The nearest tourists can get to the stars is still Nasa's Kennedy Space Centre in Florida

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Christopher Wakling prepares for lift-off in area code 3-2-1

orty years ago this week mankind's greatest journey began. On 16 July 1969, the Apollo XI mission lifted off – and five days later Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin stepped from the lunar module Eagle on to the surface of the Moon. Between 1969 and 1972, 10 more American astronauts made the same trip, but with the next lunar landings not scheduled to take place until 2020, none of the rest of us will be able to follow them any time soon. Perhaps our best chance of understanding the astronauts' achievement is through a visit to the spot from which they took the giant leap on our behalf: Nasa's Kennedy Space Center, at Cape Canaveral, on Florida's Space Coast.

I arrived in Orlando at sunset. The pilot announced he would be threading the airliner through storm clouds to ensure a smooth descent. As we banked this way and that I had a wonderful view of central Florida spread out beneath us, vast and green and riddled with lakes. In the half light the place looked luminously pockmarked: lunar, in fact.

The reason Nasa chose to launch its rockets from Florida's east coast became obvious as we approached Cape Canaveral. The landscape here is all sky; what lies beneath it is big, flat and surrounded by water. Half a century ago the place was more or less empty. Now it's still sparsely populated by Floridan standards. What buildings there are, be they churches or tech company headquarters, have a utilitarian, prefabricated look. They stand at arm's distance from one another, encircled by huge parking lots, revelling in the coast's chief commodity: space.

Yes, space is the thing here. Astronauts, not film stars, are the top celebrities. Pulling into The Kennedy Space Center car park, I spotted a Porsche 911 with the number plate "APOLLO 15". The buzz-cut, craggy gentleman at the wheel was dragging on his cigarette with enough steeliness to make Clint flinch. This was Al Worden, command module pilot for Apollo XV, which made the trip to the moon in 1971. It took some 500,000 people to put Al and his colleagues into orbit. Many of them still call the Space Coast (where residents campaigned for the telephone area code 3-2-1) home.

Reaching the epicentre of all this activity isn't straightforward. Miles from anything resembling a launch pad there are checkpoints and security cordons to negotiate. The Kennedy Space Center is a publicly accessible museum, of course, but it was and is part of an operation on the frontline of the space race. That's the museum's chief appeal: it commemorates a work very much in progress down at the other end of the base.

As I waited at the turnstile I watched a couple of parents photographing their offspring in space suits. They'd obviously been here before. That makes sense: there's more to see than you could fit into a single visit. The same is true of Walt Disney World too, of course, and the amusement park competition up the road is apparent elsewhere at Kennedy. A plastic astronaut peered at me from the top of the ticket hut on my way in, and portentous music – half Enya, half Holst – drifted across the sun-struck plaza all day.

But the exhibits themselves document something at once real and inspiring. I began with the Shuttle Launch Experience. At its heart, this is a ride inside a big box on pistons. They jiggle you about, tilt you this way and that. It can't compete with a rollercoaster. But if you listen to the commentary and watch the wide-screen footage, this simulator will do a better job than any fun-ride at raising hairs on the back of your neck. Apparently, if you stand within 800ft of a Shuttle at T minus no seconds the noise alone will kill you. That's what veteran Shuttle Commander Charlie Bolden told us on screen anyway, and his narration of the moments leading up to and just after a shuttle launch defied disbelief.

Returning from orbit, I stumbled into a gift shop. It's big. I batted the T-shirts ("Failure is Not an Option") away manfully, but was unable to resist the silvery packets of space ice cream. Happily (think polystyrene wine-gums) I didn't open them there and then, but took a break for lunch instead. It emerged that for $23 (£15) I was able to eat as much as I could... with an astronaut!

And it gets better. The astronaut (one of fewer than 500 earthlings to have visited space) was Robert "Hoot" Gibson. Hoot flew five Shuttle missions, commanding three of them, two of which preceded the fateful Challenger mission of January 1986. After that catastrophe Hoot had a hand in redesigning the faulty rockets. He was subsequently invited to sit at the sharp end while they were relit.

If a Simpsons episode involved an astronaut, he would have Hoot's twinkly, granite-jawed smile. He fielded many questions, most of them erudite, a couple of which cut to the quick. "Did you like space?" asked one child. "Yes," Hoot replied. "Have you ever met an alien?" asked another. "If I had, I'd have said," he grinned. "It would have helped with funding."

After lunch I took a trip out to the launch pads, or as near to them as I was able to get. Not close. But it didn't matter. I did get a look at the Vehicle Assembly Building. It's even bigger than the gift shop. To be precise, it's 129.5 million cubic feet big: one of the vastest buildings on earth. And in the distance, swathed in sudden rain and pulsing beneath thunderclouds, I glimpsed the Space Shuttle Endeavour piggybacked to its monumental solid rocket boosters, ready for lift-off.

