NASA is only one of the attractions on Florida's Space Coast

With the future of manned NASA missions uncertain, diversions along the Space Coast of Central Florida are becoming less about space and more about the coast.

Not to worry. Towns such as Melbourne, Cocoa Beach and Titusville offer plenty of coast to investigate. Even the geography makes the beach hard to ignore, with Brevard County extending 70 miles from north to south but only a few miles inland at any point.

And, in a rare synergy of technology and nature, the security requirements of the space agency offer the foundation for a pristine conservation area. So astronauts aren't the only ones who can go exploring on the Space Coast.

Here are some places to launch a coastal mission:

Birds — and blast-offs

A must-see gem is the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge in Titusville (, one of Central Florida's amazing — and free — natural resources. Stop at the Visitor Center (State Road 402, 5 miles east of U.S. Highway 1) and check out the butterfly garden, hammock and wetland prairie. Take your vehicle on the 7-mile Black Point Wildlife Drive, a good spot to see more than 500 species of birds and wildlife.

You can spend a good part of the afternoon idling along on the gravel trail, spotting ospreys, wood storks, ibises, egrets and monstrous gators. On a recent afternoon, the refuge had a bald eagle watch, in which four baby bald eagles were visible in their treetop nest through a high-powered scope.

Need a stretch? Park the car and stroll on Cruickshank Trail, where an observation tower provides a view of the natural salt marsh. The refuge also offers hiking trails through hardwood hammocks featuring red maples, ferns and an array of birds such as pileated woodpeckers and Carolina wrens.

A different kind of flight is celebrated at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex (, where a bus tour takes visitors within range of historic launch pads and the Vehicle Assembly Building. A highlight is the Saturn V Center, with memorabilia ranging from Alan Shepard's 1968 Corvette to Jim Lovell's flight suit.

In addition to the genuine history on display, the Visitor Complex has the Shuttle Launch Experience, a simulator attraction that mines the thrill-ride potential of space exploration.

General admission is $41 for adults and $31 for children ages 3-11 (plus tax). The price includes the bus tour and the Shuttle Launch Experience.

Beautiful beaches

The Merritt Island Wildlife Refuge also is home to the Canaveral National Seashore — 24 miles of undeveloped beaches that boast incomparably quiet stretches of sand and surf, if little in the way of modern creature comforts. Admission is $3 per carload. There are no designated picnic areas, telephones, beach showers, water fountains or food services (or nearby restaurants, for that matter), but limited camping and horseback riding are available from November through April 15, with a required permit.

Elsewhere on the coast, beach access is the main attraction at the county's more than 200 parks and numerous campgrounds. At Lori Wilson Park in Cocoa Beach (1500 N. Atlantic Ave.), a wide wooden boardwalk leads to peaceful dunes dotted with sea oats and to the waves that have made the city a surfing haven. Compared with the Canaveral National Seashore, Cocoa Beach comes with the benefit of civilization along State Road A1A.

There's also camping available at Jetty Park (400 E. Jetty Road, Port Canaveral), a well-manicured, 35-acre retreat in the shadow of the cruise ships at the port next door. Lovely bike trails wind through the hammocks, and other options include a 1,200-foot fishing pier, picnic pavilions and another secluded beach. Nightly camping rates range from $25 to $47.

At the port itself, there's a row of restaurants with a view of the ships.

From giraffes to galleries

Away from the water, the Brevard Zoo in Melbourne ( showcases exotic wildlife in themed areas such as Expedition Africa and Wild Florida. Regular admission is $13.75 for adults and $10.25 for children ages 2-12. For a small additional fee, visitors can feed birds and giraffes, which roam a landscaped setting.

One also could shake sand off the shoes and visit a pair of quirky art districts. In Melbourne, the Brevard Art Museum anchors the Eau Gallie Arts District (, a two-block stretch of galleries and restaurants that hosts a monthly First Friday Art Walk from 5:30 to 8:30 p.m.

The Melbourne district is an embryonic version of Cocoa Village (, the shopping district off State Road 520 that's home to boutiques, art galleries and theatrical productions at the Cocoa Village Playhouse.

Jim Abbott can be reached at or 407-420-6213.

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