Living in Orlando, it’s not an uncommon occurrence to see a rocket launch from your backyard. However, if you want an up-close view of the action you’ll need to make the 90-minute drive to Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Merritt Island. KSC offers three different viewing packages, depending on your personal preferences for the experience. Last month, I had the opportunity to view a SpaceX rocket launch from one of their premium locations.
Launch Viewing Options
All of the viewing products require paid admission to KSC – either in the form of an annual pass or a day ticket. If you’re happy seeing the rocket after it clears the trees and don’t need a view of the pad, there are complimentary bleachers set up on a lawn about 6.7 miles away from the action. All locations, including this one, advertise access to bleacher seating, restrooms, and launch commentary. This location also states that dining and souvenirs are available to purchase.
The closer option is from the succinctly named “Banana Creek Launch Viewing Area at the Apollo/Saturn V Center”, and it carries a $20 premium. It’s actually not much closer than the free viewing at 6.2 miles from my launch, but the big gain here is a relatively unobstructed view of the launch pads. Dining and souvenirs are available to purchase here as well while you wait for the final countdown.
While not available for all launches, a third, closest option was available called the LC-39 Observation Gantry, and it was located 3.4 miles away from our launch pad. This may not sound incredibly close, but for some rockets the sound alone can kill you if you’re within 2 miles. With that in mind, 3.4 miles sounds just fine. This experience charges a $49 premium above your admission, and it did sell out in advance of the launch. Beyond the traditional bleacher seating, restrooms and launch commentary, this location includes a “light meal” and a complimentary souvenir.
Arrival at KSC
The launch was scheduled for 6:52pm on a Tuesday with iffy weather. It had already been scrubbed once for technical issues, so I did not have a high level of confidence in seeing anything take off that day. However, I still drove out to the Cape, and we arrived at KSC around 1pm. Due to the launch, the complex was busier than normal, so be prepared to deal with large crowds. We had to wait about 30 minutes to get onto the bus tour, which was our primary pre-launch activity, and it dropped us off at the Apollo/Saturn V Center (ASVC) around 2:30. Even though this building was closing at 3:00pm, we were able to stay right up until the launch as part of our ticket. This really helped us to see all of the exhibits at a more leisurely pace.
Boarding the bus
For a 6:52pm scheduled launch, our tickets instructed us to arrive at the bus area at 5:15pm…quite a bit in advance of the launch window. When we arrived we were advised that there was an hour range of time when we could board a bus, so there was more flexibility than originally stated. This gave us more time to check out exhibits and not just wait at the launch viewing area. When we got in line for our bus they handed us a paper with their scrub policy, which basically said that by boarding we were using our ticket regardless of whether the launch actually occurred. As the bus pulled away moments later, I second guessed whether we should have waited longer to get on board, so you may want to take that into account too. About 15 minutes later, we pulled up to the observation gantry to disembark.
The gantry area is multifaceted and has an interesting layout. The most prominent feature is a four-story, open-air metal structure that acts as a viewing platform, ensuring that everyone has great views. The LC-39 gantry is designed for viewing launches from pads 39A and 39B (39A is where SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy Rockets launch from). This is in the opposite direction of where our launch was taking place, so the gantry’s viewing areas were limited for this non-Heavy launch in addition to being partially flooded because of the day’s rains. That said, it definitely provides you more opportunities for an unobstructed launch view, and the gantry has stairwells and elevators to make it fully accessible.
Beyond the gantry, the viewing area also had a large patio with picnic tables, which was where the “light meal” was set up. Based on the verbiage, we did not know what to expect of our dinner and debated beforehand whether we should go out to eat afterwards. We were happy to learn that that day’s offering was a fully catered buffet meal consisting of taco fixings (tortillas, shredded chicken and barbacoa, cheese, lettuce, tomatoes, etc), chips, sodas and gourmet cookies. I made a couple of trips through the buffet and definitely stashed some extra cookies away. Needless to say, this was more than a light meal. The free souvenir included with our package was a KSC Apollo 50th anniversary hat. The restrooms were clean enough and functional, so nothing to complain about there. On the lawn next to the gantry and facing the launch pad were bleachers as well as a roped-off row of chairs reserved for a private group.
