Visiting space centers and watching rocket launches around the world

Posted by on Nov 30, 2018 in Stuff

If you’re interested in space exploration then you can take your passion one step further and visit a number of cool space facilities around the world. I’ve listed below the sites I visited, together with some links and practical info for each one.

Baikonur Cosmodrome

  • Operated by: Roscosmos/Russian aerospace forces
  • Location: Baikonur, Kazakhstan
  • Description: one of the world’s most important space centers, and the only one sending people into space as of the writing of this article (with the exception of China’s manned launches). Used by Roscosmos for manned and unammed missions, including currently all launches to the ISS. Lots of historical missions were launched from here, including the launch of Sputnik and Gagarin’s first trip to space. There’s lots of cool infrastructure, space history and museums to be seen; the cosmodrome isn’t swarming with visitors and you can get pretty close to most of the cool stuff.
  • How to visit: The cosmodrome is a restricted area, so I booked a 6-day tour with a Russian company called Country of Tourism which did a fantastic job. They took care of all the permits and arrangements for the cosmodrome. You will need a visa for Russia, but not one for Kazakhstan if you fly directly from Moscow.
  • Can you see a rocket launch? Yes, Proton and Soyuz rockets are launched from here and you can see a live launch from significantly closer than at other space centers. Contact the company above and arrange your visit during a launch, they will know the details. Of course, launches can be delayed so keep your expectations in check
  • What will you see? This was definitely my coolest space center visit. The highlight was watching a live rocket launch of a manned Soyuz rocket to the ISS from less than a kilometer away (Soyuz TMA-09M). It was an amazing experience. I also  got to see the rocket rollout to the launch pad from a few short metres away; view the rocket on the launch pad before launch; and attended the crew press conference and pre-flight report. There’s lots of history and space infrastructure at the cosmodrome. I visited the Energia-Buran launch pad, N1 transport vehicles, the History of Baikonur and the Baikonur Cosmodrome museums, Yuri Gagarin’s house, the International Space School and a Buran vehicle, among others.
  • What else to do/see while in the area? Baikonur is a small town and there’s not much to do, but the tour schedule will keep you busy every day. You can find all sorts of cool space monuments, statues and posters scattered around town, including a Soyuz rocket and an ICBM, so that’s pretty cool. Obviously, there’s lots to see and do in Moscow, where you will be flying from, including the very good Memorial Museum of Cosmonautics.
  • Length of trip: my tour with Country of Tourism was 6 days long; add to that a few days for Moscow
  • How expensive is it? The trip was very expensive but so worth it. Keep in mind that other cheaper companies (such as those located in Kazakhstan) won’t be able to get you access to the launch and to visit most places inside the cosmodrome. And obviously you won’t be able to visit any of these on your own.
  • More info and pictures: I did a write-up on my trip available here. My pictures from the trip are available here.

Guiana Space Center

  • Operated by: ESA/CNES
  • Location: Kourou, French Guiana
  • Description: space center used for launches by the European Space Agency; launches unmanned missions on Vega, Ariane and Soyuz rockets (the latter bought from Russia). Very cool setting in the middle of the rainforest.
  • How to visit: The space center is a restricted area, so a tour needs to be booked in advance (you might be able to book on site, but I wouldn’t risk it). Tours are free and contact info for booking is available here. They might be slow to answer, so don’t give up and do call if you don’t get a reply by email. French Guiana is pretty remote, so it will be slightly more complicated to make travel arrangements (these will include a mandatory yellor fever vaccine before travel – do your research).
  • Can you see a rocket launch? Yes, if you time your visit right. Check out launch schedules on one of the many resources available online (i.e. Spaceflight Now). Of course launches may be delayed, so manage your expectations accordingly. Watching the rocket launch requires a separate bookings which must be made in advance (no exceptions). Booking contacts are available here. Once again, they might be slow to answer so don’t give up and do call if you don’t get a reply by email; use any of the phone numbers listed on the page if necessary until you reach the right person. You will need to fill out a form and provide a number of details for the booking.
  • What will you see? This was my second best experience visiting a space center. I watched the live launch of Ariane mission VA240 delivering four Galileo positioning satellites to orbit; very cool experience watching the launch from an observation point in the middle of the rainforest (the launch pad was a few kilometres away from the observation point). The space center tour was also very interesting, and included launch pads for Vega, Soyuz and Ariane 5, the control center for Ariane and Vega, and the main Jupiter control center. The mix of hi-tech space infrastructure with rainforest flora and fauna was very cool and gave the place an edge-of-the-world scifi feel. There’s also the Musee de l’Espace which features a full-scale Ariane 5 model, but the exhibits and information are unfortunately dated and don’t include ESA’s more recent accomplishments.
  • What else to do/see while in the area? French Guiana is not necessarily a top tourist destination, but there’s some cool stuff in the area to keep you occupied for a few days: the Zoo de Guyane and the Jardine Botanique de Guyane for the region’s rich fauna and flora; plage de Montjoly; and exploring the towns of Cayenne and Kourou.
  • Length of trip: 3-5 days
  • How expensive is it? The trip was expensive, as getting to French Guiana isn’t cheap.
  • More info and pictures: My pictures from the trip are available here, in my French Guiana trip album.

