KSC “Launch Director” Tours

About 18 months ago I was asked to support the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex in their overarching goal for their guests of being educated while being entertained. I was honored to be considered for it, given the other major ‘attractions’ that further that goal. Heroes and Legends—the re-envisioned Astronaut Hall of Fame—recently opened in the original Debus Center. A new Mars exhibit will soon begin construction. Honoring the fallen astronauts in Forever Remembered and the tribute to the Apollo 1 crew are moving reminders of the risks associated with spaceflight. By far, however, the KSCVC celebrates the successes and contributions to mankind that the space programs have provided for over 50 years. Attendance promises a full day of activities and memories unlike the typical theme parks in Orlando.

My small part is called, cleverly, the Launch Director Tour! A few times each month, I take a group on a personal tour of the Atlantis attraction, the Launch Control Center, launch pads, and conclude at the Apollo Saturn V facility. In the four-hour tour we discuss not only those specifics but get into anything the group wishes to know more about. As I tell them at the outset, “If you leave here today and wish you had asked me a question but didn’t, bad on you! My job is to make your time here as full as possible. Answering your questions is an integral part of that.” And the groups aren’t shy!

MIke at LD console
At my Launch Director console in Firing Room 4. (Photo by Jonathan Ward)

Since they are truly ‘avid space fans’ the questions asked are just terrific. Technical specifics of the Shuttle, the early manned spaceflight programs and the current and future ones, most memorable moments, most difficult launch, and the questions from kids are special! We also always have foreign guests on the tours and their perspectives on America’s programs offer unique and memorable interactions.

I could write a book in itself on the questions I get on my tours—they are that good. My personal favorites generally fall into three categories. 1: What is the future of manned spaceflight? 2: How I made the final launch decision. 3: My favorite launch.

Discussing the future always comes up. As do the politics behind decisions. This discussion can always take unexpected turns! But briefly, I express my view that Mars should not be the next goal of our manned efforts, but establishing a permanent base on the Moon. Why? We need to learn to live on another body before we take off on the exponentially more difficult trip to Mars. The Moon is the next logical step. Not as sexy as Mars, but vastly more logical in our progression off Earth.

I made the final launch decision by thinking about my seven friends on the rocket and asking myself if I’m ready to commit them to the most risky thing they have ever done. The astronauts are real people with real lives, real families, real children, spouses, parents. How can I give a “go” without considering their families? This was always part of my final decision, but became even more paramount, if that’s possible, following Columbia.

My favorite launch is answered two ways: the most difficult and the most unexpected. The most difficult was STS-107, Columbia’s final mission. Why? The book has more detail, but we had a security scare just before liftoff that had me holding onto my console to steady my hands, literally. Just sixteen months after the attacks of 9/11, and with an Israeli astronaut on board, Columbia was recognized as a prime terrorist target. Liftoff was fine, but foam damage during ascent doomed the mission and crew. The launch with the most unexpected event was STS-105 and the need to launch earlier than planned due to impending bad weather. I addressed this in an earlier posting. Check it out.

My all-time favorite question, however, came from a kid from England, maybe ten years old. She asked, “How does an orbit work?” WOW! From a kid came a question demonstrating great thought, curiosity, and desire to learn. The goal of the whole tour concept had come true in spades. Fortunately, luckily, I could work my way through it, but first I asked the group how many people knew the answer. Of the 35 people, 2 knew. I asked them to help me answer. With my pen as a prop we demonstrated the balance between gravity and speed and the little girl’s eyes lit up. She got it. That’s why we do the tours. It was perfect.

I invite all of you to join us if you ever find yourself at the KSC Visitor’s Complex. Advance reservations for the tour are recommended—and can be made at this link. The tour frequently sells out weeks in advance. If not on my tour, the overall KSCVC experience promises not to disappoint in any way.

Author: Mike Leinbach

Mike was the final Space Shuttle Launch Director at NASA's John F. Kennedy Space Center. He led the launch team for all Shuttle missions from August 2000 to the end of the program in 2011, giving the final "go" for every launch.

39 thoughts on “KSC “Launch Director” Tours”

  1. Was on Mikes’ very first tour. Wasn’t disappointed. As a frequent visitor to KSCVC and the tours, it was so awesome to stand and talk to the last launch director of the Shuttle Program. Mike is very entertaining and communicates very well with both followers of the Space Program and those who are just learning.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. I too had the pleasure of spending an entire afternoon with Mike right before the OSIRIS-REx launch.

    The fact that we have been given access to one of the key players of the Space Shuttle program, and to be able to ask questions in a small group setting is unbelievably amazing.

    Definitely one of the highlights of of my life so far.

    Mike –> Will there be a chance for us to purchase autographed copies of the book?

