Space

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Get up close and personal with planets, rocket ships and astronauts on Florida's Space Coast.

Families looking for an "out-of-this-world" vacation will find the perfect getaway on the Space Coast, which combines education and fun against a backdrop of solar systems and natural scenery. The "space race" is over, so stretch your own adventure over three days to take it all in at a leisurely pace.


Day One: Astronauts and Space Walks

Enter the Space Age at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex. Check out the three replica space capsules at the Rocket Garden. See a real rocket up close at the larger-than-life Apollo/Saturn V Center. Take a bus tour by the Vehicle Assembly Building for an eye-opening experience. Of course, the 3-D IMAX Theater often steals the show: Put on a pair of funny-looking glasses and you find yourself reaching for the rung of a ladder out in space.

The Lunch with an Astronaut program will convince you astronauts aren't all that different from grammar school kids: They can't help but play games in space in the name of science. You can listen to space travel stories and ask questions of a veteran NASA astronaut.

Keep walking and you will get an even better understanding of space travel risks. The Astronaut Memorial, a giant dark gray monolith with the names of those who gave their lives for the space program, is one worth pondering.


Day Two: In the Name of Science

The Astronaut Hall of Fame is just down the road from the KSC Visitor Complex. Take your time wandering through the tributes to legends such as Alan Shepard, Scott Carpenter and John Glenn, who continued to make history as a senior space explorer.

One of the more cerebral stops is an interactive computer program that allows you to ask the late Gordon Cooper if he believed in extraterrestrial life. You can also hear if Buzz Aldrin thinks space exploration is worth the effort and learn how "Houston, we have a problem'' is more than a catch phrase.

Design a rocket on a computer program or read about the "Vomit Comet'' and shove your head toward the polka dots at a station designed to illustrate a space sickness experiment.

We had the most fun, though, making a shuttle landing. It's a lot harder than it looks to line up the nose and bring her in gently. For the record, I failed. And then I had to listen to a voice analyze the effort, calling it "more of an impact than a landing,'' as well as the kids smirking over my failure as an astronaut (after they had, of course, succeeded with flying colors).

While you're still learning, visit the Valiant Air Command Warbird Museum at the Space Coast Regional Airport. They have some 25-30 aircraft in residence that range from a post WWI aircraft all the way through a modern FA-18 Hornet, which is still in the Navy inventory. The Queen of the museum is a C-47 cargo airplane that actually flew on June 6, 1944 during the Normandy Invasion and is still flying with the Valiant Air Command today, some 68 years later. They offer tours that tell the story of these great vintage warbirds and the pilots that flew them.

End the day with one of the night shows at the BCC Planetarium and Observatory in Cocoa Beach. They are open Friday and Saturday nights if you want to take in one of the movies or laser shows.


Day Three: Taking Up Space

The Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge is the unspoiled core of the Space Coast. It is raw nature and the back roads are perfect for a Sunday drive. There are trails and a visitors' center, but you could spend all afternoon at the manatee observation deck.

Of course, timing is everything - not to mention a little luck - but on our visit it was as if the manatees were actually following the signs to the deck. A mother and calf took turns coming up at the viewing area, huge bodies blissfully pointing a snout or tail at us.

Another vast example of "empty" space is Canaveral National Seashore, whose remote Playalinda Beach closes during rocket launches. Nearby Jetty Park, a favorite of locals for watching liftoffs, is another opportunity to marvel at the marriage of modern science and mother nature.

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