The pitches whiz at you from all directions, pumped up and flashy.

Tour restricted areas! Add to your adventure! Eat lunch with a real astronaut!


What happened here?

A visit to the John F. Kennedy Space Center, America's launching pad here, used to be a low-key thing, a $9-a-head kind of low-key. A little bus tour, a bunny-hop through the Rocket Garden with the kids, a glance at some lunar relics.

But this place morphed in the past decade, steadily transforming into a big, megawatt theme park, with big, megawatt ticket prices to match. A family of four now has to come up with $212 if they want the deluxe package, including lunch with an astronaut. And that's before they even set foot in "The World's Largest Space Shop."

Talking robots lead them on tours. Rockets roar into space on giant Imax theater screens with surround sound. A guy in a cartoonish spacesuit strolls the grounds, mechanically giving the thumbs-up sign, and posing for pictures with couples from Wisconsin and giggly kindergartners.

It's as if Disney World, 60 miles to the west, were contagious.

But ever since the shuttle Columbia dropped to Earth in pieces, there is something incongruous about the cheery, hyped-up frivolity of the space center's visitor complex. The music piped out to the ticket windows in those first sad days was fittingly mournful and reflective, while the tour and lunch messages beaming from the signs at the entrance were pure goofy amusement park vintage.

The tours have not stopped since the nation heard "Columbia is lost," though some of the more whimsical attractions, such as an interactive skit for kids called "Mad Mission to Mars 2025," took a brief hiatus. The buses and the rental cars keep streaming into a parking lot that is large enough to warrant color-coded posts named after the shuttles so you won't forget where you left your ride. There are Discovery, Atlantis and Endeavour, but no Challenger.

Crane your neck to the right as you walk in and a faded crimson parking lot sign comes into view through the morning mist, commemorating the first shuttle of them all -- Columbia. You can't help but wonder how long it will be there.

The ticket booth lines swell with German and Italian tourists toting cameras, and graying Midwesterners old enough to remember the glory days of the space race against the Soviet empire. But mostly, there are people who love big, splashy tourist attractions. The T-shirts give them away: Disney World, Six Flags, Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

In the ticket line, little hands tug at Rodger Metzger, a patient soul from Simsbury, Conn., who brought his wife, Anne, and six children -- ages 3 to 15 -- to visit the space center after spending four days at Disney World.

"Is Kennedy still alive?" "How long was he president?" "I'm tired."

Anne Metzger escapes to the refuge of a gourmet coffee stand, returning a few minutes later with a smirk.

"Nine dollars for two cups of coffee?" she says. "I feel like I'm back at Disney!"

Get Those Tourists The road leading up to the space center from the strip of hotels in Cocoa Beach runs though stretches of tangled wilderness and scattered orange groves -- holdouts of a fast-disappearing old Florida. Roadside vendors hawk orange juice with handmade signs, but other signs sprout in the groves, too: "Lots for sale. Home sites." As they say around here: "I'll grow crops until it makes more sense to grow Yankees."

The local businesspeople did all right for a long time with the tourists who came for a few days at the beach and posed for pictures in front of the "I Dream of Jeannie" street sign. But they always cast an envious eye at Orlando, where tourists came by the millions and spent millions, too.

There was a nagging feeling that maybe they weren't making enough of their space industry legacy. This is, of course, the "Space Coast," the place where the men who walked on the moon started their journey. The telephone area code is even 321 to mimic a launch countdown.

A company called Delaware North Park Services had an answer for them. Seven years ago, the company -- which runs a string of tourist operations, including Niagara Reservation State Park in New York and Yosemite National Park -- came up with a big, bold plan that won it the contract to take over the Kennedy Space Center's visitor complex. It would transform the dowdy visitor facility that regional tourism director Robert Varley says had grown "old and tired," and attract some of the tourists who were spending all that money over in Orlando.

The company has spent $140 million on vast exhibition halls, restaurants and whiz-bang Imax shows. Some sort of major ride, probably one that simulates a rocket launch, will come next.

"We're just beginning," says Daniel LeBlanc, Delaware's chief operating officer. "We've got big plans."

Delaware, which gets high marks from NASA, splits the profits 50-50 with the space agency. LeBlanc says the company grosses $50 million a year at the space center. NASA's share goes right back into improving the visitor complex. Even so, ticket prices have been ratcheted up to pay for all the development, a justifiable move, LeBlanc says, because "there's a lot more to see and do." The county's tourism promoters applauded, reasoning tourists would be more than willing to pay the higher prices and would be likely to stay in the area longer if the attractions were upgraded.

