How to view and photograph a NASA Space Shuttle Launch
By Jeff Ostroff
What you will learn here:
Share This Article:
We all yearn for that perfect photograph of the Space Shuttle, one of the most challenging subjects for any photographer. How do end up with space shuttle launch photography like you see on CNN or USA Today? The answer is you can't, because you'll never get to the prime viewing press site, 3 miles from the launch pad, using 800 mm lenses and camera equipment far above your pay grade. I'm here to show you how to get the best pictures of a space shuttle launch with cameras, location, and equipment in your pay grade, and to give you my years of experience as an amateur photographer who has photographed the shuttle several times. You will learn from my experiences what to do and what not to do for your perfect shuttle launch photos whether you use a simple Sony Cybershot or a high end Nikon or Canon SLR. You must also be prepared for scrubbed missions, and you'll become an expert in Shuttle launch photography. On November 4, 1981, STS-2 was my first attempted shuttle launch. I even got an F grade on my engineering drawing mid-term exam, because I chose to go to Cape Kennedy to see the launch rather than take my test. But with about 20 seconds to go, the mission was scrubbed after a countdown computer called for a hold in the count due to low readings on fuel cell oxygen tank pressures. This dogged me for 20+ years until I finally got to see my first successful shuttle liftoff.
If you like my article, visit my other web site CarBuyingTips.com, and learn everything you need to know about buying new or used cars, including my list of Top 10 Car Dealer Scams. Getting married soon? Visit my other site BridalTips.com and read our Top 10 Wedding Planning Scams. You can also read our tips for buying diamond engagement rings.
Click on all photos and drawings on this page to view them full resolution size!
These are the types of money shots you want for day and night Space Shuttle launches:
Tips for shooting photos of the shuttle launch in the daytime
Taking pictures of the space shuttle is as much an art as it is a science. First you need to deal with the science of what is going on, then you deal with the art of photography rules by accounting for all these dynamic factors:
I recommend you view the shuttle launch from the Kennedy Space Center property at the NASA Causeway viewing site. This is 3 miles closer to the launch pad than the Kennedy Space Center Visitors Complex. Also you can see the space shuttle on the launch pad looking up the Banana River northbound. If you view from the visitor complex, you can't see the rocket until it clears the tree line.
The lighting on the space shuttle at liftoff presents a challenge
This image at left shows the lighting dilemma you face when the shuttle launches from launch pad 39A on Cape Canaveral. This will confuse any camera's light meter. You have the opaque ignition steam cloud followed by a very bright exhaust plume, which is brighter than the sun. You can see the plume lights up the lower 1/3 of the space shuttle, but as you look up the fuselage toward the top of the tank and SRBs, it's dimmer. So what should you expose for, the flame, the space shuttle, the tank or the sky? I'll show you later on, that you'll actually be exposing for the space shuttle on a few shots, then exposing for the flame on a few shots.
Click photos to enlarge:
When the shuttle starts to blast off the Solid Rocket Boosters (SRBs) fire up around T-1 second, which forms a huge instant opaque steam cloud that blows out from the launch pad to the north and also to the south toward NASA Causeway viewers as shown in my drawing and photo above. This opaque steam cloud is about twice the height of the space shuttle. You won't see anything until the orbiter starts to rise above this steam cloud at about T+2 seconds. This only applies to viewers on the NASA Causeway, or any viewing point predominantly to the north or south. The press site, where the flag pole and counter are located, is only 3 miles from the launch pad and just south of the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) at the west end of the Turning Basin, and is situated at an isometric viewing angle, so they are never blocked by the cloud. The press people also have 3 miles less humidity to shoot through than you do on the NASA causeway. The view from the NASA VIP viewing area at the Saturn V building 3.8 miles away from the launch pad, is straight on from the side, as you are seeing it in the drawing above, perpendicular to viewers like me on the NASA Causeway. NASA VIPs, like the press, are not blocked by the steam cloud, but they are blocked by the launch pad tower. NASA VIP viewers can't see the shuttle until it rockets past the top of the launch tower, which blocks their view. And what a view they get too. The sound from the blastoff arrives to them about 19 seconds after liftoff, and it arrives at the NASA Causeway about 35 seconds after liftoff. So pay attention, you will see the Space Shuttle lift off BEFORE you hear it. The reason is light travels faster than sound. Light moves at 186,000 miles per second, whereas sound travels at 1,125 ft/s, or about 1 mile every 5 seconds. It's very useful to have NASA audio playing nearby.
Suggested photos you might want to shoot of the shuttle launchThese are the shots I normally take, and I have examples of this list in a table further down this page.