Later that day, from the comfort of Millikens Reef Restaurant a few miles away – but close enough for my frozen cocktail to shiver in my hand – I witnessed the launch of a US Delta IV rocket, propelling a weather satellite into orbit. Watching the magnesium cloud roar itself to a dot I felt closer to Columbus, Scott, and Hillary than I did to Guy Fawkes. Never mind the technical advances applicable to other industries (MRI scanners, freeze-dried food, cordless power tools), those who say that the Space Race money could have been better spent elsewhere lack what religious folk call "soul".

That's what a visit to Cape Canaveral signifies deep down; it's a pilgrimage for humanists, to a Mecca of the mind. The people at Nasa are doing their best to push back the tangible boundaries of humankind. What struck me as I looked at the lunar rover (implausible), the Saturn V rocket (hubristic), and the Apollo capsule (Meccano), was the humbling mixture of audacity, brainpower and faith that this whole enterprise has come to symbolise.

But you're unlikely to come all this way to visit a museum alone, so what else is there to do on the Space Coast? For beach lovers, lots. Seventy-two miles of Atlantic beachfront for starters.

The closest stretch, bordering Cape Canaveral itself, is Cocoa Beach. I stayed in the Best Western Ocean Beach Hotel, by the "historic" (built in 1962) Cocoa Beach Pier. Like the other hotels I spotted on my jog up the never-ending strip of sand, the Best Western squats monolithically behind the narrow string of dunes which borders the beach. There's something quite Soviet about the architecture here, and it is oddly fitting. "Bijou" would look silly surrounded by so much car-parking space. The pier itself is wonderfully knocked-together and has a proper American boardwalk feel to it. As the photos on the wall testify, it's a great spot from which to watch a Shuttle launch over the rim of your glass.

If there isn't a launch scheduled, there may well be surfers to watch instead. Judging by the size of the surf shops in town (the Cocoa Beach Surf Company is four storeys high, boasts its own shark tank, and sits bang next door to Ron Jon's surf shop, equally massive and open 24/7) surfing is a big deal here. V

C The locals have form. Kelly Slater, nine times ASP World Surfing Champion was born in Cocoa Beach, learned to surf on its waves, and lives here still. They named a street after him. Slater Way, it's called, and up the other end of town there's an Astronaut Boulevard, too.

But what if the surf's not up? No matter, out at the Lone Cabbage Fish Camp (really, those words in that order) you can take an airboat ride up the St Johns River. The captain of my boat was called Chad. He explained that the St Johns River was "about the only river in North America to flow north", and suggested I look out for bald eagles, spoonbills, otters, wild hogs, and 'gators of course. Then he slapped on his ear defenders (I followed suit), fired up the massive fan at his back, and roared us off towards the Dead River tributary.

It was fun, and strange, to smash-glide our way through the shallows, skidding round bends and up inlets, flattening grass and reeds. Birds (I'm not sure which ones) flapped up ahead of us, and if there were any alligators they soon dove out of our way. I did see some wild cattle. Chad explained that they had prospered here since the Spanish imported them in 1560.

Back at the Lone Cabbage, a chapter of bikers had arrived for a barbecue lunch. I felt slightly self-conscious in my sunscreen and shorts. Although we hadn't spotted any alligators on the water, there were some on the menu. Inevitably, encased in fritter, alligator tail tastes not unlike chicken.

I sipped a refreshing Yuengling (courtesy of America's oldest brewery), watched a boat-plane lumber skyward from the stretch of river beside me, and considered the differences between the back end of a Saturn V rocket and Chad's airboat fan.

With the amusement parks – Disney, Epcot, Universal etc – not far up the road, there's all that to do, too, if you want. But I preferred to drive an hour beyond them to explore a little of Florida's Gulf Coast. The resorts are polished and upscale here, and the sea is warmer – and largely waveless. If a turquoise swim appeals, you might want to avoid the sting-ray season, which runs from May through October. Seventeen people had been stung the weekend I arrived at Clearwater Beach. "And it hurts like hell," explained Peter Krulder, a ranger at the Caladesi Island State Park.

Apparently you can minimise the likelihood of being stung by shuffling your feet in the sand as you enter the water. This scares the rays away, and looks odd: a different kind of moonwalking came to mind as I scuffed my way through the white sand shallows.

Caladesi Island is a stunning nature reserve, accessible only by boat. The beach here was rated the best in America in 2008, and inland there are mangrove tunnels to kayak through when the tide is right. The boat I took from Clearwater was called The Dolphin Encounter. We encountered dolphins. The captain – "There they are. Nope, they've gone down. Oh well, they'll come back. Look, there they are again" – gave a refreshingly deadpan commentary as we went.

