The Space Reviewin association with SpaceNews

Saturn V photoillustration
Will tourist crowds still flock to the Kennedy Space Center after the shuttle is retired? (Credit: Photograph by Dwayne Day, modified by Tim Warchocki)

How I spent my summer vacation

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Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you know that the Space Shuttle will have its last flight either later this year or early next year. That much is pretty certain. What is far less certain is when it will be replaced. Right now there is no plan for a replacement—there is a plan to develop a plan, but simply working out the contract requirements to start a new competition could take years, and given the experience in the defense contracting world there is no reason to believe that it won’t drag out even longer (see: “USAF tanker”). The United States could possibly be out of the human spaceflight business for many more than the five to six years that even the most optimistic observers have guessed.

But what effect will this impending hiatus in American human spaceflight have on space-related tourism industries, as well as the communities that surround the Kennedy Space Center in Florida? Will the tourists still come when the astronauts no longer do?

Missileland USA

If you traveled to the Kennedy Space Center Visitor’s Center in the 1980s or early 1990s, you would not have been impressed. The Visitor’s Center consisted of a tired, uninspiring museum, a rocket garden filled with rockets and missiles whose paint was fading, and a mediocre bus tour to several old launch pads as well as the decaying remains of a Saturn V rocket lying on its side near the massive Vehicle Assembly Building.

Fifteen years later there is no arguing that Delaware North improved the visitor’s experience dramatically.

But starting in the mid-1990s, a company called Delaware North took over the facility and invested a lot of money into it. They restored the Saturn V and put it indoors, in an impressive building that still remains the best one to house a Saturn V (the facility in Huntsville is pretty good, but the one in Houston looks a lot like a large shed with a rocket inside. See “Fire and grace”, The Space Review, February 4, 2008). Delaware North spruced up the grounds and built additional buildings over the years. They invested in a fleet of modern busses equipped with televisions. They also built an impressive viewing stand near pad 39B, where visitors could get a good look at a space shuttle on the pad. When Delaware North started all this upgrading there were vocal complaints that a private company was now going to charge money for access to some things that were previously free—and had already been paid for by American taxpayers. Some people also complained that what the company was doing was creating a “Space Center Disney,” which was more entertainment than education.

However, fifteen years later there is no arguing that Delaware North improved the visitor’s experience dramatically. The Apollo/Saturn V Center is by far the most interesting, entertaining, and educational museum display of that program in existence, with dramatic presentations of both a Saturn V launch control room, and the drama of the Apollo 11 landing, the latter complete with a scale replica of a Lunar Module descending onto a simulated lunar landscape. The space race museum might be a little light on artifacts, but it does a competent job of explaining the history. Many of the rockets in the rocket garden got a new coat of paint. The Visitor’s Center complex has a full-size shuttle orbiter replica and an external tank and SRBs, and the Space Shuttle Experience is an effectively dramatic explanation of the controlled violence of a shuttle launch (See “Review: Shuttle Launch Experience”, The Space Review, April 28, 2008). The busses also do more than simply deliver visitors to the different locations, they feature well-produced and informative videos about shuttle operations, and demonstrate that there are a lot more interesting space-related jobs than the well-known one of astronaut.

Nine days ago I was there playing the role of tourist. As someone who occasionally gets to see the hardware close up as part of my day job, I always cast a critical eye when I visit facilities like this one as a tourist, but the Kennedy Space Center stands up well. You can learn a tremendous amount about launch operations without feeling like you’re being educated. Sure, the facility occasionally shows some obsolescence—a wall display in the pad 39B viewing stand building showed planned upgrades to the shuttle that “will be incorporated by 2012,” indicating that it had probably been erected before the Columbia accident and never replaced. But overall, it’s a great facility, with a heavy emphasis on the current shuttle program—something that seems ominous as shuttle retirement approaches.

After the thunder is gone

Right now the Kennedy Space Center area floods with tourists before each shuttle launch, and does a fairly brisk business at other times. But once the American human spaceflight program becomes history what happens to tourism in that area in general, and to the Visitor’s Center in particular? The hotels will no longer fill up prior to each launch. And the visits to the space center are going to decline. The Shuttle Launch Experience will no longer be about “what it’s like to fly on a space shuttle” but “what it used to be like.” And the rest of the center is going to start looking more like a Civil War battlefield where something important once happened than a vibrant and active launch facility. How many tourists will that draw? Undoubtedly, tourism is going to take a hit. There’s no way to avoid that.

What the Visitor’s Center will need in the near term is a new message and a new strategy, hopefully one that can keep some of the people coming until NASA figures out what it’s doing.

Beyond the job losses directly associated with the human space program, and with tourism, something else may be lost. It has become a tired and over-used cliché that the American human spaceflight program inspires children, but it is certainly true. The Visitor’s Center motto is “a day of experience and a lifetime of inspiration.” With human spaceflight on hiatus, and highly uncertain, the inspiration is going to be gone.

What can the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex do about all of this, both to keep the place relevant and to explain that space is more than just the shuttle? At least part of the solution might be to deemphasize the human spaceflight aspects of their tour and put a little more emphasis on the commercial enterprise and robotic exploration launch programs that will be the only things flying for at least a big portion of the decade. Admittedly, launching the latest comsat or solar observation satellite may not be terribly exciting, but it will allow tour guides to have a better answer when visitors ask “so what goes on here?” It will also highlight the work done by Americans on American spacecraft and rockets, a probably losing method of blunting the unseemly fact that Americans will be flying on foreign rockets to reach a facility largely paid for and constructed by the United States.

The pad 39 observation platform also provides a distant view of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 launch site, looking like a few toothpicks sticking up out of the swamp in the far distance. The Falcon 9 is in no way as interesting or as dynamic to look at as a space shuttle, but it might be the way that Americans return to space later this decade. Although true, it’s still too early to start breaking ground for a viewing stand closer to the Falcon 9 pad. What the Visitor’s Center will need in the near term is a new message and a new strategy, hopefully one that can keep some of the people coming until NASA figures out what it’s doing.