It’s the Year of Apollo at Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex, and nowhere is that more evident than in the renovations and additions at the massive Apollo/Saturn V Center.
Special events have been going on to commemorate Apollo 11 since we attended the Moon Tree Garden ribbon cutting on July 12, and will continue through the splashdown date of July 24.
As Saturday, July 20, is 50 years to the day since Apollo 11 landed on the moon, Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex plans a big celebration: One Giant Leap. Footage from the landing will be shown on big screens in the Rocket Garden, with classic Corvettes driven by the astronauts, including Neil Armstrong, on display. The world’s largest Moon Pie – 40 inches around, 6 feet high, and 55 pounds – will also be unveiled.
No matter whether you want to jump in on the fun this week or wait until a quieter time, you shouldn’t miss the updates at the Apollo/Saturn V Center.
Race to the Moon
As you disembark the tour bus to enter the Apollo/Saturn V Center, this sign is a reminder that Apollo was a race, a competition against Russia to reach the moon.
What is largely forgotten in the passing of fifty years is that Russia attempted to launch a rocket almost as large as the Saturn just two weeks before Apollo 11. It exploded on the pad, destroying itself and the launch tower.
Inside the doors of the center, video screens displaying snippets of 1960s programs, commercials, and cartoons play continuously as visitors wait to enter the firing room for Apollo 8, the first manned launch of the program.
Watch the launch sequence countdown while overlooking the actual consoles used during the Apollo missions.
Stepping out of the firing room into the main body of the building, the first thing you’ll notice is its size. It is immense. Yet one feature dominates it, from end-to-end: a Saturn V rocket.
Constructed in 1997 to house this restored rocket – which had been laying on the ground outside the Vehicle Assembly Building since the Apollo program – this building is 100,000 square feet. The weight of the rocket alone is 6.4 million pounds. All by itself, this center is almost the same size as the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C.
This particular Saturn V – unlike the ones on display at NASA sites in Huntsville, Alabama and Houston, Texas – was, in part, designed to fly in space. The second stage was meant to carry Apollo 18. Federal funding cuts meant Apollo 17 was the final mission.
The full three stages of the Saturn V are longer than the Statue of Liberty is tall. Each of the stages is shown slightly separated so you can visualize how each was jettisoned to boost the combined Command and Service Module and Lunar Module – the Apollo Spacecraft – into orbit.
Projected on the side of the suspended rocket, Apollo mission footage runs in a five-minute continuous loop near the where the Lunar Module was stored inside the SLA. New holograms show the Apollo flight path to the moon and how the lunar rover folded up to fit inside the Lunar Module.
Along the length of the building, interactive interpretive displays face both the outer walls and the Saturn V. Where interpretive panels once were, touchscreens now let you to scroll through information such as how the pieces of the Saturn V fit together and what each one is called.
A Look Inside
You can now take an up-close peek inside a Command and Service Module, which sits on display in the corner across from the firing room.
Walk up to CSM-119 and up a short staircase to peer inside.
You’ll see that the Apollo astronauts lived and worked in a space not much bigger than the inside of a 1970s car.
This particular CSM was sitting atop a Saturn 1B rocket, ready for launch, on Pad 39B during Skylab 4 in 1973. Fortunately, it was never needed as a backup and rescue vehicle.
Near CSM-119, you might notice the book and pen suspended from above. This is a Fisher Space Pen, which can write at any orientation.
Along the wall nearby, you can learn about how they were developed and used.
Next to the Fisher exhibit is one about the workforce of Apollo. This exhibit includes video screens with interviews of people who worked on the Apollo program. There weren’t many women high up in the Apollo hiearchy, but we did see two of them featured.
Past the exhibit on astronaut training and the Moon Rock Cafe, the farthest end of the building from the main entrance is a scaled-down mockup of the gantry on Pad 39A leading up to the command module. The Astrovan that transported the astronauts to the pad is parked at its base.
Ad Astra Per Aspera, the Apollo 1 Tribute, walks you through the lives and accomplishments of astronauts Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee. When a fire broke out during a training session, they could not open the inward-opening hatch door that was used on the Apollo 1, and died.
It is a reminder – like the Space Mirror Memorial – that every manned mission into space is a risk. “The conquest of space is worth the risk of life,” Grissom said after his Gemini 3 flight.
Formerly hanging from the ceiling, Lunar Module 9 – carefully restored in 2017 – is now the centerpiece of the new Apollo 50 exhibit.