Kennedy Space Center

  • Operated by: NASA
  • Location: Florida, United States of America
  • Description: primary launch center for NASA. Major historical missions were launched from here, including the Apollo and Space Shuttle missions. KSC is one of the most well known space centers in the world and includes an extensive visitor center.
  • How to visit: Very easy to visit as the visitor center is open to the public. Tours of the actual space center require booking, details here.
  • Can you see a rocket launch? Yes, if you time your visit right. Check out launch schedules on one of the many resources available online (i.e. Spaceflight Now). Of course launches may be delayed, so manage your expectations accordingly. Details for viewing the launch available here. Viewing spots are limited and KSC gets very crowded during launches.
  • What will you see? There’s lots of cool history at KSC. You can see launch pads 39A and 39B used for the Apollo missions and the Space Shuttle, the famous Vehicle Assembly Building, the Space Shuttle landing strip and a rocket on the pad (if a launch is happening soon); you won’t get very close to any of those, though, and the bus tour is a bit rushed. But there’s more cool stuff – you can also see a full-size almost-flown real Saturn V Rocket, the actual Atlantis Space Shuttle, an Apollo command center and lots of space exhibits. The visitor center is very well organized, but very crowded compared to my other space center visits. I also watched a live rocket launch at KSC – the Orion EFT-1 mission, a test of the Orion Multi-purpose Crew Vehicle; the rocket used was the awesome Delta IV Heavy – the most powerful rocket in operation as of the writing of this article.
  • What else to do/see while in the area? Florida is full of interesting sites and things to do, so you’ll have plenty of opportunities to have an interesting trip.
  • Length of trip: 1-2 days for the space center. EFT-1 launch was delayed for the following day after the initial launch date, so it helped that my trip could accommodate this
  • How expensive is it? Visiting the KSC is not particularly expensive. Getting to Florida is pretty straightforward if you’re living or visiting the US.
  • More info and pictures: My pictures from KSC are available here, in my USA pictures album.

Tsukuba Space Center

  • Operated by: JAXA (Japanese Space Agency)
  • Location: Tsukuba, 70km away from Tokyo
  • Description: Headquarters of the Japanese Space Agency, JAXA, and primary location for Japan’s space operations.
  • How to visit: Easy to visit via a short 70km train ride from Tokyo (and bus or taxi ride from Tsukuba train station). There’s an exhibition hall (no reservations required, public access available); guided tours are also available, but reservations are required. Details here.
  • Can you see a rocket launch? No. Japan’s rocket launches take place from other sites.
  • What will you see? The exhibit hall has lots of cool tech related to Japan’s space program, including a full-size replica of Japan’s Kibo module on the ISS and models of rockets and space missions. There’s also a 50-metre rocket on display outside the exhibit halls. Guided tours were not offered when I visited, but currently it seems you can visit the Kibo control center and an astronaut training facility.
  • What else to do/see while in the area? Tokyo, one of the coolest cities in the world, is pretty close.
  • Length of trip: half a day
  • How expensive is it? Visiting the space center is free
  • More info and pictures: My pictures from TSC are available here, in my Japan pictures album.