Another series of shots you might want to get to test your skills is around T+15 seconds, after it clears the launch tower when the shuttle begins it's pitch roll maneuver, capture the gorgeous 45 degree angle shot, then 2 seconds later, capture the 90 degree angle shot, then as it completes the 180 degree roll, you'll shoot the exposed belly of the tank. My photos below show you this series of pictures.
Photos that I shot of STS-133 Discovery's Final Mission
Here's a few photos sent in by disciple visitors after reading this article:
Sent in by Jonathan Long:
Subject: STS-133, Location: NASA Causeway KSC 6 miles away. For these shots below, Emanuele used a Nikon D300, ISO Sensitivity: 100, Lens Setting: 500 mm, Shutter Speed: 1/400, Aperture: f6.3. Very stunning shot of the SRB separation:
The proper photographic camera and telephoto lens equipment to use
While we are on the subject of photography, I have another article on my other site called How To Choose Your Wedding Photographer.
Don't ever use a throw away film camera to photograph a rocket launch. Are you Crazy?
Use the right lens for the job
For daytime shooting you can use a polarizer filter if you have one, to reduce glare, haze, and make the sky a lot bluer. Many professional photos you see outdoors with that awesome blue sky look are shot with polarizer filters. Don't use any filters, not even skylight filters at night, there's too much reflection and your photos will be garbage. You'll need to use a zoom or telephoto lens which is 400mm or bigger. Don't waste your time with anything smaller, you simply will not get any decent close up shots of the shuttle. Remember, most of you are either 6 miles, 12 miles, or 14 or more miles away. Some people like to use 2x lens doublers, but I'm not a fan of them, the quality is not typically very good unless you buy a real high end converter. These converters may also interfere with your light meter or prevent it from working, as your meter might require some information from the lens contacts that don't get passed through a 2x converter. Make sure you verify with your camera manufacturer if it will work well with your camera, don't just blindly purchase one.
I have some recommended telephoto lens sizes for you for some of the better space shuttle launch viewing spots favored by locals:
Here's what the space shuttle looks like from 6 miles away through a 400 mm lens
From the NASA Causeway 6 miles away, my photo on the far left of NASA Space Shuttle Mission STS-128 shows how small the space shuttle appears in your viewfinder through a 400 mm zoom lens setting. The far left picture is the original un-retouched full screen photo as I saw it in my viewfinder. On the right is my final photo extracted from that raw image after cropping and processing with Photoshop. See how tiny the space shuttle really is inside your viewfinder, and how much you have to crop to make it look good? This is why I stress the importance of using a lens at least 400mm. How small do you think the space shuttle will appear with a point and shoot pocket camera 12 miles away in Titusville along the Indian River? That's why point and shoots are only useful for wide angle shots where you want to show the entire scene from launch pad to sky.If you are 12 miles away in Titusville along the Indian River like most people, your 400 mm lens will be the equivalent of me using a puny 200 mm lens at 6 miles away. At the Saturn V building VIP site or Press site near the VAB 3 miles away from the launch pad, you could get away with 200mm, but 400 mm would be ideal. If you don't have a bigger lens, try renting or borrowing one. The 800 mm lenses like you see photographers using at the baseball and football games require a tripod. You should use a tripod, as sturdy as you can get. I usually snap my shots of the blastoff with the camera on the tripod. Once the shuttle clears the tower and I have my money shots, I use the quick release and remove the camera off the tripod, and manually pan up with the camera snapping photos as the rocket moves up the sky, this is why you need to use a fast shutter speed, 1/(focal length). You just can't track the space shuttle with your camera at a steep angle on the tripod when you're trying to zoom in tight. This is nearly impossible to do with the bigger 800mm lenses.
ISO Sensitivity: Most of the better cameras allow you to set your ISO levels. So set it to 100, which still allows you to use a very fast shutter speed due to the brightness. Besides, in day time, it's most likely going to be sunny, so ISO 100 or 200 is perfect. Most camera manufacturers suggest keeping your ISO at 400 or below to avoid introduction of pixel noise especially at night. Think of it in terms of the old days of film, and when we pushed the ASA or ISO to over 400, we got lots of grain (noise), and the higher we pushed it, the grainier it got.
Shutter Speed: The most important factor selecting your shutter is speed is not you, but rather your lens. Your owner's manual usually tells you to shoot a shutter speed that is faster than 1/(focal length). With my 80-400mm zoom lens, I need to shoot 1/400 second, or faster, like 1/500, 1/1000, 1/1600, etc. This is to minimize movement and vibration of the lens because I can't hold it steady enough. If you have a giant 800 mm lens, you need to shoot at least 1/800 sec, or faster, like 1/1000, 1/1600. If you're using a point and shoot camera with a small lens, no problem, you're exempt from a shutter speed requirement.
