For almost every trip I had taken to USA in the past few years, one of my missions was to see a space shuttle I had not yet seen. It all started in California, during my first road trip in USA, which must have been my fourth or fifth overall visit to the States, when I first heard about space shuttle Endeavour, located in the California Science Center. Seeing it for the first time was breathtaking. I had not read anything about it in advance, but I learned a great deal about it on the spot, as the exhibits provide very elaborate information about how it worked. Still, one of the most amazing exhibits was the time-lapse of how it was delivered to the science center after being decommissioned, through the cities and streets, and crowds meeting it (you can see the video here as well). I fell in love with it. Purchased a dozen of T-shirts as souvenirs and once my husband arrived a few days later, took him to see it too. Since then we wanted to see every single one of them.
Now we have seen Endeavour (California Science Center, Los Angeles), Atlantis (Kennedy Space Center, Florida, not far from Orlando) and Discovery (Steven F. Udvar Hazy Center in Virginia next to DC). Columbia and Challenger were destroyed in flight. For those all we could do was visit Arlington Cemetery where there is a memorial tombstone for the teams who lost their lives on these shuttles.
In fact, there is one more shuttle, called Enterprise, which was the prototype shuttle and has never been in space. It is the only one I still have to see, despite having been to New York for four times, I somehow had missed it existence all these years. It was originally supposed to be called Constitution, but due to letter writing campaign by Star Trek fans, it got the name Enterprise. I have seen all reusable shuttles than have been in space, and this is the only one to be added to the list.
Endeavour and Discovery are parts of museums, where you also see many other air crafts and general exhibits on space and physics, whereas Atlantis is located in the very heart of NASA, in Kennedy Space Center in Florida. It is the place where parts of Men in Black 3 take place (at least on the screen with special effects, see for yourself here). So if you don’t feel like going to Disneyland or Sea World, you definitely won’t regret coming here! It is absolutely amazing experience for adults and children. If you are planning to visit more than once, annual membership pays off already during the second visit. Discovery is in a Smithsonian museum, so entry is free there. With Endeavour and California Science Center there must be some trick, as on one of my visits I had to pay extra to see the shuttle, but a couple days later it was free.
It’s enough for a couple of hours in California Science Center, same for Steven F. Udvar Hazy Center (which also has the famous Blackbird or the good Decepticon from Transformers, a scene from the movie filmed in the museum can be seen here), but for Kennedy Center you can easily allocate a full day. There are numerous shows taking place during the day, included in the fee, as well as you must take the tour to see the launchpad and the furthest pavilion. Taking the bus tour I learned once more that Latvians are everywhere, as the couple sitting next to us spoke Latvian. Be sure to allocate time to see at least some of the exhibits! You can meet a real astronaut there (and get a card autographed at the gift shop) and on top of very educational exhibits, if you have never seen a crocodile in the wild, this might just be the place where you finally do (I did – they were lounging just next to the road, not far from the nest of the Great American bald eagle).
Some of the best souvenirs in the States are here. This is one of the places where I abandon the principle of buying just one kitchen magnet. The T-shirts are simply amazing (have received numerous compliments on those and questions on where did I get them, and even my 15 year old brother admits that these are pretty cool). A have a whole collection of those! I case you buy the wrong size, you can come back later and exchange it (and even get the parking validated for the short visit), just be sure to keep the receipt. A number of educational games can be purchased here, as well as dried ice-cream (just like one for the astronauts!) and many other items. If you are in Kennedy Center on a slow day (or closer to closing hours), you might also get a discount coupon, when disembarking from the launch pad bus. In warm days there are large crowds, so be prepared to wait in line to get to the launch pad. Apart from the pad and the shuttle, there are numerous Apollo exhibits, you can touch a piece of the Moon and see how proficient you are at landing a shuttle or performing a number of other missions. You can easily spend a whole day here and you should – it’s really that amazing!