By Chris McBeath

It used to be that the countdown to a launch always brought frenzied excitement to Florida’s space coast, but this 72-mile stretch of shoreline (just 35 miles east of Orlando) also offers a very unexpected kind of space exploration.

Owned by NASA (and therefore acting as a perfect buffer security zone), the surrounding 180,000 is run as a vast, multi-eco system natural refuge. It comprises some of Florida’s finest beaches and, tucked in behind the protection of a low lying ribbon of land, a meandering network of inlets, brackish estuaries and lagoons. As fertile nurseries for clams, fish, oysters and shrimp, the waterways are abundant with 1,045 species of plants, 310 species of birds from white ibises to southern bald eagles, West Indian manatees, alligators, and the largest sea turtle nesting beach in America.

Many areas have specific highlights. Mosquito Lagoon is better known as the Redfish Capital of the World (mosquitoes have long since gone – something to do with salt marsh mosquitoes being unable to lay eggs in fresh water); Pelican Island, the nation’s first wildlife sanctuary, is (no surprise), rife with territorial brown and white pelicans, and Turkey Creek is a major stopover for spring and fall migratory birds, and a photographer’s Eden with its landscape of ancient sand dunes, saw palmetto and live oaks. Whether exploring Nasa’s terra firma space on horseback, by kayak and even air boat, you’ll find yourself about as far away from galactic technology as you can get.

That stated, rockets are still nearby, and the megaplex Kennedy Space Center Visitor Center puts cosmic adventure at your fingertips, albeit displayed Disney style. There are actual sky labs, displays of historic spacecraft (the humungous, fully restored Saturn V moon rocket is a highlight), and rides that include the G-Force Trainer (it simulates the pressure of four times the force of gravity), a gravity chair that creates a true-to-life feeling of walking on the moon, and Mission on Mars, an invigorating virtual ride across the Red Planet’s rocky terrain. Space buff or not, the collection of personal items from astronauts like Alan Shepard and Buzz Aldrin offer real insights as to the real space experience.

US SpaceWalk of Fame Museum is lesser known, and deserves attention despite its rather odd location in a Titusville shopping centre. Created and maintained by the volunteer efforts of many of NASA’s very first engineers, astronauts and program specialists, the museum is special for two reasons. It is the only tribute to the early days of space exploration, complete with a rather ingenious mobile pictogram that demonstrates how the space race evolved, and because it offers a rare opportunity to speak personally with some of original space pioneers themselves. The folks that took the first steps to the giant leap we will witness again soon.

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