Aperture (f-stop): This is the "pupil" of the lens. Since things tend to be out of focus when moving, I like to provide some margin in my focus via the aperture setting. So if your lens is an f-4 lens, you don't want to set it at f-4. I try to be 2 stops down or more, to ensure I have some depth of field to my focus. So anything over f8 is a good bet. Many other photographers like to use f/8, f/11, or f/16 to get maximum depth of field.
Focus: I recommend manual focusing. If you decide to use the auto focus, set it to the smallest focus zone your view screen uses, so that you can point that zone on the shuttle, not the flame, and the camera will focus on the space shuttle, not the flame. You only have about 30 seconds to get most of your shots, you don't want to wait while your lens goes crazy, focusing one way then the other, instead of its normal high speed focus. The ultra bright flame of the rocket will have your auto focus doing double time trying to figure out how to focus. You don't have double time to spare. Most of the better cameras have some sort of spot focusing. For example, my Nikon D2Xs has 11 tiny “focus brackets” in my viewfinder, and I can select which one of those brackets to point on my subject for the lens to focus on. If you are using a zoom lens, zoom all the way in to focus, then zoom out to the desired focal length. I prefer to just set my lens and camera to manual focus, or you can set it to infinity on the focus ring, but make sure that infinity is indeed the correct focus point on your lens, sometimes it's not correct. If this is too much complication, then just stick with auto focus, hopefully your camera can deal with it.
Exposure and light metering: Don't just leave your camera in the default auto exposure mode (also known as Program Mode), this is where most people run into trouble, because your camera can't handle the sudden spike in light levels, and you often end up with a huge overexposed blooming yellow ball instead of a rocket. The idea for each of your 7 money shot pictures I suggested earlier is for you to know what the metering should be for each of those scenes, and adjust it manually as it happens. Suppose you just want to try auto exposure and not deal with this complication. That's ok too, you might get lucky if you have a high end camera, but let's improve your odds a bit if you use auto exposure. Common light types of light metering zones you'll see in the viewfinder on most cameras are 3D Matrix (average of over 1000 points in viewfinder), center weight (10% of image inside a central 8 mm circle in viewfinder, or spot metering with a 3 mm spot in the center. I suggest that if you use the auto exposure mode, you'll want to use spot metering as it typically uses a tiny spot taking up 2% of your screen area in the very center. Put that spot either on the space shuttle, and meter it for your shuttle shots, or put the spot on the flame and meter it for the most accurate result when you want flame shots. A good rule of thumb while metering the flame is you should expect the meter to report something like 1/2000 @f16. IF you don't see something close to that, you should be suspicious of the reading. Don't use full screen averaging for your light meter, your camera just can't average a light brighter than the sun with with an ambient lit space shuttle. Uses the smallest metering spot that your camera allows and put it right on your subjects. I reiterate, use manual mode instead and avoid all these issues.
You want pictures that are exposed for the space shuttle, and pictures exposed for the flame
Pictures I took at NASA STS-124 Shuttle Launch late afternoon
Click on thumbnail photos below to see high resolution views. Before shooting these pictures, I metered off the space shuttle and then manually set the shutter speed. Once Endeavor had liftoff and was up the sky just past the steam cloud, the f-stop was moved down a few stops to expose for the flame. That's why you'll see some of the pictures look like the sky is darker. Each time you stop down the lens to better expose for the flame, it causes the rest of the space shuttle and sky to be under exposed. As soon as the space shuttle clears the steam cloud and I have my money shots, I immediately take the camera off the tripod using the quick release, because you really can't track a shuttle going straight up using the tripod. It's better to hand hold and pan up and across the sky. These shots below were taken 5/31/08. The temperature was 80 degrees and there was a muggy 75% Humidity at TTS station (NASA Shuttle Facility). Very hot muggy afternoon.
Click on all photos and drawings on this page to view them full size!
Keep in mind you are doing all this planning for basically 30 seconds of work. While waiting for the rocket launch if you don't have a 3G phone, be sure to have people back home checking the Kennedy Space Center Twitter page or SpaceFlightNow Mission Status Center web site which is very real-time with updates. Once the shuttle orbiter has cleared the steam cloud, take all your plume photos as quickly as possible. This is when the shuttle will be at its largest size in the viewfinder. It rapidly rises and moves downrange, and after 2 minutes, your work is done. Once the SRBs separate from the space shuttle, the shows over folks, move along. This is a good time to have your binoculars handy, so you can just enjoy watching the triad of white flame coming from the shuttles 3 main engines. You can still see it for several minutes, surprisingly even when it's a few hundred miles away. In my Ft. Lauderdale neighborhood 200 miles away, we can normally the space shuttle move across the sky about 30 seconds after liftoff, until SRB SEP. Below is a stunning shot I took of of Space Shuttle Discovery STS-119 from the golf course across the street from my house 200 miles south of KSC on March 15, 2009. NASA managers called this their most beautiful launch yet, taking place right at sunset and creating beautiful rainbows of light across the sky with it's colorful contrail.