European Space Research and Technology Center

  • Operated by: ESA
  • Location: Noordwijk, 50km away from Amsterdam in the Netherlands
  • Description: main technology development and test center for spacecraft and space technology of the European Space Agency
  • How to visit: Easy to visit via a short 50km train ride from Amsterdam; space exhibition is open to the public, but visiting the actual space center is only possible during “open days” events. Details on the space expo here; for info on open days events check here.
  • Can you see a rocket launch? No. No rocket launches happen from ESTEC.
  • What will you see? The open day event was cool (but crowded). When I went in 2017 there were presentations and models of ESA’s most important missions (including the world famous Rosetta mission with its Philae lander that landed on a comet); a view of ESTEC operations including a centrifuge experiment and the assembly of the actual BepiColombo mission currently on route to Mercury, a model of the IXV space plane and a cool experiment that showed cosmic rays in action. If you can’t make it to ESTEC’s open day, you’ll find the Space Expo nearby which is open year round and hosts more cool stuff, including a mockup of ESA’s Columbus module on the ISS, models of missions and other assorted space gear.
  • What else to do/see while in the area? Amsterdam, another one of the coolest cities in the world, is pretty close.
  • Length of trip: half a day
  • How expensive is it? Visiting is free
  • More info and pictures: My pictures from ESTEC are available here, in my Netherlands pictures album.

Jet Propulsion Laboratory

  • Operated by: NASA/Caltech
  • Location: near Pasadena, California
  • Description: NASA center for development and operation of planetary space missions; also conducts Earth-orbit and astronomy missions, and operates NASA’s Deep Space Network.
  • How to visit: Easy to visit, via a short 25km drive from Los Angeles. I visited a longer time ago when public tours were possible with advance booking. Visiting JPL nowdays is almost impossible, unfortunately. Details here.
  • Can you see a rocket launch? No. No rocket launches happen from JPL.
  • What will you see? My tour included visiting a command center for planetary missions, a clean room for development of space probes and an exhibition with models of famous space missions.
  • What else to do/see while in the area? California offers lots of interesting sites and activities.
  • Length of trip: a few hours
  • How expensive is it? Visiting was free
  • More info and pictures: My pictures from JPL are available here, in my California pictures album.

Space museums and other sites of interest for space exploration enthusiasts

  • The National Air & Space Museum in Washington is one of the most interesting space museums I’ve visited; included real exhibits and models of space capsules, space gear and launch vehicles, and a lot of very interesting space exhibits (such as the ALH84001 meteorite).
  • The Museum of Cosmonautics in Moscow is another great space museum focusing on missions and accomplishments of the Russian space program, with many detailed models of important historical missions, a model of a Mir space station and more.
  • The Peenemunde Historical Technical Museum located in the North-Eastern part of Germany is another fascinating point of interest. One of Hitler’s most terrifying weapons was developed and produced here: the V-2 rocket.The V-2 was the world’s first guided ballistic missile and was used by the nazis against London and other European cities; it was also the first man made object to cross the conventional 100km barrier of space. The Peenemunde museum includes the base’s beautifully-preserved power station, a V-2 rocket replica, a V-1 flying bomb replica, as well as an exhibition with lots of cool tech and WW2 rockets gear; the exhibition also includes some more recent space-related stuff.
  • Shanghai Science and Technology Museum in Shanghai. Displays a few exhibits and models related to China’s space program, which are pretty interesting considering the country’s space centers aren’t open to the public (some limited access to China’s main space center is currently only available to Chinese nationals). The Shanghai Aerospace Enthusiasts Center includes some models of Chinese rockets.
  • Hong Kong Space Museum in Hong Kong displays some more exhibits on China’s space program. The Hong Kong Science Museum also had a temporary exhibit on China’s Lunar program when I visited, but this is no longer available.
  • California Science Center, Los Angeles. Includes the real Space Shuttle Endeavour and the shuttle’s tank, the capsule used in the Apollo-Soyuz mission and a small number of other space exhibits.
  • SpaceX office in Hawthorne, California. Displays the first-ever recovered rocket stage outside the office building. The SpaceX office cannot be visited.
  • If you’re in Arizona for the Grand Canyon, you can make an interesting stop at the Arizona Meteor Crater, which can be visited.
  • If you happen to be in Bucharest, Romania, you can see a Soyuz space capsule at the National Military Museum. The capsule carried Romania’s only cosmonaut to space as part of a Russian space mission. Also in Bucharest, at the Romanian National Aviation Museum, you can see an exhibit with space gear of Romanian private space company ArcaSpace.