    Thank you again for that great day – I appreciated it more than I can convey here!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi, we are offering autographed copies of the book! The Book link at the top of the page is set up to enable you to pre-order the book. We hope to have them available before the end of the year. Pre-ordering now will endure that you’ll be among the first to receive the book.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Thanks for the very kind words, guys. I ALWAYS leave the tours jazzed knowing there’s still genuine interest in our space programs. I got the bug listening to Alan Shepard’s first flight in ’61 on our car radio while on a family trip. I know the ‘little orbit girl’ got it, too. Come join us!
    Mike

    Liked by 1 person

      1. We plan to offer them for the foreseeable future. Monthly frequency varies depending on demand. Summer is always peak season, 4 tours schedule in August, slows a bit in fall and winter. But at least once per month, usually twice.

        Liked by 2 people

  4. Mr Leinbach, thanks so much for the knowledge, passion and heart you shared with us on today’s Launch Director tour. It was special to be in your “second home” with you and to learn more about Atlantis from the guy who sent her flying so many times. Now I need to make post-tour buttons that say “Had a lot of fun up there!”

    We had such a great group – so many intelligent questions were asked, and seeing such inquisitive young people engaged and wanting to learn more is inspiring. If anyone reading this post is considering the tour – just do it. You’ll be so glad you did.

    All the best,
    Bash

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Thanks, Bash. It’s always my pleasure meeting folks like you that appreciate the space program so much. Great questions, too! But you broke one rule here. You didn’t call me Mike!!!! Seriously, great to have had you in the group yesterday. Mike

    Liked by 2 people

  6. Mike – My husband and I attended your tour on August 3. I’m still raving about it to anyone who will listen to me. Very educational and entertaining. That afternoon alone was worth the trip cross country from Idaho!

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Off topic here, just want to express hopes for the best for everyone on the Space Coast as they recover from Irma. Mike, I hope you and yours are all fine and well. Irma turned out to be one unpredictable lady, and it seems she did her worst in the islands. Heartbreaking to see the devastation there.

    Three weeks after I visited JSC, Harvey happened. And now, three weeks after my trip to KSC, Irma. (I’m wondering if I should pause my tour of the centers for their sake! 🙂 ) It makes the concern all the more acute, being able to visualize the places so clearly. I know we space enthusiasts will do what we can to support the communities around both centers and will join me in asking Mother Nature to take a breather…

    All the best to you all,
    Bash

    Liked by 1 person

    1. What a terrific note, Bash! Thanks so much. We are fine, and will get home today after 3 weeks in the RV. We had gone to my niece’s wedding in VA before the storm and decided to stay away until it passed by. We got power restored quickly and no damage to the house. Lots of trees got trimmed again, or worse! But that’s just grunt work cleaning it up. No one I know got hurt though some friends have (had) a house on Big Pine Key that got devastated. They fear the worst but can’t get in yet to see it.

      Thanks again. Your note reminds me of the good on people, especially you. Your friend, Mike.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Mike, relieved to hear you and your Mrs were out of Irma’s reach and that she left you with yard work only. Can’t imagine what everyone who lives in the Keys is feeling, not knowing the fate of their homes. Wishing you all the best. Bash

        Liked by 1 person

  8. i came from New Zealand to visit the Kennedy space center in 2015 and spent 4 days there before you offered the Launch Directors tour but still got to visit the launch control center on a tour. Got a photo myself seated at your launch directors console. Soon as i posted on facebook my mum post she could see me just doing that sort job.
    Hoping to come for launch parker Solar plus end of july 2018 and hope I can fit your tour as well

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    1. Hi Stephen, check out the KSC Visitor Center website for tour dates next summer. I hope your plans allow attending one of my tours. I usually do two tours per month in the summer months though we have only planned for one so far. It’s based on demand in part. Thanks for the note and I really hope it works out so we can meet each other. Mike.

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  9. Dear Mike, being a massive space fan of Nasa’s Exploits since those early days of Apollo and through to STS, I plan to get across with my Wife late this year. Your tour will be booked just after our flights!! Looking forward to it. Kind regards Paul, Portsmouth 🇬🇧

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    1. Hi Paul, I really hope you all make it over and can join me on a tour! It’s normally only conducted one time per month though I’ve offered to increase the frequency. Check out the Visitor Center website for dates already planned. If they don’t fit your plans perhaps you could write to the VC and suggest additional dates to suit. Thanks! Hope to meet you one day. Mike

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      1. Dear Mike , thank you for your reply. Great news flights now booked so we’re really looking forward to meeting you and having the tour. Last time I went to KSC was 18 years ago and lots of enhancements since then. I’ll have my questions so in the meantime all the best and see you in October. Kind regards Paul & Jan

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      2. Thank you Mike. We have the October date agreed from the website already so all should be nicely in hand. Regards Paul & Jan

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  10. “Hello mike, my wife & I had booked to meet you on your tour on the 4th October when we fly to the USA. Sadly I had an email last night to say it’s been cancelled . We’re obviously really sad to hear this after looking forward to the trip so much. I recall the Apollo missions as a boy and followed the exploits of STS all through and have read a host of books on the subjects. We’re at cocoa beach that week so we’re hoping that it may be rearranged? Can you advise please? Here’s hoping and many thanks, kind regards Paul & Janet 🇬🇧🇺🇸

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    1. Paul, Unfortunately, very unfortunately, all tours into the Launch Control Center have been terminated by NASA. This is due to 2 construction jobs there. The rest rooms are all being updated. Very long overdue actually! And Firing Room 4 from which we launched the Shuttle is also undergoing a modification for a user. Perhaps when both jobs are done we can get back into the LCC. No way to predict that for now. I hate it as much as you, but there is simply nothing we can do about it now. And I doubt if the work will be done by your visit. Very sorry. Mike.