How to photograph the Space Shuttle launch at night
Pictures I took at NASA STS-128 Shuttle Launch of Discovery 8/28/2009 at midnight:
Taking pictures of a space shuttle blastoff at night is not much different than shooting a day time launch because of the brightness of the flame coming out of the space shuttle solid rocket boosters (SRBs) at liftoff. An interesting phenomenon happens when a shuttle blasts off during a nighttime launch. The entire area for many miles lights up like the sunrise.
The high definition screen capture from my Canon Vixia HF10 camcorder at left of STS-128 on 8/28/2009 clearly shows this phenomenon, 6 miles away on the NASA Causeway. This was shot at 11:59 PM right at midnight, not in the day time like the screen shot appears to be! But it looks just like sunrise at 7 AM. This video capture is right around T+3 seconds. You essentially have a 1000 foot long super bright flame, the world's largest light bulb, and it's as bright as the morning sunrise, moving up the sky. The surrounding area for miles, and all of Titusville actually looks like the sunrise at 7 AM in the morning for about 20 seconds. Adding to the effect that muggy summer night was the fact that the temperature was 85 degrees and the humidity was a whopping 80% at TTS station (NASA Shuttle Facility). It was so muggy outside, that any paper we had outside became soggy, just from absorbing the humidity in the air. It was so bad that night even NASA's own videos had lots of glare and haze.
Below is our video of the NASA Space Shuttle Discovery STS-128 Night Launch 8/28/2009 view: NASA Causeway 6.5 miles
WARNING: For night photos, remove all filters including UV and skylight filters off your lens!
Click on all photos and drawings on this page to view them full size!
I shot these photographs below from the NASA causeway, but this time I was on the Air Force base side of the causeway, which is about 1/4 mile from where the Kennedy Space Center LTT busses take up their position. AFB side of the causeway is a private viewing area with no food service, just 2 small sets of bleachers and a Port-O-let. Same great view though, slightly different angle from the LTT position 1/4 mile to the west.
Tips and strategies: Best locations to view a Space Shuttle Launch
Now that we have fussed about getting the right pictures, you're probably wondering where's the best place to view a space shuttle launch from. Your best viewing opportunity is inside
Kennedy Space Center of course. There's a lot of confusion about Kennedy Space Center and Cape Canaveral, but rest assured you can indeed get tickets to see a space shuttle launch
at KSC, so you should try it at least once. In fact, one of my favorite movie lines is from the 1987 classic Wall Sreet, where Michael Douglas' greedy insider trading character
Gordon Gecko says "Wake up, will ya pal? If you're not inside, you're outside!" Isn't that the way it is in life for us? The problem is Kennedy Space Center
is a huge government facility on a huge wild life preserve on Merritt Island, FL. The island is so big and stretches so far offshore that the launch pads are 12 miles from the
coastal town of Titusville and U.S. 1, the main north-south road. Merritt Island is also across the 5-mile wide Indian River from Titusville. So you start out at a big disadvantage
if you are trying to get a close-up view of the Space Shuttle launch unless you're "on the inside". On launch
days, if you don't have a ticket and vehicle placard to get you inside, you will not make it across the intracoastal
waterway, that's all government property. You will be turned away.
I have compiled a list here for you of the most popular locations to view a space shuttle launch, listed in order of the quality of the location. Each location below indicates the distance from Launch Complex 39 where the shuttle is launched from, in particular, LC-39A:
Best Spots to View Launches Inside Kennedy Space Center Property
Here's the details for the above 7 locations:
1) Press site where the flag pole and clock are located
This is the best site to view a shuttle launch, because it is the closest official viewing area that a human can get to, only 3 miles from the launch pad. That's as close as you want to be to a liftoff. The sound will kill you 400 feet away from the launch pad. At 800 feet away, you'll wish you were dead. This press site is the location from which you see all the video on the news, or the photos on the news sites after every space shuttle launch. This is also a famous historic site, because of the large digital clock on the ground, and the flag pole there. In fact the press site flag pole and clock are included in the U.S. National Register of Historic Places. People often like to photograph the space shuttle liftoff with the flagpole in the frame to create a dramatic illusion that it's flying right by the flag. With about a 45 degree isometric viewing angle of the launch pad, those folks from the media who are blessed to see a shuttle launch from the press site never have any obstruction of their view of the shuttle launch, not even by the ignition steam cloud, as it blows north and south. You are looking toward the shuttle from southwest to northeast in between the ignition cloud lobes. The only thing is, you and I will never get in there that close, you need to have a press pass assigned to you by NASA to get into this prized spot. Good luck, let me know how well you did trying to get a NASA press badge.2) NASA VIP viewing area at Saturn V building (aka The Banana Creek Viewing Site)
This is where NASA places it's invited friends (not you), and family, VIPS (not you), contractors, vendors, and others people who have connections (not you). Calling all NASA employees, does someone want to be my friend? Hey, friend me on Facebook. This viewing location is behind the long giant hangar building where the old Saturn V rocket is on display lengthwise down the building length, about 1.5 miles north of the ultra tall Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB). This used to be the launch control center for the Apollo missions. Camping groups, boy scouts, girl scouts, Indian Princess and other kids groups often camp inside this building underneath the rocket. NASA has bleachers setup out back of this building along the Banana Creek where you can see launch pads LC-39A and LC 39B, both about 3.8 miles away. The view of the space shuttle from this spot is perfect edge on from the side, but you can't see the shuttle until it clears the launch tower, which is blocking your eastward looking view of it on the launch pad. If you look on Craigslist in the days leading up to a launch, you'll often see tickets for this viewing area being sold by people who can't attend that day. Often when there is a mission scrub and the day changes, people have to bow out, so they list their VIP tickets on Craigslist. Look under "Florida > Space Coast" as the geographic area.
