Watching a Rocket Launch

Atlas V launch viewed from the Apollo Saturn V Center viewing area
Atlas V launch viewed from the Apollo Saturn V Center viewing area

Watching a rocket launch is a truly memorable occasion especially if you are close enough to hear the engines. You can generally watch a launch from inside the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex (if it is during normal operating hours) or from nearby publicly accessible land.

To watch from inside the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex you need a normal admission ticket and sometimes you have to pay for a special launch viewing ticket as well.

A nighttime launch is more atmospheric though it is possible the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex will be closed.

With the routine “return to earth” landings of the Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy first stage boosters, double sonic booms are once again being heard at the Cape.

Watching a launch from inside the Kennedy Space Center

NASA used to offer free passes to watch the space shuttle launches in Florida from the NASA causeway but now the space shuttle is no more, the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex now charges for some rocket launch viewing tickets.

Today you can generally watch for free from the Space Shuttle Plaza by the Atlantis building at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex though the initial launch is obscured by trees.

You can often watch from the Apollo Saturn V Center which is closer. Sometimes launch viewing is complimentary but other times you have to buy a normal Launch Viewing ticket to view the launch from the Apollo Saturn V Center. Prices are generally around $20 plus tax.

For some launches you can purchase a Premium Launch Viewing and Admission Package which lets you watch a launch from either the LC–39 Observation Gantry area or very occasionally from the NASA Causeway. LC–39 Observation Gantry tickets generally cost around $49 plus tax and the NASA Causeway, $39 plus tax.

The more popular (and closer) LC–39 Observation Gantry area and NASA Causeway tickets often sell out very quickly.

Launch Viewing Distances by Launchpad

The following table shows the approximate distance from the various viewing areas to the different launch pads.

Rocket Launchpad LC–39 Observation Gantry Apollo/Saturn V Center NASA Causeway Main Visitor Complex
Atlas V SLC–41 2.3 miles (3.7 km) 5.4 miles (8.7 km) 5.2 miles (8.3 km) 7.1 miles (11.4 km)
Delta IV SLC–37 5.5 miles (8.9 km) 8.0 miles (12.8 km) 3.0 miles (4.8 km) 7.0 miles (11.3 km)
Falcon 9 SLC–40 3.4 miles (5.5 km) 6.2 miles (10.0 km) 4.0 miles (6.4 km) 6.7 miles (10.8 km)
SpaceX LC–39A Not available 3.9 miles (6.3 km) 7.0 miles (11.0 km) 7.5 miles (12.0 km)

Note that SpaceX can use either LC–39A (the former shuttle launch pad) or SLC–40 to launch Falcon 9s and LC–39A for their Falcon Heavy.

You must allow sufficient time to reach the launch viewing areas as apart from the Space Shuttle Plaza, you need to drive or be taken by bus to the viewing areas.

All locations offer bleacher seating with launch commentary plus access to restrooms, food and souvenirs.

You need to be aware of the “Scrub Policy” if the launch does not go ahead as planned. Generally where you pay for a Launch Viewing Ticket and the launch is cancelled before you board the bus then your ticket is valid for the next attempted launch date or you can use the value of the ticket to buy merchandise in the Space Shop.

If the launch is cancelled after you have boarded the bus to the viewing area, then the ticket is assumed to have been used and you cannot use it for a subsequent launch. However you will receive a complimentary one day admission to the Kennedy Space Center plus a coupon to get 20% off merchandise.

The largest crowd seen in many years witnessed the first launch of the SpaceX Falcon Heavy with three first stage boosters in February 2018. On this day, admission to the Kennedy Space Center required a special launch viewing ticket package for everyone. Viewing from the closest area, the Apollo/Saturn V Center cost $195 but did include some exclusive offerings and souvenirs including food, drinks and two day admission ticket.

You also used to be able to watch the launch from the old Astronauts Hall of Fame site by buying an “Astronaut Hall of Fame Launch Viewing” ticket (though the view was not that good). For an extra fee you could watch from the roof but these options are no longer available as the Hall of Fame has now closed.

Watching a launch from outside the Kennedy Space Center

Even if you cannot obtain a pass or buy a ticket, you can still watch a rocket launch from a number of locations nearby, outside of the NASA complex, in particular along US Highway 1 between Route 406 and US 50 around Titusville or on the coast:

  • Space View Park on Broad Street and Indian River Avenue by the Indian River in Titusville offers an uninterrupted view of the shuttle launch pads and is about 11 miles away. You can also hear a live audio feed direct from the NASA control room and view the Astronaut Walk of Fame whilst you are waiting.
  • Sand Point Park on A Max Brewer Memorial Parkway is also on the Indian River in Titusville and offers similar views though not quite as good.
  • a number of home owners with river frontage will also open their gardens for a $10 to $30 camping/parking fee.
  • in Cocoa Beach along State Road A1A. You will not see the rocket at the point of lift off but it will be visible shortly afterwards and because of your location it will take on a more curved trajectory as it launches out of the Atlantic. You also have the benefit and amenities of the beach.
  • on the Beeline Expressway (State Road 528) where it crosses the Indian River and Banana River.
  • at the 1200 foot launch viewing pier at Jetty Park just south of the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. This location is the best location for watching a rocket launch (Atlas or Delta) from the more southerly launch pads
  • Port Canaveral on Route 401
  • Playalinda Beach which is part of the Canaveral National Seashore (not open 24 hours)
  • and at many of the other beaches both north and south of the launch complex

Be aware that you may not actually hear the rocket engines if you are watching from more than a few miles away. Of course the bigger the rocket, the more chance of hearing it.

On a clear day you can even see the launch from as far away as Orlando.

See also:- Kennedy Space Center main page | KSC tickets | Current Launch schedule

Space Shuttle Launches

Watching a space shuttle launch in Florida was an amazing experience. Words cannot describe the anticipation and then the sights and sounds of a space shuttle blasting off from the NASA Kennedy Space Center. At the point of engine ignition and lift off there is no sound (sound travels a lot slower than light) and then the ground literally shakes.

Whereas arrangements could made to watch a space shuttle launch in Florida, there were no equivalent arrangements to watch it land. Originally space shuttles used to land at Edwards Air Force Base but they then routinely landed back at the NASA Kennedy Space Center.

With the ending of the shuttle programme, the opportunity to see a shuttle launch has now gone but you can still watch the many NASA and commercial rocket launches from the Cape.

If you had happened to be around when a space shuttle was coming back to earth, then you may well have heard a double sonic boom as it returned earthwards.

Having watched the launch of the Columbia/STS–83 mission in 1997, it was then cut short because of fuel problems and we heard the double sonic boom whilst waiting to watch the afternoon parade in Magic Kingdom a few days later when it was forced to make an early return.

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