There are some who assume the U.S. Space Program ended when the last shuttle, STS-135 Atlantis, announced “wheel-stop” at the end of its final mission in 2011. However, the space industry is alive and well, as evidenced by the ongoing construction of facilities by aerospace companies SpaceX and Blue Origin, the recent historic landing of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 booster and the Kennedy Space Center’s preparations for the Space Launch System (SLS) vehicles that will carry the Orion spacecraft beyond low-Earth orbit.
Kennedy Space Center (KSC) Visitor Complex is also undergoing a period of major renovation, reflecting the expansion of the space program and the many participants in the commercial space program.
Currently one of the most visionary areas of the park is the “Journey to Mars” exhibit, which showcases the KSC Visitor Complex’s focus on interactive activities along with its presentations and displays. Visitors who have not visited the park in a while often are surprised at how kid-friendly it has become. The International Space Station (ISS) docking and robotic arm simulators, shuttle landing simulators, a giant slide to simulate a shuttle landing and the Shuttle Launch Experience all are very popular with younger guests.
The KSC Visitor Complex seeks to be “hands on” in telling the story of past NASA accomplishments while also spotlighting the vision for space program’s future and the passion of those involved in the journey.
Andrea Farmer, public relations manager for KSC/Delaware-North, said that beginning in February visitors to the park will be able to add a Cosmic Quest experience to their ticket. Cosmic Quest features interactive simulations to be used by children ages 8 to 14 to face challenges they would need to overcome in current and future space missions. Using their “astronaut badges” as activation devices, they will interact with a virtual Robonaut as guide at Mission Assignment Stations found in four KSC exhibit areas.
At the Apollo/Saturn V Center the “trainees” will work on putting together a team of specialists needed for a rocket launch while at the IMAX Theater exhibit area trainees will command a robotic spacecraft attempting an asteroid capture and redirection mission. Trainees at the Journey to Mars exhibit area will work out the challenges related to creating a research base or permanent habitat on Mars. Finally, at the Space Shuttle Atlantis exhibit area, trainees will virtually perform life-science experiments that astronauts are currently engaged in on the ISS.
All of the challenges were developed to not only be engaging but to emphasize science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) principles in education. Trainees can earn virtual experience badges and the conclusion of each mission will include a special “encounter.”
Coming this Fall is the Heroes and Legends exhibit, which will feature a 3D omni-directional theater where visitors float in space with four legendary astronauts, Alan Shepard, John Glenn, Jim Lovell and Neil Armstrong, who will share their experiences and stories about who inspired them. Parts of the former Early Exploration exhibit and the Astronaut Hall of Fame will be incorporated in Heroes and Legends. Using simulated holograms and augmented reality allows visitors to have a “you are there” personal experience of many historical moments.
Future plans for the KSC Visitor Complex include, in early 2017, a new educational center in the building that used to house the Robot Scouts and Angry Birds exhibits. The center will feature more STEM-based activities, including Mars and spacewalking simulations.
Ongoing activities include the Astronaut Training Experience (ATX) with tracks for kids, adults, families and teams, which includes operating a full-scale shuttle mock-up, working in mission control and interacting with astronauts. And CampKSC, a STEM-based week-long day camp for students (grades 2 to 9) will be held during the summer and winter.
The complex also has seasonal multimedia presentations. This past holiday it featured a colorful presentation called, Holidays in Space, using the Saturn 1B rocket in the Rocket Garden as the projection-screen.
Like the space program, the KSC Visitor Complex is reinventing itself while staying true to its core mission of communicating the heritage and hopes of the U.S. and international space programs. According to Farmer, by the beginning of 2017 it will be completely transformed.
Visitors will have a blast.