After touring the gantry and stuffing ourselves, we trekked through the muddy lawn and highly un-navigable bleachers to find ourselves a spot to sit. There was a large bank of empty seats, but we immediately understood why they were empty. A tiny palm tree on the edge of the lawn completely blocked the view of the rocket. We moved to another spot, excited to listen to the live launch commentary broadcasted from a corner speaker. Unfortunately, the speaker was not very loud, and we found ourselves straining to hear anything. During a prolonged hold, several people around us pulled out their phones and turned on the SpaceX live stream to learn how the countdown was progressing. If you’re excited to go to a launch viewing because you want to hear the commentary and countdown, LC-39 may not be the ideal option for you. The ASVC has the traditional large countdown clock to watch and a more permanent speaker setup, but if you simply must enjoy the gantry, you can just stream coverage from your phone.
Countdown and Launch
What you’re paying for with this package is the view, and it’s an awesome one. You can’t get closer to the launch pad physically (and survive), and it’s totally unobstructed. That being said, it’s still 3.4 miles away, so the rocket is tiny with the naked eye and easy to miss when it’s not erupting fire from its lower half. If you want to have a really close up view, you should bring binoculars and/or a camera with a great zoom (I brought both). When the countdown reached zero, smoke surround the rocket as it fought gravity to fly into space. Two things struck me as we watched it take off: the blinding brightness of the fire coming from the rocket and the amazing silence we heard. Because of the distance, it took a full 18 seconds for us to be able to hear the engines, and it was surreal to see the difference in travel speeds of sound and light. From the silence a dull roaring emerged, growing louder (but not uncomfortably so) and then receded as the rocket continued to move further above and away from us.
You can see the launch in the video below:
And then it was over. This launch didn’t include any recovery of the used rockets or their accompanying sonic booms. While the commentary continued, there was nothing left to see but an empty launch pad. We boarded the bus, rode back to the visitor’s complex (which was then closed), and headed back to Orlando with full bellies and lots of cool memories.
Ultimately, I enjoyed this awesome experience, but I don’t think this ultra-premium package is the best option for everyone. If you’re a space nerd, a launch viewing should definitely not be missed. It takes some consideration, however, to determine the best viewing package for you. If you’re looking for an unrivaled, unassisted view, there is nothing that beats LC-39 Observation Gantry. If you’re really interested in the commentary and countdown, you may want to opt for the ASVC viewing. If you happen to be at the Visitor’s Complex anyway and just want to see a launch, you’re probably fine opting for the included viewing area. Don’t even want to spend the money on a day ticket to KSC? You can opt for viewing at Jetty Park, along the causeways or just by looking upward (and in the right direction) at the right time. If you want the closest views, the clearest commentary, and the lowest cost and time commitment, stick to the live stream.
Keep in mind that there are other factors that greatly affect your launch viewing experience, including whether it is a day or night launch, whether or not the rockets will be landing back at the KSC, and the weather. If you’re only going to do an in-person viewing once, do your research and pick the one that’s the best fit for you. With more and more competition in the space of space, and NASA jumping back into the world of launches next year, the sky’s the limit for rocket lovers.
- Crowds will be heavier on a launch day. Plan to either arrive early or to miss some of the exhibits before the big event.
- Remember that you can stay in the ASVC after regular day guests. Keep this in mind when planning your exhibit visits.
- Don’t get on the bus right when your boarding window starts. As soon as you board the bus, your ticket is considered used. Consider weather and other concerns that might scrub the launch before boarding.
- Bring binoculars or a camera with zoom. You’ll be a few miles from the launch pad for safety.
- Carefully consider all facets when deciding on a launch package.