5 stellar ways to see Florida’s Space Coast

a man standing in front of a boat: The Rocket Garden at Kennedy Space Center includes Saturn, Juno, and Mercury-Redstone rockets.

The Rocket Garden at Kennedy Space Center includes Saturn, Juno, and Mercury-Redstone rockets.

Most travelers to Florida’s Space Coast center their itineraries on the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex, especially this month as the U.S. marks the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission that landed the first humans on the moon. But this stretch of more than 70 miles of Atlantic coastline, east of Orlando, offers stellar experiences beyond Cape Canaveral.

“It’s a water world here,” says Charlie Mars, a chief NASA engineer for the Apollo moon landing. “This is a place of real natural beauty that’s been this way forever.” (Here’s more about the history of Moon exploration.)

“The space business itself, since the 1950s, has had a few ups and downs,” says Mars, “But now that we have the commercial [launches], it’s starting to really take hold again. People just want to see other people being launched into space.” (Read why Ron Howard thinks space tourism matters.)

Come for a rocket lift-off—then stay on for much more. From strolling a riverside collection of space-mission monuments to watching nesting sea turtles on a nighttime beach, the Space Coast is loaded with moments that make the spirit soar.

Moonlight Drive-In

Titusville: Across the Indian River from the Kennedy Space Center, this circa 1964 burger joint sports the same signage that used to draw in space workers during the Apollo days for a hearty, car hop–delivered meal. One of the last remaining businesses from that time, the Moonlight Drive-In was named to honor the Apollo missions and is currently open only a few days a week (call before going). Folks come for the retro vibe and comfort foods like fried shrimp platters, chili dogs, and hand-dipped shakes.

American Space Museum and Space Walk of Fame

Titusville: Consoles from the shuttle firing room that launched Columbia, training suits used for Apollo and shuttle missions, and an exhibit dedicated to female astronauts are among the donated artifacts at this downtown Titusville museum founded in 2001. “We are and have been for quite a while preserving the space history that occurred right here on the coast,” says Mars, who serves as chairman of the board for the museum. “We emphasize the workers too, the guys and gals that were in the trenches—the cafeteria workers, janitors, and others who worked for the space program—not just the people in the control room.” (Meet the first female sent to space on a commercial spacecraft.)

Space View Park Monuments

Titusville: It takes about 10 minutes to stroll east from the American Space Museum to this pretty park with views of the Indian River, home to monuments to the Mercury, Gemini, Apollo, and shuttle space programs. Place your palms in the bronze hand prints of famous astronauts such as John Young and Alan Bartlett Shepard, Jr., among many others. Space View Park is one of the Space Coast’s most popular launch-viewing sites, since it’s right across the river from Cape Canaveral.

Canaveral National Seashore

If an uncrowded stretch of oceanfront is paradise to you, pack a beach bag for the day and make for Canaveral National Seashore. Florida’s longest undeveloped east coast beach, it stretches for some 24 miles north of Titusville. During June and July, sign up for ranger-led Turtle Watch Programs to see loggerheads, green sea turtles, and other species lumbering ashore to lay eggs on beaches completely free of light pollution. “We have about 200 nests a night [during this period], so our success rate is about 80 percent that you’ll see a turtle,” says Laura Henning, Chief of Interpretation and Visitor Use for Canaveral National Seashore. The south end of the national seashore is about as close as the public can get for viewing a daytime rocket launch, says Tom Bartosek, of Florida’s Space Coast Office of Tourism. “When you’re that close, not only do you see and hear it, but you feel the launch too,” he says. (Discover more places to vacation with baby turtles.)

a group of people standing on top of a wooden pier next to water: Rikki Tikki Tavern, at the end of Cocoa Beach Pier, serves up cocktails with breezy sunsets.

Rikki Tikki Tavern, at the end of Cocoa Beach Pier, serves up cocktails with breezy sunsets.

Cocoa Beach Pier

Cocoa Beach: After spending time dreaming about the stars, you may find yourself wanting something more down to Earth. Unwind at Cocoa Beach Pier’s Rikki Tikki Tavern—an open-air tiki bar at the end of the 800-foot-long pier, overlooking breakers busy with surfers. Try the Sunshine State Florida Lager on tap, brewed in Cape Canaveral by Florida Beer Company.

Terry Ward is a travel writer based in Florida. Follow her on Instagram or Twitter.

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