3) NASA Causeway East (Launch Transportation Ticket, aka LTT) Closest view for general public!
This is my favorite recommended spot for us "commoners", the closest that any non-NASA human being is allowed to get to the launchpad, you're on Kennedy Space Center property, 6.5 milesf rom the space shuttle launch pad, 2.5 miles further east down the NASA Causeway from the Visitors Complex, closer to the Cape Canaveral launch pads. You get to laugh at your buddies over on U.S. 1 in Titusville, or in Jetty Park, they are at least 12 miles away. This is a great viewing spot right on the Banana River, looking north toward Launch Complex 39A. You can see the shuttle on the launch pad, and it is small, since it is 6.5 miles north of you. But a decent pair of binoculars should give you a good view, as will any lens 400 mm or longer on your camera. You board the busses in an ultra long line underneath the ultra long Space Center Tours bus depot building, located on the east end of the Visitor Complex. Kennedy might use 50-100 of its red white and blue busses, each carrying maybe 70 people, bussing them from the visitors complex to the causeway. It's a huge bus line, and you can expect to wait an hour or more in this line to board your bus if you're not in line early. Your strategy is to try to be in the front of the holding pens for the first 5 busses in line. Try to get a seat at the front of the bus, so you can be first off, and hustle to get your clear spot along the rope when you arrive at the causeway. The areas by the rope fill up fast by people with tripods and chairs, like the Oklahoma land rush, so stake your claim. Watch out for the large islands on the water there that block your line of site to the bottom of the rocket launch pad. Move over until you clear the island. We once had to run about 200 yards to clear the obstructing island that was blocking our view.
WARNING: Don't get confused about your Kennedy Space Center admission tickets!
Ticket #1:First ticket is the typical $40 admission ticket to the Kennedy Space Center Visitor's Complex. That ticket just gets you in the door. It is valid for as long as it takes for them to launch the shuttle. We had tickets for STS-133 issued in October, and after numerous scrubs, it went off in February.
Ticket #2: If you want the upgraded causeway viewing option, you should have purchased a separate LTT (Launch Transportation Ticket) when you bought your tickets in advance online from the Kennedy Space Center web site. The KSC web site also has different package options such as one that includes both tickets, so make sure you readcarefully and put the correct package plan in your online shopping cart. This LTT is a single use ticket only.
Some pictures I took at the NASA Causeway Viewing Area:
KSC changed they way they sell tickets online to be fair to everyone. Before the tickets go on sale, they randomly select by computer from those of us who have registered on their site, who gets to buy tickets. There's a bazillion people, including scalpers, who want to get at those tickets, and there's only a few thousand of the coveted LTT tickets available. Also, These LTTs usually sell out in 5 minutes after they go on sale on the Kennedy Space Center site. Prior to 2010, we used to have the Kennedy Space Center web site shopping cart web page loaded right before they go on sale, and hit reload every second until the option to buy them shows up, then we were in. Those days are long gone now. Five minutes later, all sold out! For security reasons, if you have a LTT Causeway ticket they wait until the astronauts have left their dorm and headed to the launch pad before they let the busses head down the causeway, usually 3 hours before launch. You should line up 3 1/2 to4 hours before launch to be in the first group of people boarding the causeway bus, so you can be in the first group of busses arriving at the causeway, closest to speakers, the bleachers, and the best view. Busses that arrive there first also leave first after the launch! They usually have portable toilets, and tents with hamburgers and hot dogs, sodas, water and candy during day time launches. But at night time launches, no real food, only chips and candy, so eat at the visitor's complex first! When you order your tickets from Kennedy, they mail you a placard that you must put on your car dash board or you can't get into the visitors complex, and you also get your entry and LTT tickets. Park your car, enjoy the visitors complex, and 4 hours before launch time, get in line to board the Kennedy busses for the causeway viewing with your LTT. This is the best viewing spot for us rank and file humans who have no NASA connections for a VIP viewing spot. Anyone in the press core or NASA employees out there reading this? Someone friend me! Escort me to the Press Site!
