Gigantic Crowds Expected for Inaugural Launch of NASA’s Mega Rocket

Spectators watch the Space Shuttle Atlantis blasting off on July 8, 2011. The launch was the 135th and final Space Shuttle launch for NASA.

Spectators watch the Space Shuttle Atlantis blasting off on July 8, 2011. The launch was the 135th and final Space Shuttle launch for NASA.
photo: Phil Sandlin (AP)

NASA’s SLS rocket is slated to launch for the first time in just three weeks, rumbling off the launch pad with 8.8 million pounds of thrust. There to see it take flight will be thousands upon thousands of spectators, as the Artemis era officially gets underway.

The 322-foot-tall Space Launch System is the most powerful rocket that NASA has ever built, launching with 15% more power than the Apollo-era Saturn V rocket and nearly 12% more power than the system that delivered the Space Shuttle to orbit . Attending an SLS launch will be a feast for the senses—and a major attraction for tourists visiting Florida’s Space Coast.

Artemis 1—the inaugural launch of SLS—is currently scheduled for August 29 at 8:33 am ET, with backup windows available on September 2 and September 5. A local tourism official told Florida Today that mpray than 100,000 visitors are expected to attend the launch, in which SLS will ascend from Launch Pad 39B at Kennedy Space Center and attempt to send an uncrewed Orion capsule on a 42-day journey around the Moon and back. The launch will signify the start of the Artemis was and potentially set the stage for a crewed repeat of the mission in 2024 and a crewed mission to the lunar surface no earlier than 2025.

The Space Coast is no stranger to big crowds. During the Shuttle era, it wasn’t uncommon for half a million people to attend a launch, and as Peter Cranis, executive director of the Space Coast Office of Tourism, told Florida Today, launches of SpaceX Crew Dragons are drawing as many as 250,000 visitors. Accordingly, the estimate of 100,000 people for the SLS launch may be on the low side, though it’s tough to tell.

Indeed, enthusiasm for NASA’s Artemis program hasn’t been great. Earlier this year, none of the contestants on Jeopardy! knew about the upcoming Moon missionsand during a NASA media briefing on August 3, a reporter from Ohio claimed that only two people out of 30 in his newsroom knew that the United States was returning to the Moon. NASA administrator Bill Nelson was taken aback by this claim, saying reporters in Orlando are certainly aware of the Artemis missions and that the eventual Moon landings will capture the public’s attention and reach the nation’s front pages.

Regardless, the influence of visitors to the area could strain the area’s ability to host them. Florida Today says just slightly more than 10,000 hotel rooms and 4,500 vacation units are available in Brevard County. That said, many visitors from the surrounding area, such as Orlando, won’t be staying the night.

For tourists, the Space Coast is truly living up to its name. In addition to its gorgeous beaches, this Atlantic coastal stretch is now witness to a steady stream of rocket launches. The current year alone has already seen 32 launches from Kennedy Space Center and Cape Canaveral, in a pace that hasn’t been seen since the 1960s.

Tourists can watch these launches from the beach, in designated areas near the launch pad, and even from a rooftop bar. The Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex presents another attraction, including the newly opened Gateway: The Deep Space Launch Complexwhich features a scale model of SLS, replica space suitsand a SpaceX Falcon Heavy booster.

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