Built to fly on Apollo 15, LM-9 was replaced late in the process with a newer model that could carry a lunar rover.
The Apollo 11 astronauts are featured on the moon’s surface during an EVA. Behind them is the new Touch the Moon exhibit, where you can feel like a part of the moon landing.
Leave your footprints on the lunar surface, and touch a real moon rock.
Nearby is an exhibit showing off the Lunar Rovers which were used during the later Apollo missions.
These ATVs for the moon surface enabled the astronauts to explore much farther than they could walk.
Stepping inside the Lunar Theater takes you back to 1969, not just in spirit but in reality, with its new Mid-century Modern living room and bar.
The theatrical show captures the excitement of the minutes leading up to the moon landing, through film footage and the memories of the astronauts who have walked upon the lunar surface.
Inside the Apollo Treasures Gallery, see the Apollo 14 space capsule Kitty Hawk and spacesuits designed for lunar surface activities.
Alan Shepard’s spacesuit and Buzz Aldrin’s gloves, both worn on the moon, are among the many treasures in this dramatically lit hall, some of which are very specific to turning points in space history.
We tend to forget that 50 years ago, computers weren’t used for everyday work like they are today. You’ll see the test conductor’s handwritten log of activities and issues leading up to the Apollo 11 launch, and the Command Service Module Rescue book that the endangered Apollo 13 crew used to return to Earth.
Fun for All
Besides leaving footprints on moon, families will enjoy the opportunity to use “green screens” at Zero Gravity Photos to have their images appear floating in space or over the moon.
With the help of Charlie Brown, Ron Howard, and Jeff Goldblum, learn all about Snoopy’s role as a mascot for the Apollo program. Not only was the Apollo 10 lunar lander – the test flight that didn’t land on the moon – named Snoopy, the command module was Charlie Brown. Apollo workers delighted in the antics of Snoopy in the newsletters that circulated around Cape Canaveral.
A large LEGO astronaut and American flag now adjoin the Right Stuff, the big shop through which you exit the Apollo / Saturn V Center. While it was just being stocked during our early morning visit, we bet they have some cool LEGO space sets in there.
The Moon Tree Garden
Accessed from either a walkway near the bus stop or out the side doors by CSM-119 is the new Moon Tree Garden. Facing the launchpads across the Banana River, the garden is centered around a seven-foot-tall bronze statue, “The Eagle Has Landed.”
It was crafted by George Lundeen and gifted to Kennedy Space Center by Rocket Mortgage. Set on a tall concrete base, it depicts Apollo 11 astronauts Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins holding an American flag and looking off towards Pad 39A, which they launched from on that historic mission.
Circling the statue, the walkway leads you past interpretive stations. Behind each is a Moon Tree.
We were there for the July 12 ribbon-cutting for the Moon Tree Garden, which is how we got to peek inside the Apollo / Saturn V Center to see its updates. At the event, we met Rosemary Roosa, daughter of Apollo 14 astronaut Stuart Roosa.
Two years ago, she started the Moon Tree Foundation in honor of her father working with the U.S. Forest Service and NASA to carry five species of tree seeds into moon orbit. The idea was to discover if space radiation would inhibit or enhance their growth.
Sprouted at two forestry stations after their flight, nearly 450 seedlings were primarily gifted to state forestry services, many planted in 1976 to celebrate the Bicentennial.
The twelve sycamores in the garden are directly propagated from one of the original moon trees planted at Mississippi State University. Each stands with an interpretive plaque honoring the crew of each of the 12 manned Apollo missions.
Plan Your Visit
To visit the Apollo/Saturn V Center, bus tours depart from a terminal adjoining the World’s Largest Space Shop within the main portion of the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex. Arrive early to grab a ride or expect a long wait: the line was an hour long after lunchtime this past Sunday. Buses leave every 15 minutes.
The 20-minute narrated bus tour takes you past the Vehicle Assembly Building, one of the largest buildings on earth, which was originally built to assemble the Saturn V for each Apollo launch.
Admission is $57 for ages 12 and up, $47 for ages 3-11. If you plan to spend more than a day – which is easy to do if you want to see everything – annual passes start at $82 and $67.
Kennedy Space Center is just east of Titusville. Exit Interstate 95 and SR 50 and drive east to the first traffic light. Turn right and follow SR 405 to the Space Center. Turn right at the light in front of the Visitor Complex to loop around it and enter the new entrance behind Blue Origin. There is a $10 per day parking fee.