Your ticket into KSC visitor complex is good for every attempt of your shuttle mission, usually a 9 day launch window. Each successive attempt one day later causes the launch time to move up about 20 minutes earlier. However, your special causeway viewing LTT is good only once, because KSC did perform the service of bussing you out to the causeway even if the launch is "No Go". For every scrubbed launch that you used the LTT ticket, it is now considered exhausted and worthless, and you have to repurchase a new LTT causeway ticket for about $25 when Kennedy returns you to the visitor complex on their busses, otherwise you are stuck viewing it tomorrow at the visitors complex (see my analogy to steerage class from Titanic below). I repeat: Only the visitor complex ticket is good for successive launch attempts, as is your vehicle placard. LTT is only used once.
I also recommend that when you order your tickets, try to get the Lunch With An Astronaut ticket. These also sell out rapidly when the tickets to the Shuttle launch go on sale. You can buy it as a single premium package complete with the LTT and your visitor complex ticket. This is another great way to kill an hour and a half while waiting for the launch. But make sure Lunch With An Astronaut does not conflict with boarding the busses to the causeway 3 1/2 hours before launch. This meal has a limited seating of only a few hundred, and they seat you in a large event room in the Debus Conference Facility on the south side of the Rocket Garden at the Visitor Complex. It's a nicely catered event, comfortable chairs and round tables, with a buffet style luncheon, much better food than the food courts around KSC. The guest astronaut that day gives you a presentation, then takes questions from the crowd. They usually give you a free photograph of the astronaut, and sometimes you'll find them signing books over at Space Shop if they authored a book. We loved it. It's general seating, line forms about 1/2 hour before the designated lunch time on your ticket, so don't be late.
4) Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex General Viewing from Rocket Garden
This is the no frills spot inside Kennedy Space Center theme park for viewing a shuttle launch, the cheapest NASA property viewing spot. It's 9 miles away from the launch pad, but you cannot see the space shuttle on the launch pad, or even until it clears the tree line seconds after takeoff. This makes it almost worthless to me. If you're going to travel that far and pay to get onto Merritt Island, pay the extra $20 for the LTT and see the launch via the upgraded NASA causeway viewing spot. The visitor complex viewing spot is the equivalent of steerage on the Titanic, where the VIP site would be first class, and my Causeway viewing site reviewed above is the 2nd class cabins. The Visitor Complex has a large lawn area in the Rocket Garden on the west side, where you can setup your collapsible chairs to watch the launch but folding chairs are not allowed. One saving grace for you is they do show the launch on a jumbo screen, and you also have all the NASA audio piped in over loudspeakers all over the theme park and creature comforts. If you have little kids, they can play in the awesome Children's Playdome. You also don't have the hassle of waiting in long Causeway bus lines for boarding, you just hang out, catch an IMAX movie, ride Shuttle Launch Experience, have a meal, or visit the gift shops until the launch. If you only have the standard visitor complex ticket, but you want to try for the causeway viewing LTT, check the ticket booths outside the gate before you enter from the parking lot to the visitor complex, sometimes you catch a break if they called in extra busses. Also, each successive launch attempt after a scrubbed mission gets easier for you to score an LTT ticket as people who missed out had to fly back home, and did not order a new LTT. Remember that security is very tight at KSC, just like the airports. They search everything thoroughly. There is no storage for you anywhere, so don't bring in more than what you can carry around with you wherever you go. Bring collapsible chairs, light weight collapsible tripods, etc. They sell collapsible chairs in a cloth zippered pouch for $20 in a tent next to the rocket garden along with towels, sun block and other useful items, so you can show up with nothing to carry around all day and just buy a chair right there.
Some photos of what it looks like at Kennedy Space Center Visitors Complex Rocket Garden viewing area 6 hours before a launch:You can see below hundreds are already gathered with 6 hours to go. They pipe in audio and video from NASA for you all day. Middle picture below shows a Q&A session with a former Shuttle astronaut, where they pass you the microphone and you ask them questions.
WARNING: For day launches, make sure you wear sun block, or you will burn in 30 minutes. Apply it to all areas of skin: face, ears, back of neck, arms, legs. Drink plenty of water, Florida heat will dehydrate you quickly. If you are thirsty, it's already too late, you should get water immediately. You don't want to be getting medical treatment when you should be taking pictures of a shuttle launch. I saw a lady miss her "Lunch With an Astronaut", and probably the launch too, after being taken away by ambulance.
