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NASA Centers to Visit for an Out of This World Vacation
Wondering what to do for summer vacation? Why not visit NASA?
NASA has multiple centers located across the United States, many of which provide tours or host visitor centers that are open to the public. Most of these visitor centers have space-injected science museums, and they can make fantastic vacation stops.
Click through this countdown to learn about opportunities to visit a NASA center or visitor center. Our list includes details about visiting Johnson Space Center, Kennedy Space Center, Marshall Space Flight Center, Langley Research Center, Stennis Space Center, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Goddard Space Flight Center, Wallops Flight Facility, Glenn Research Center (and Plum Brook Station), Ames Research Center and Armstrong Flight Research Center. We've also included three facilities that serve as NASA visitor centers but that are not close to NASA facilities.
We've included a brief description of each NASA center, and details about what visitors can expect, including what you can see at the visitor center, and whether or not tours of the facility are available.
We've included details about each center's operational hours and cost of admission, but please check the center's website before planning your trip. Most NASA centers are closed on major holidays.
For more summer vacation ideas, see our list of great summer vacation ideas for space lovers and great summer vacation ideas for science fiction fans. Or find out how to see a rocket launch this summer.
NEXT: Johnson Space Center and Space Center Houston
Johnson Space Center and Space Center HoustonSlide 2 of 23
Johnson Space Center and Space Center Houston
NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston is home to mission control, the contact point for astronauts in space. (Hence the phrase, "Houston, we have a problem.")
Space Center Houston is the visitor center associated with Johnson, and is located right next door to the NASA facility. It's a massive science museum with tons of artifacts, interactive exhibits and live events. In June 2018, the science and space exploration learning center also became the first of its kind to be designated as a Certified Autism Center by the International Board of Credentialing and Continuing Education Standards, according to their website. The museum recently opened a new exhibit about aerospace innovations, called "Above and Beyond," which runs this summer until Sept. 9.
Space Center Houston is a great day-trip location for space fans, but there's enough going on there to fill multiple trips. [Space Center Houston: A Tour in Photos]
In addition, there are tram tours from the center through Johnson. Visitors get to see the current mission-control room, which is responsible for operations on the International Space Station. They'll also see the historic mission-control room, where NASA monitored its Apollo missions, as well as nine Gemini missions. Also on the tour are the Saturn V Rocket Park, home to a real "mighty and massive" Saturn V rocket, as the tour web page notes. Finally, the tour stops at Building 9, which provides a glimpse into some of the science and tech being developed for human spaceflight.
Tram tours run year-round but can be canceled due to bad weather or other unforeseen circumstances. You can buy timed tickets ahead of time. The Space Center Houston is open seven days a week, from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. all summer long, and closes at 5 p.m. Monday through Friday after Sept. 4. Entry tickets are $29.95 for adults, and $24.95 for children ages 4-11. Children ages 3 and under are free.
NEXT: Kennedy Space CenterSlide 3 of 23
Kennedy Space Center and Visitor ComplexSlide 4 of 23
Kennedy Space Center and Visitor Complex
Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Titusville, Florida (just outside Orlando), is NASA's human spaceflight launch facility. From Gemini through the space shuttle, Kennedy was the place where all of NASA's astronauts would bid a (temporary) farewell to Earth.
To take a tour of KSC, head over to the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex, a massive, amusement-park-like area.
There are two types of tours. The KSC Bus Tour gives a "drive-by view of a launch pad" and other sites on the KSC campus, including the Apollo 8 launch site. The tours are 45 minutes long, but allow an additional 2 hours to view the Apollo/Saturn V Center and to allow for the return ride, which lasts about 20 minutes, according to their website. Tours leave from the visitor center every 15 minutes, from 10 a.m. to 3:45 p.m. The tour is included in the cost of admission to the center, which is $50 for adults, and $40 for children ages 3-11. [Photos: The Kennedy Space Center, NASA's Historic Spaceport]
But visitors who want a closer view of KSC should consider the "Explore Tour or the Cape Canaveral Early Space Tour. These tours go beyond the regular bus tour and allow guests to learn about specific aspects of KSC. Keep in mind that rocket launches are once again taking place from Launch Complex 39A, and therefore, "safety protocols require an alternate tour bus route during days leading up to a launch," according to the website. To learn more about each tour, go to the ticket section of the KSC website, and scroll down to see a description of each tour. The "Cape Canaveral Early Space Tour" is only available Thursday through Sunday. To find out if a tour is available on a particular day, select the number of tickets you'd like for the tour, and click "Next." You'll be taken to a page that will show you the dates and times that are available for the tour.
The KSC Bus Tour is the only one included in the admission ticket; the other tours cost an additional $25 for adults and $19 for children ages 3-11. KSC recommends buying tickets ahead of time.
In addition to the KSC tour, the visitor center has plenty to offer. The Rocket Garden is home to multiple NASA rockets, some of which tower more than 100 feet high. There are also replicas of the tiny capsules that flew the first humans to space during the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo eras. There's also the Saturn V rocket center, a tribute to the largest rocket ever made. Kennedy is also home to the space shuttle Atlantis, and we challenge space fans not to get a little teary-eyed during the video that plays at the entrance of the shuttle exhibit.
NEXT: Jet Propulsion Laboratory and CaltechSlide 5 of 23
Jet Propulsion Laboratory and CaltechSlide 6 of 23
Jet Propulsion Laboratory and Caltech
NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, is one of NASAs most active facilities when it comes to building and operating unmanned space probes. It's the home base of a swarm of NASA's scientific missions, including the completed Cassini mission to Saturn, the Dawn mission to Ceres, the Juno mission to Jupiter, the InSight mission to Mars and the OCO-2 mission studying Earth's climate change.
JPL offers free tours of its facilities to members of the public, which includes a stop by the visitor center, home to a beautiful display tracing the history of NASA's exploration of the various planets, moons and other major bodies in the solar system. Visitors may also see the Space Flight Operations Facility and the Spacecraft Assembly Facility.
Keep in mind that tours must be reserved at least three weeks in advance, and that tours fill up two to three months in advance. The JPL tour website advises guests to check back in early August for tour availability in January 2019. Tours can be booked for individuals and small groups, large groups over 20 people, and school groups. Tours are generally held at 1 p.m. and last between 2 and 2.5 hours. JPL also opens its doors to the public for special events.
You might also consider stopping in on one of JPL's free lecture series, which bring "the excitement of the space program's missions, instruments and other technologies" to JPL employees and the public. These free lectures are open to the public and no reservations are required, but seating is limited, so arrive early. Each talk is delivered twice — once on Thursday night and once on Friday night, typically at 7 p.m. The talks take place at different locations, so be sure to check the website.
Visitors can also stop by the California Institute of Technology (Caltech), which founded JPL. The two institutions work closely together on NASA missions, and Caltech is home to five NASA facilities, including those that manage the Spitzer Space Telescope and the Nuclear Spectroscopic Telescope Array (NuSTAR).
Check the Caltech tours page for information about self-guided campus tours, as well as architectural tours, and high school student and prospective student tours. The school also hosts public events. Check the public events calendar to find out about other events.
JPL is about an hour outside Los Angeles, which is home to the California Science Center, a massive science museum with lots of hands-on exhibits and space-related attractions, including the space shuttle Endeavour. To find out more about seeing a space shuttle this summer, check out our list of best summer vacation destinations for space fans.
JPL is also three hours away from Vandenberg Air Force Base, where you can see a rocket launch this summer.
NEXT: Langley Research Center and the Virginia Air and Space CenterSlide 7 of 23
Langley Research Center and the Virginia Air and Space CenterSlide 8 of 23