MELBOURNE — Sold-out hotels. Excitement that seems to grow by the day. The potential for hundreds of thousands of visitors, support staff, and more.
These are just a few of the factors being calculated into preparations for Artemis I, the first launch of NASA’s moon-focused Space Launch System rocket slated for Aug. 29. Standing 322 feet tall, it promises to be the biggest, most powerful rocket to launch from the Space Coast in years — bringing with it a level of excitement to match.
All told, Space Coast officials are expecting at least 100,000 visitors for the rocket’s first window, which includes opportunities on Aug. 29, Sept. 2, and Sept. 5 (Labor Day). Currently, T-0 on Aug. 29 is set for 8:33 a.m. ET. Pad 39B will host.
The rocket is part of NASA’s Artemis program, which aims to put humans back on the moon sometime this decade. That starts with the uncrewed Artemis I mission and its plan to take an Orion capsule on a four-to-six-week journey to the moon and back. Artemis II will do the same with astronauts, then Artemis III will put two astronauts on the surface sometime after 2024.
Hotels and tourism
The Space Coast isn’t a stranger to launch day crowds. During the space shuttle era that ran through 2011, half a million or more visitors would sometimes flood the area, scooping up hotel rooms and packing local businesses.
Since then, crowds have been smaller, but still significant. Even during the height of the coronavirus pandemic, thousands still flocked to Brevard County to see launches.
Some of the recent SpaceX Crew Dragon launches, which take astronauts to the International Space Station from KSC, have drawn between 100,000 and 250,000 visitors, according to Peter Cranis, executive director of the Space Coast Office of Tourism. It wouldn’t be a stretch to expect more than 100,000 for Artemis I.
“I think the crewed launches and these Artemis launches are going to be of equal interest to people,” Cranis said. “I would expect certainly over 100,000, if not more, coming for that.”
As of June, Cranis said, Brevard County had 10,734 hotel rooms and 4,500 vacation rental units. Each unit can obviously accommodate more than one person, but those numbers likely won’t be impacted by spectators driving from Orlando, for example, to see the launch without staying overnight.
Speaking to the greater launch cadence, Cranis said Artemis also supports his office’s efforts at marketing the Space Coast. Both KSC and Cape Canaveral Space Force Station have hosted 32 launches this year, a pace not seen since the 1960s.
“Our marketing line is we’re the only beach that doubles as a launch pad and now that’s a message we can put out there because the frequency is so elevated,” he said. “Being known for that is something that makes us special among our peers who obviously have beaches to promote, but no space program.”
Just glancing at hotel room listings shows a rapidly dwindling supply among those that haven’t been sold out.
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The space-themed Courtyard by Marriott Titusville — Kennedy Space Center is one of the area’s newest hotels. Completed this year and opened to the public in April, it boasts views of KSC and Cape Canaveral Space Force Station pads and even has a rooftop “Space Bar” specifically for launch viewing.
All the Courtyard’s rooms, along with the Space Bar, are sold out for Artemis I.
“We’ve had more and more people discover the hotel since it opened in April, with steadily increasing room bookings and patronage of The Space Bar on the roof,” said Glen White, director of corporate communications for Delaware North. The company franchised the Courtyard hotel brand and paid for the project.
“We also anticipate having people book rooms and visit the Space Bar to feel the excitement of seeing Artemis on the launch pad in the days leading up to launch,” White said.
Delaware North’s main Space Coast operation is the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex, which is expecting to sell out its Artemis day offerings.
“We are expecting capacity crowds at Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex for the upcoming Artemis launch,” said Therrin Protze, the visitor complex’s chief operating officer. “(The visitor complex) will offer special Artemis launch viewing packages that will include some of the closest public viewing opportunities with distinctive experiences like live commentary from space experts and access to select exhibits and attractions.”
Artemis I’s launch ties in with the complex’s recently opened “Gateway: The Deep Space Launch Complex” exhibit, which focuses on the future of spaceflight. Inside the new exhibit is a scale model of the SLS rocket, a flown Orion capsule similar to the one on Artemis I, and other items like a ceiling-mounted SpaceX Falcon Heavy booster.
The visitor complex’s tickets for Artemis I viewing will go on sale 11 a.m. Tuesday, Aug. 2, at https://bit.ly/3OJBJuu.
Kennedy Space Center and media
Crowds gathering to see the launch as spectators aren’t the only visitors expected on the Space Coast. Hundreds of media members from around the world have signed up to cover the liftoff, too.
KSC’s public affairs team confirmed at least 700 media have signed up so far, a figure that dwarfs typical launches and is closer to crowds seen during the space shuttle program. Heather Scott, a spokesperson for the Space Force’s Space Launch Delta 45, said the military branch will also be pitching in to help manage media.
“The growing sense of energy and excitement that has been steadily building around Kennedy and among our workforce in the last year is tangible,” said Mike Bolger, director of KSC’s Exploration Ground Systems. “A sense of anticipation is growing daily as we close in on launching this amazing rocket and spacecraft.”
From an employee perspective, launch day car passes that can be used to bring personal vehicles – and family and friends, in most cases – are highly sought after.
And it’s not just about launch day viewing: employees not directly working on Artemis have been handling non-critical items for those who are, even going as far as buying their lunch to help free up time.
“Our teams are laser-focused on walking SLS and Orion through the final steps before its maiden flight around the moon, but the excitement across the center is palpable,” KSC Director Janet Petro said. “You can see it in peoples’ faces, you can hear it in their voices, and when we all stand together with our eyes to the sky on launch day, I don’t think there will be a feeling in the world like it.”
By EMRE KELLY, Florida Today