Alternate Method of getting into Kennedy Space Center: Tour Busses!
If you find that the Kennedy Space Center web site is sold out of tickets to the launch, you can try another excellent option of using tour busses. Kennedy Space Center has sanctioned 2 tour bus companies to ferry people in and out of Kennedy Space Center from Orlando, FL. They are Florida Dolphin Tours and Grayline/Gator Tours. I have used Flood Dolphin Tours 4 times. They have it down to a science. The tour companies use comfy air conditioned coach busses and they only bring you into KSC exclusively from Orlando on a 45 minute drive. So when I take my daughters with me to a launch, we stay at Disney's All-Star Music resort in Orlando, as it's one of Disney's cheapest resorts, around $99 per night, and it's one of the Orlando pickup locations for the tour bus. Downtown Disney is another rally point if you don't have a hotel. We usually hit Disney's Blizzard Beach one day to relax, then the next day on launch day, the tour bus picks us up at the lobby of All Star Music and heads out for the 45 minute drive into Kennedy Space Center. The pickup time depends on the launch time. I've been picked up at 6:30 AM, 7 AM, and 9:30 AM. I like the 9:30 AM pickup the best! Your tour guide gives you all the info you need to know over the intercom, and they have your tickets to get into KSC and the LTT if you ordered that option. I suggest you purchase the LTT option when you book your bus ride, because this is the only way to get this option if KSC is sold out of LTT tix. The bus companies seem to have launch tickets available for weeks after KSC sells out. The price for adults is about $120 if you buy the Launch Transportation Ticket upgrade. This is about $70 more than KSC tickets, but KSC doesn't drive you there from Orlando! The bus companies have about 6 or more busses each. When you choose the LTT option, and when it's time for you to head to the causeway, you board the busses slightly differently than the other people at the visitor complex. You will actually board your same bus company's bus, in a secured fenced in area, using a different colored LTT ticket than the other Kennedy Space Center visitors. You don't use Kennedy's busses to head out to the causeway, NASA lets your tour bus driver take you out to the causeway in the tour company's private coach bus. You still use the same "Space Center Tours" bus terminal line entrance as the Kennedy Busses, but you don't have the long wait in line queuing up for the next available Kennedy bus, because your assigned tour company bus is already waiting for you! They usher you through a fast pass type of line straight to your nice cool air conditioned bus that you arrived at KSC in. What a blessing this is on hot summer days, everyone else is sweating it out in an hour long bus line, and you just head over to your bus in the secure lot. Listen to your tour guide and meet back at your tour bus when they tell you to be there, otherwise you are left behind with no legal recourse.
One disadvantage of tour busses: If the launch is scrubbed, tour bus people cannot get you another LTT ticket, but your your Kennedy Space Center Visitors Complex ticket is good until the rocket launches. Your LTT ticket is still valid if you did not use it. For example if they scrub the mission before you board the busses again with your LTT Causeway ticket, then don't board the bus! Your LTT ticket is still valid for the next try. But you already paid the bus company to do their job. So they usually tell you they will come back the next day for a smaller fee, and you would have to try your luck the next day at the ticket booth to score another causeway ticket. Don't expect to get one. This is the risk we take with tour busses, but it's often your only choice for sold out launches.
THE TOUR COMPANY BUSSES DO NOT RETURN TO THE VISITOR COMPLEX AFTER THE LAUNCH!
5) Alternate Method of getting onto NASA Causeway: As a guest of an Air Force Base person!