In the Clearwater Aquarium there's a dolphin called Winter who's been fitted with a prosthetic tail. He was discovered tailless and unable to swim straight. One of Nasa's experiments involved hatching tadpoles in space to see whether the absence of gravity affected their development. It did: they couldn't swim straight either until they'd returned to earth.

Having set off to Florida with the moon in mind, I saw the sun rise over the Atlantic and set in the Gulf of Mexico on the same day. I also saw 3D footage of Russian cosmonauts (who use the metric system of measurements) working on the MIR space station with their Nasa counterparts (who use inches).

Neil Armstrong described those who worked to put him on the moon as the greatest team ever assembled. Forty years on, a trip to the Space Coast and beyond offers, among other things, an insight into a world of greater collaboration still to come... above the horizon.

Will tourists ever visit the moon?

I've never been quite able to understand whether it's worth going back to the moon or not. We maybe don't need to have a colony on the moon for exploratory purposes. Now, Nasa could go straight for Mars, and they may decide to do that from outside the Earth's atmosphere, from a space station-type approach. But they might decide to do it from the moon.

However I do think, in the long term, people will go to the moon. As it was with any of the tourism that has developed, it will be initially for industrial and commercial purposes. The moon has a lot of advantages as a stable platform around the earth, where you could build lots of exciting solar power and communications opportunities.

I think it will start off as a commercially exploited satellite of Earth. If that happens, then just as the original sailing ships became ships that people travelled on for tourism, and as the Royal Mail Steam Packets developed in the 1840s, and Thomas Cook took the train from just carrying coal to carrying people as well, the moon could eventually be a tourist place. That is something that might possibly wait until my grandchildren's day, but I think it could well happen.

Will Whitehorn is president of the space-tourism enterprise, Virgin Galactic

Traveller's Guide

Getting there

The writer travelled with Virgin Holidays (0844 557 3860; virginholidays.co.uk ) which offers a seven-night Orlando Flydrive package including scheduled flights with Virgin Atlantic from London Gatwick or Manchester direct to Orlando, with basic car hire included from £489 per person (based on two adults travelling and departures between 1 November and 9 December.

Virgin Atlantic (08705 747 747; virgin-atlantic.com ) flies direct from Gatwick, Glasgow and Manchester to Orlando. British Airways (0844 493 0787; ba.com) flies to Orlando from Gatwick, and Flyglobespan (0870 556 1522; flyglobespan.com ) from Belfast and Glasgow. To reduce the impact on the environment, buy an "offset" through Abta's Reduce my Footprint initiative (020-7637 2444; www.reducemyfootprint.travel ).

Staying there

Best Western Ocean Beach Hotel, 5600 North Atlantic Avenue, Cocoa Beach, Florida (001 321 783 7621; bestwesterncocoabeach.com ). Doubles from $110 (£73), room only.

Sheraton Sand Key Resort, 1160 Gulf Boulevard, Clearwater Beach, Florida (001 727 595 1611; sheratonsandkey.com ).

Doubles start at $236 (£157), room only.

Visiting there

Kennedy Space Centre (001 321 449 4400; kennedyspacecenter.com ). Open daily 9am-7pm; admission $38 (£25), $24 child (£16) – pass valid for two days. Guided tour $21 (£14) adult, £15 child (£10). Lunch with an astronaut: $22.99 (£15.30) adult, $15.99 (£10.70) child.

Ron Jon's Surf Shop, 4151 North Atlantic Avenue, Cocoa Beach (001 321 799 8888; ronjons.com ).

Cocoa Beach Surf Company, 4001 North Atlantic Avenue, Cocoa Beach (001 321 799 9930; cocoabeachsurfcompany.com ).

Lone Cabbage Fish Camp, St John's River (001 321 632 4199; twisterairboatrides.tripod.com ). Twister airboat rides start at $20 (£13.30) for 30 minutes.

Dolphin Encounter, Clearwater Beach (001 727 442 7433; dolphinencounter.org ). Boat trips start at $25 (£16.70).

Caladesi Island State Park (001 727 469 5918; floridastateparks.org/CaladesiIsland ). Open daily 8am-sunset; admission $6 (£4) per boat.

Eating and drinking there

Milliken's Reef Restaurant, 683 Dave Nisbet Drive, Cape Canaveral (001 321 783 0100; millikensreef.com ).

Cocoa Beach Pier, 401 Meade Avenue, Cocoa Beach (001 321 783 7549; cocoabeachpier.com ).

Caretta on the Gulf, Sandpearl Resort, 500 Mandalay Avenue, Clearwater Beach (001 727 441 2425; sandpearl.com ).

More information

visitflorida.com/uk .

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