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.

19 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 1 person

  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!

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    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.

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  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

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    1. Mike, how long are the tours schedule to go for in terms of months?

      I’d like to come back and spend more time with you without a launch going on to rush me away! Lol

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      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 1 person

  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

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  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 1 person

  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!

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  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

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    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.

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      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

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