States from May - August. Guided tours, after sundown in season, let you witness these endangered animals nesting.
- Valiant Air Command Warbird Museum: Three display hangars and two museum areas with more than 35 wartime aircraft.
- American Police Hall of Fame and Museum: 11,000 artifacts educate the public about the history and current trends of American law enforcement. Also includes a 24-lane indoor gun range.
- Seminole State College planetarium: Offers Friday night astronomy shows.
- Brevard County Zoo: Kayak, paddleboard, zipline and see animals, too.
- Ron Jon's Surf Shop: The world's largest surf shop
- Kennedy Space Center: $50 adults, $403 children, open 365 days a year.
Frances Robles is a South Florida journalist who has written about Miami and Latin America since 1993. She lives in Coral Gables.