The ever-popular Rocket Garden is a Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex hallmark.

By Eileen Ogintz

Tribune Media Services

Are your kids ready to go to Mars?

“The first person who will walk on Mars hasn’t even started high school yet,” says retired Astronaut Jon McBride, who now speaks to kids and parents as part of the popular Astronaut Encounter programs at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex in Florida (

That’s a sobering thought as Discovery’s seven astronauts prepare to make their way to the International Space Station to deliver the final installment of equipment needed to complete the station’s electricity-generating solar panels, giving it the capacity to support a larger crew of six and doubling its power for scientific research. “Kids don’t realize how much fun science and math can be,” adds McBride, the father of four and grandfather of 11. When they balk at their homework, point to those astronauts doing spacewalks and science experiments in zero gravity. Tell them that the astronauts carried a stuffed purple duck, NASCAR and school flags and a kid-size space suit (check it out later at the Maryland Science Center in Baltimore) into space — all in hopes of inspiring and encouraging youngsters toward a scientific career. “We want kids to know if they want to do it, they can do it,” says McBride. (Follow Discovery’s 28th mission on

McBride doesn’t give any naysayers who attend his sessions — and these sessions can include lunch with an astronaut — the chance to question whether we should be spending money in space when we have such dire concerns right her on Earth. He points out the amount of money generated by spinoff technologies, the research done that leads to treatment for disease and conservation and energy. The 2030 MARS mission, he notes, will require technologies in which absolutely everything is recycled and there is zero waste.

The Kennedy Space Center is just 45 minutes east of Orlando and well worth tearing the kids — especially older ones — away from Mouseville, Shamu, Universal’s roller coasters and the hotel pools. (Get discount tickets at AAA members can also purchase tickets at a discounted rate.) The last time I was here, in fact, we did just that; we brought the kids over to watch a Shuttle launch (from several miles away, of course.) They still talk about it.

Launch or not, they won’t be bored — not when they can see IMAX movies, including one narrated by Tom Hanks, or “blast off” during the Shuttle Launch Experience to get a sense of what it feels like for shuttle astronauts, as they are blasted into space at 17,500 mph or get an amazing “view” of Earth as the payload doors open.

That view, in fact, is what Jon McBride remembers most about his 1984 shuttle flight. “Three hundred miles over Australia,” he said. “I really didn’t expect to see Earth that way.” (You can sign on for a NASA Up-Close Tour led by a trained space expert or, if you have any budding astronauts in the crew, the Family Astronaut Training Experience, a two-day program for adults and kids, 8 to 14, where you’ll build your own rocket and perform a space shuttle mission in a full-scale orbiter mockup. The cost is $625 for one adult and one child.

But be prepared. The Kennedy Space Center is huge, encompassing some 43 miles, including a wildlife preserve home to more than 5,000 alligators and 16 bald eagle nests. One has been here so long it weighs 700 pounds!

But, of course, the eagle’s nests and gators are just a bonus to seeing giant rockets in the Rocket Garden, touching a real moon rock (it’s very smooth and approximately 3.7 billion years old) and walking through “Explorer” to see what it’s like to live and work in space. (The bathrooms especially intrigued the kids on my recent tour.) For younger kids, there is a new Children’s Play Dome where they can crawl through rocket tunnels, climb a “moon rock” wall and more.

More than 14,000 people work at Kennedy Space Center every day and it can get pretty crowded. (Kennedy Space Center welcomes 1.5 million visitors a year.) Shuttle buses move visitors around and the lines are long. The best part is the Apollo/Saturn V Center, which highlights the fully restored, 363-foot-long Saturn V moon rocket, the most powerful rocket ever built.

Videos of astronauts, engineers, technicians and flight launch veterans recounting their experiences help make the missions come alive for everyone. In another building, another shuttle bus ride away, we got to peer down into the “clean room” where engineers and technicians ready items and experiments for the International Space Station. We also got to blast off into space, via a simulator, and ascend into orbit! The shaking, the G Forces pulling on my straps … Gulp!

“Really fun!” declared Kevin Theriault, 13, from Montreal.

A word of caution — this is not really for young kids, though they would enjoy racing around the Rocket Garden and the Children’s Dome. Even older ones can get frustrated.

“I was bored by all the bus rides,” said Eric Carrier, 13, visiting from Canada. But his older brother Jeremy, 15, pronounced it “a good learning experience.”

And sometimes that’s all you can hope for. Besides, who knows where those experiences can lead … Mars, perhaps?