But some of the neighbors grumbled about the commercialization of the space center, especially two years ago, when the long-standing practice of granting free admission to the Rocket Garden and a replica space shuttle was cut off. Attendance dipped after the free entry policy changed, but has leveled off at about 2 million a year.

"Shame on the Kennedy Space Center and NASA administration for taking away one of the loveliest free getaways in this area," Pat Mackey of nearby Titusville wrote in a letter to the Florida Today newspaper. "You are not Disney nor should you be."

Moon Rock Cafe Every few minutes, tour buses roll out into the belly of the space complex, past the restricted-area signs guarded by men with machine guns, past the trailers where NASA's scientists lunch.

There is something awe-inspiring about the sight of the launch pads in the distance, something romantic, evoking the spirit of grand ambitions.

The silhouettes of high-flying hawks trace graceful loops on the landmark Vehicle Assembly Building, the massive structure (with enough space to hold three Empire State Buildings and a painted American flag with stripes wide enough to accommodate a city bus, the guide says) where rockets are born.

Phyl and Brenda Courser are in the back of the bus, spotting wildlife. The space center is in the middle of the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge, home to more endangered species than any place in America except the Everglades.

"Look, wild pigs . . .

"Alligator . . .

"A bald eagle."

The back-of-the-bus crowd lifts out of their seats with each spotting.

The bus used to pull off "on dusty roadsides" when the tour was run by TWA and Greyhound to let tourists take snapshots, LeBlanc recalls. Now, the spiffier new buses glide into the parking lots of a launch-pad viewing platform and an enormous hall that seems part educational exhibit and part shopping mall.

The hall -- known as the Apollo/Saturn V Center -- houses the original launch control room equipment used to monitor the Saturn rockets. The gizmos on the control equipment light up in synchronization with a video of a Saturn rocket launch and the windows rattle during a simulation. The old contractors' jackets hang over the seats, as if they'd just gotten up for a few minutes and will be back soon. The exhibition doors open up into a vast mall, where an enormous Saturn 5 rocket is suspended from the ceiling over the Moon Rock Cafe and the requisite gift shop.

Donald Christian, a computer software guy from California, stares up at the rocket in awe.

"Unspeakably impressive," he says. "It almost makes the space shuttle missions pale in comparison. Back then, we had a clear and holy mission: Beat the Russians to the moon. Life seemed simpler."

Astro-Retiree Back in the bus, the on-board video is rolling again. The narrators unspool the gee-whiz science of the place, slipping seamlessly back and forth from NASA factoids to the good old soft sell. Footage of tourists gawking approvingly at NASA merchandise appears on the screens: space blankets and T-shirts, hats and space food.

"I'm constantly amazed by all the mementos to help you remember your visit," the narrator says cheerily.

Christian's lunch is already planned, and he's hoping it will be a highlight of the day. He's brought his mom, Marian, from Pittsburgh and his sister, Caroline, from Boston, and they've decided to splurge on "lunch with an astronaut." It's a $29-per-person upgrade, but what the heck, he figures.

Butter pats in the shape of the space shuttle are on the table as the real-live astronaut strolls in. On this day, the astronaut is William R. Pogue, a 73-year-old who was the pilot of a long Skylab mission in the 1970s.

Pogue, a kindly and enthusiastic sort, is dressed in a blue NASA jumpsuit. He talks glowingly about the early days of space exploration, using a microphone even though there are only about 20 people in the room.

The appearance has a tinge of poignancy about it, like one of those retired athletes who get paid to hang out at car dealerships or restaurants to attract business. The visitor center pays the retired astronauts to speak at these lunches, but LeBlanc won't say how much.

Pogue is appearing less than a week after the Columbia has disintegrated, but he doesn't say a word about the tragedy or what it means to the future of NASA. No one asks, either.

"I noticed that -- interesting," Christian says afterward. "His talk was well worn from many performances, but he's the real McCoy -- You can't get closer than this to a kid's real American hero."

Outside, some of the longest lines are at "The World's Largest Space Shop." A teenager flips through a book that Pogue wrote called "How Do You Go to the Bathroom in Space?" A mom and daughter check the size of a T-shirt emblazoned with the words: "I need my space."

Ten deep in a checkout line, a tall man in a hat turns to his wife, and says, "Do you think we'll miss the next show?"

Staff researcher Lucy Shackelford contributed to this report.

More whimsical offerings, such as "Mad Mission to Mars 2025," an interactive show for kids, took a brief hiatus after Columbia crashed.An astronaut character, above, roams the grounds of the Kennedy Space Center complex, posing for pictures and flashing the thumbs-up sign; Phyl Courser, right, marvels at the size of a Saturn rocket on display.