You enter the Kennedy Space Centre through a Rocket Garden that features rockets from the early manned space programmes, including the Mercury-Redstone.
However, this 144,000-acre site is no museum of the past, but the beating heart of a revitalised space business that has attracted massive investment in recent years, from the likes of billionaires Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos.
Rocket launches happen at a rate of up to four a month and, when Musk’s Falcon Heavy, the world’s most powerful operational rocket, made its debut by launching a Tesla Roadster into orbit in February last year, no fewer than 115,000 people descended on Florida’s Cape Canaveral.
The entrance to the Kennedy Space Centre, 144,000-acre site in Cape Canaveral in Florida
As former space shuttle pilot Dan Tani says at my ‘dine with an astronaut’ lunch, ‘space travel is back on the agenda, folks, and this place is on the front line’.
July 20 will mark 50 years to the day since Neil Armstrong tottered down a ladder from a lunar module codenamed Eagle on to the surface of the Moon.
The mission, Apollo 11, was born of mind-blowing brainpower and an audacity that defies belief.
The feat was achieved in a whirlwind. It had been barely eight years since the first, 15-minute American space flight in 1961, and President John F. Kennedy’s pledge to put a man on the Moon by the end of the decade was realised.
I head to Florida to see what other-worldly thrills NASA’s Kennedy Space Centre holds half a century on. At first sight, it looks a bit like one of the state’s theme parks.
There is a Heroes & Legends exhibition, which dives into the personal histories of astronauts. Around here, they are the A-listers, not film stars.
Next is the Space Shuttle Atlantis. The real, retired thing that flew into space 33 times over 26 years. It is suspended on its side in a cavernous building, payload bay open as when in orbit.
The thunderous Shuttle Launch Experience beats any theme park ride.
Sure, you are clamped into a contraption on pistons and hurled in all directions like the best of these. But it is the narration by veteran shuttle commander Charles Bolden that raises hairs on the back of my neck. In the final moments before launch, he calmly intones: ‘If you stand within 800 feet of the shuttle at zero seconds, the noise alone will kill you.’
The Rocket Garden that features rockets from the early manned space programmes, including the Mercury-Redstone
Things get even more awe-inspiring when I take a bus tour around the launch sites. The area — a vast swamp — is also a wildlife reserve. The driver and guide Stephen Smith points out alligators sunning themselves on the muddy banks and bald eagles in treetop nests.
Filling the horizon is the Vehicle Assembly Building, a box of astronomical proportions with a stars-and-stripes flag the size of a football field painted on it.
Stephen has some choice facts: ‘One of the world’s largest buildings . . . It has its own weather pattern with clouds forming inside . . . Big enough to hold 250 billion ping pong balls.’
The jaw-dropping stop is the Apollo/Saturn V Centre, where a monster-sized Apollo-era rocket sits in a hangar.
Next to it is an insect-like lunar landing module on spindly legs, and the absurdly tiny Apollo 14 capsule charred from atmospheric re-entry after its 1971 mission to the Moon. Its three astronauts spent nine days cramped in a tin with less space than my Renault Clio.
To infinity and beyond: A Kennedy Space Centre simulator. The centre is the beating heart of a revitalised space business
From launchtime to lunchtime. I signed up to dine with an astronaut, which means eating barbecued turkey while one of the 500 or so earthlings to have visited space tells a roomful of us what it was like.
Our host Dan Tani has flown two space shuttle missions and spent four months on the International Space Station.
Striding from table to table in his NASA overalls, granite-jawed Tani bats questions about how to eat and — everybody’s favourite — ‘go to the bathroom’ in space.
Neither answer is edifying, but he handles them with humour, before reminding visitors that the Kennedy Space Centre is as much about the future as it is about commemorating any past achievements.
‘NASA has big plans,’ he says. ‘We are going to Mars.’
The following day, I taste this future on a four-hour Astronaut Training Experience. Working in groups of six, participants are challenged to co-operate in gruelling tasks that replicate training for space.
One is spacewalk training, where I lay on my back, afloat like an air hockey puck, to simulate micro-gravity.
Predictably, I botch most of the commands relayed through my helmet headphones.
The Space Shuttle Atlantis launches in 2009. It is now suspended on its side in a cavernous building, payload bay open as when in orbit
Another is to fly a mock-up of the new Orion spacecraft, which is scheduled to return to the moon in the 2020s before missions to Mars.
Our crew are then each randomly given a task for ‘Launch Mission’. I draw ‘Pilot’, proudly take my seat facing the front flight console . . . and manage to mess that up as well.
I fare better at navigating the Martian environment during an extraordinarily convincing ‘Walk On Mars’ immersive simulation. This is as close as I will ever get to being an astronaut.
Neil Armstrong reckoned that the NASA guys who got him to the Moon were the greatest team ever assembled.
Half a century on, the Kennedy Space Centre takes us to the boundaries of human achievement and offers glimpses into what may turn out to be an even greater leap for mankind.