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      1. Thank you mike for your prompt, thoughtful and kind reply. We understand the situation fully now. We’re still visiting KSC of course as there’s plenty to see and do. Fingers crossed we can get back in later years to meet you. Here’s hoping you continue to share your wonderful memories of this amazing endeavour for many years to come. Kindest regards Paul

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  11. Very sad that our tour has been cancelled Mike, we were really looking forward to meeting you again, and learning more “nerdy stuff”. Totally enjoyed the tour we did with you last year, and the book signing in kennedy earlier this year. Fingers crossed for the future. All the best Mike
    Best wishes Wendy and Francis from Wales.

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    1. I hate to see the tours cancelled myself. The Launch Control Center is going thru some necessary upgrades and all tours into the LCC have been cancelled. I’d suggest you drop a note to the Visitor Center asking for reinstatement ASAP or alternative tour stops. Sorry. That’s the best I can do right now. Keep checking in with them. I’m hopeful something can be worked out. Thanks Wendy. Mike.

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  12. Hi, Mike –

    It was great talking to you at Spacefest last weekend, and to meet your lovely Mrs. (Hello, Charlotte!)

    Throwing my voice in here in support of the tour returning in some form. I was glad to hear that you’re thinking of options in lieu of the LCC and I’ll be writing the Visitor Center as well to encourage them. I know you’ll keep us posted here, and thanks for that!

    Off to see Endeavour tomorrow. You were right, she’s going vertical next year, complete with ET-94 and a pair of flight-worthy boosters. What a sight that will be! I’ll mentally send a hello from you to OV-105. 🙂

    All the best to you and Charlotte,
    Bash

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    1. Thanks for the support and I agree, it was a treat to see you in Tucson at Spacefest. Good times! Hope we get to do it again next year. I contacted the visitor center last week and no break though yet on resuming the tours. Mike.

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  13. Mike,
    It was a pleasure to read the book. Unfortunately, I missed all the opportunities to have you sign my copy and was wondering if another opportunity would be available. You and Mr. Ward did an outstanding job presenting these events that were both tragic and in response to the tragedy … inspiring. As I read, I became energized and proud to be part of the KSC NASA team during the Shuttle Program as well as currently part of the SLS/EGS team here at KSC. Thanks Mike … I miss seeing you around here and having your office right around the corner from mine.

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    1. Hey Clark, thx for the comment on the book. Brings back memories, right? Yes, another signing is tentatively set for 7/24. All details TBD. Hope to see you then. Mike.

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  14. Mike:
    I was set to take your tour in June when my daughters attended Space Camp. I had been looking forward to your book since we had dinner at the ASF event. When I got there I was told the tours had been canceled. I have been looking to see if they return with no luck. I do not need to tell you the book is fantastic and a must read for the history, the human anecdotes and the problem-solving methodology it presents. Are you having any book signing in Central or South Florida or are the tours returning?

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    1. Hey Doc!
      I remember you and your daughter well. Thanks for contacting me about the book and tours. The tour was cancelled since the Launch Control Center is in a construction mode and all tours into it have been put on an extended hold. I think they will return but no guarantees. If you drop a note to the Visitor Center folks asking to reinstate them it would help. Thanks. There are no planned book signings outside the space center in Florida coming up. The options the way I see it: 1. Send me your book and I’ll sign it and return to you. If you’d want another copy by chance I can send you one signed by me and Jonathan and I’ll bill you. Or, I can send you a book plate signed by each of us. It’s OK, but not as nice as the signed book in my opinion. Let me know and then we can figure out the logistics.
      Mike

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      1. Mike:
        Thank you for your response and pardon my delay. We recently lost my 98-year-old mom. She was in good health with a clear mind till the end and one of her fondest recollections was visiting KSC to witness Apollo 11 lift off and recently had visited the Atlantis exhibit.
        I would love to take up your offer to sign my book and would also like an additional copy for my daughter. I will be glad to send you my copy with a return self-addressed envolpe to make the return easy for you. Please let me know where to send my book and payment information for the additional copy.
        I will drop a letter to the KSC people regarding the tours. They are responsive. Last year my daughters had completed the last year of camp and wanted to return. After discussing it with counselors and checking they were all on the same page they wrote and sent a video to the higher-ups. The camp was subsequently extended for an additional two school grades Feel free to contact me at my personal email robert@zarranz.us

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