This method means you won't get to go to the Kennedy Space Center visitors complex. If you know someone who has access to
the eastern "Air Force base side" of Cape Canaveral, they may be able to get you
in on launch day as a visitor in their vehicle with Air Force placard, but they can't get you into the KSC Visitors Complex. They don't have
a ticker or a placard for KSC. You are trading one for the other. They typically meet you somewhere near Port Canaveral, and drive you in
through the southern entrance of the Air Force Base, bypassing all the traffic jams of the general public, miles to your northwest. Because
they only have credentials for the air force base, you don't get to spend your day at Kennedy Space Center first. The Air Force base side
has a small private viewing site on the East NASA Causeway, right where that road intersects the Air Force base side of the Banana River looking
north toward the launch pad. It's essentially the same view as the Kennedy Space Center busses 1/2 mile to the west of you, but it's a
lot smaller, quitter, less crowded private viewing spot. See this spot on my KSC Center map back up this page a bit. This small site only
holds about a couple of thousand humans to view a launch. But, the erson escorting you in MUST have a vehicle placard printed for that
date to be able to park at this private viewing site. This site has no food, but it does have a small set of metal bleachers and a couple
of Port-O-Lets. You can see the rocket on the launch pad 7 miles north up the Banana River, but the tree lines do block the bottom of the
platform a bit. You can barely see the bottom of the rocket above the tree line. The cool thing about this site is that you don't have the
strict requirement to be in position there 3 hours ahead like you do at the official Kennedy Space Center LTT (Launch Transportation Ticket)
site, located on this same road, about a 1/2 mile west of this spot, in the middle of the NASA Causeway. So we met our escorts at the rally
point at Port Everglades and entered the property from the southern end and showed up at the Air Force side of the NASA Causeway viewing
spot just about an hour or so before the launch, without having to wait around long at all. Traffic getting out of the Air Force
side is a breeze, with fewer cars there, and because you exit south along the air base, down the Samuel C. Phillips
Parkway, and pop out on the south end at Port Canaveral, and onto Route 528, avoiding all traffic exiting to the west from the Kennedy Visitors
Center miles northwest of you up Route 3. You also bypass all the US1 traffic in Titusville, because you are 14 miles south of Titusville
at this point. But you could still see traffic on 528 heading west as it backs up big time heading toward I-95, and especially as it continues
on westward to Orlando.
Viewing Locations Outside the Kennedy Space Center Property:
6) Spaceview Park, on U.S. 1 in Titusville:
If you have to view a space shuttle launch from outside Kennedy Space Center with everyone else, then I recommend you try Space View Park, one of the best viewing spots in Titusville. Three features make this park awesome. It's free admission, it's right on the Indian River, 12 miles directly due west from the Kennedy Space Center launch pads, and they pipe in the audio from NASA over loudspeakers. They also have picnic areas and restrooms, an Astronaut Walk of Fame and it's just a couple of blocks from restaurants. As with most viewing spots, you don't want to arrive any later than 3 hours before the launch. Otherwise don't bother coming there won't be a parking spot for you. Show up early and make a day of it with your family, bring some good food. It is probably the best viewing spot in Titusville. Many people will argue they know a better spot. You could try to fight for a spot on some of the other causeways like 406 or 528, but you don't have the luxuries of a park. The park is located at 8 Broad Street, Titusville, FL 32780. It's just south of Garden St (SR 406), at the intersection of U.S. 1 and Broad St., to the east end of Broad St, next to the Wachovia bank.
7) Jetty Park at Port Canaveral south of the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station
I've seen a few web sites recommend viewing the shuttle launch from Jetty Park, which is on the south side of the Cape Canaveral Barge
Canal which forms Port Canaveral, where the cruise ships dock. Even NASA recommends it on their web site. The problem with this spot is that it's
located 14 miles south of the launch pad, and you can't see the shuttle until a few seconds after liftoff once it clears the tree line of the
land on the north side of the Canaveral Barge Canal. At this distance, you can forget about seeing anything other than a contrail with a small
dot of fire. Just search Youtube for videos of shuttle launches from Jetty Park and you'll see they are mostly useless, and void of any great
detail. All you'll get is a decent wide angle shot of the exhaust trail from the ground up to the sky. A whole lot of ho hum for the effort you
put into getting to see a shuttle launch. If you go to view a shuttle launch from this park, bring good binoculars, and no less than an 800
mm lens to compensate for the 14 mile distance. I would even try a 1000 mm lens. Keep in mind you are shooting through 8 additional miles of
hazy humidity over and above what we see on the NASA Causeway 6 miles from the launch pad. This would be your last resort in viewing a shuttle
launch. I recommend you spend your effort into getting into the Kennedy Space Center for a once in a lifetime front row view, especially with
the Shuttle Program drawing to an end in 2010. I'm not here to trash Jetty Park, it's a very nice and popular park with camping, beaches,
picnic areas, and a 1200 foot fishing pier. It's a great place to hang out, and has provided many families with fond memories. But it's not
the best spot for a space shuttle launch.
Bonus viewing spot: On a Boat
They don't let you get close with your boat! Lots of people like to view a shuttle launch from their boat which is pretty cool too. NASA has a keep out zone of 9 miles north and south of the launch pad, forming an 18 mile wide swath extending out 63 miles into the Atlantic ocean. You don't have to tell me twice to keep out of that area, I don't want to be in the potential splash down zone of errant 2 SRBS hurtling toward Earth, brought down by NASA's range safety officer. I'll stay clear of that area, if for no other reason, to give NASA additional margin, just in case the engineer who came up with the splashdown calculation was drunk when he formulated the splashdown zone.
Thanks for stopping by, I hope you learned enough to make your trip to view the rocket launch a memorable one!
One last thing, if you like my article, please "Recommend" it below, and also share it on Facebook.