AT 2:56am UK time on July 21, 1969 the world held its breath in front of grainy pictures on black-and-white TVs. Then Neil Armstrong descended from the Eagle spacecraft and made “one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind” when he became the first person to stand on the Moon.
Since that historic Apollo 11 moment 50 years ago at the Sea of Tranquillity, 11 more humans – including one who provided the inspiration for the name of a Toy Story Space Ranger – have stepped on to the lunar surface. However, despite the invention of technology that could barely have even been considered on Earth at the time, putting a human on the planet Mars has remained impossible – until now. My girlfriend and I “travelled” to the Red Planet – via a nine-hour flight from Gatwick Airport to Orlando, followed by a one-hour drive to NASA’s world famous John F Kennedy Space Center on the Sunshine State’s Atlantic coast – to take part in their all-new Astronaut Training Experience.
Using simulators and interactive games, the unique full-day attraction gives wannabe spacemen and women, aged 10 and up, the chance to travel through the Mars Transporter Vehicle, walk on the planet using virtual reality technology and even feel what it would be like to experience zero gravity.
Space cadets also get to carry out authentic NASA science and engineering jobs, manage the Base Operations Center, grow and harvest plants in the botany lab, and collect and analyse data to be sent back to earth.
Thankfully, you don’t get to experience the savagery of the Red Planet as shown in the 2015 Matt Damon hit movie The Martian.
The vast Kennedy Space Center – named in honour of the slain president who first vowed to put man on the moon – has served as the departure site for every American human space mission, as well as hundreds of rocket launches, since it opened in 1962.
And despite NASA’s government funding being cut during Barack Obama’s presidency, it is still the United States’ international spaceport, as well as the cultural home of Western space exploration.
While visiting the area, we initially stayed at the nearby Westgate Cocoa Beach Resort, which has its own private beach from where we enjoyed picture perfect views of the Atlantic from our own private cabana, complete with a personal sound speaker and ice chest.
We also relaxed in the pool and lazy river inside the complex, which has recently undergone a £12million renovation, and enjoyed dinner and drinks at Cocoa Beach Pier’s charming Rikki Tiki Tavern.
Later in the trip we also stayed in surfer’s paradise New Smyrna Beach – 51 miles north of Kennedy Space Center.
The city – Florida’s second oldest at 251 years – is the site of an ambitous attempt at British colonisation in the New World. It was in 1768 that Scottish physician Dr Andrew Turnbull recruited about 1,300 settlers to produce rum, hemp, sugar cane, and indigo.
The colony was a failure, mainly due to diesase, but today the city is a pleasing, eclectic mix of old and new, as well as subtle sophistication and bohemian soul – and plenty of exellent food.
We stayed at the beach-fronted Springhill Suites by Marriott, also overlooking Flagler Avenue, where we hired beach bikes – with wide rimmed tyres – from Beachside Candy Co at the heart of the lively district.
We also enjoyed a delicious lunch at JB’s Fish Camp before taking to the Indian River Lagoon on a two-seater kayak, where we spotted dolphins, manatees and a range of exotic shore birds.
And we discovered that restaurant and drinking options in the area are superb, as well as full of friendly regulars.
We dined on Italian fare in a unique Tuscan setting at The Garlic, as well as seafood at Norwood’s Eatery and Treehouse Bar.
And we also visited the Canal Street area, where we toured arts centre The Hub on Canal, The New Smyrna Museum of History, and Old Fort Park, before enjoying beers at the New Smyrna Beach Brewing Company.
Back at Kennedy Space Center, we joined the complex’s Dine With An Astronaut experience, which gives visitors the opportunity to sit down for a three-course lunch while being entertained by a real-life spaceman or woman before getting a photograph with them.
Over chicken and veg, 71-year-old Jerry L Ross, who has been to space a record eight times, regaled us with stories of his travels, before showing us hilarious old videos of himself and his colleagues performing what he described as “stupid astronaut tricks” on the International Space Station ($52 per person).
Elsewhere on site, I got the chance to look inside the Space Shuttle Atlantis, which orbited the Earth a total of 4,848 times and travelled nearly 126 million miles before being retired in 2011.
I visited America’s Astronaut Hall of Fame, which celebrates its greatest heroes and legends and also includes actual artifacts, including a 1961 Redstone rocket suspended overhead, along with the following year’s Sigma 7 capsule, the giant 1968, the Saturn 1B Apollo and a unique close-up look at the Gemini 9 capsule, from two years earlier.
And we also got a bus – which gave us the chance for some alligator-spotting – from the main site to Kennedy’s Apollo/Saturn V Center, which charts the space race between the US and the Soviet Union, from Yuri Gagarin’s first spaceflight in 1961 to that iconic Moon landing eight years later.
The whole trip was a real buzz (Aldrin!) and out of this world from start to finish.