Rick Abramson and wife Sylvia with space shuttle Atlantis at the Kennedy Space Center in 2013. (Courtesy Rick Abramson)
Hall of Honor member reflects on his 11 years at Kennedy Space Center
Over the past 50 years, Rick Abramson’s fingerprints are all over Delaware North’s sports food operation. But he says the most rewarding phase of his career was managing the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex.
Abramson, now semi-retired and a member of the VenuesNow 2020 Hall of Honor, ran that part of the vendor’s business for 11 years, which extended to his role as president of parks and resorts from 2013 to 2015.
For 25 years, Delaware North has operated the space center for NASA, which owns the 42-acre property in Merritt Island, Fla., a one-hour drive east of Orlando. Attractions include the U.S. Astronaut Hall of Fame, the Hubble Space Telescope Theater and exhibits tied to the Space Shuttle Atlantis and NASA’s Journey to Mars.
Abramson ran the space center from 1995 to 2005.
“To be able to educate kids and tell them the NASA story means a lot to me,” Abramson said. “I’ve done everything else in sports and entertainment. Part of my whole job was to get people excited about the space program and we did a really good job with it.”
The space center opened its doors in 1967 in the early stages of NASA space exploration. At the time Delaware North took it over in the mid-1990s, it was basically “a retail shed with some sleepy bus tours,” according to Abramson. The firm invested $150 million to expand and upgrade the property through the restoration of rockets and building new exhibits. The space center turned into a world-class destination on par with Disney World, Universal Studios Florida and SeaWorld Orlando, he said.
Most of that money, $100 million, was spent to install the Atlantis as a permanent attraction in 2013, revolving around a 90,000-square-foot exhibit connected to the aircraft. The exhibit showcases the 30-year shuttle program and the 33 flights completed by Atlantis.
All told, the space center reportedly draws more than 1.5 million visitors annually.
Attendees can pay admission to observe rocket launches from viewing areas at the space center and adjacent Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. The launches take place a few miles from the space center.
Delaware North runs the Orbit Cafe restaurant and the Space Shop, a 15,372-square-foot retail store. In 2018, the store installed Apollo 11’s original gantry, the launch platform bridging the second floor. Astronauts Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins walked across the gantry to start the first moon landing mission in 1969.
During the pandemic, the space center has created a ticket package where visitors can watch a rocket launch and a movie from their vehicle in the drive-in format that’s now common for concerts.
In addition, visitors can meet real astronauts, but that part of space center operations has been temporarily suspended due to COVID-19. Over the years, Abramson got to know many of those astronauts, such as Jim Lovell and Gene Cernan. Both were part of the historic Apollo space program that flew to the moon 50 years ago.
“I got really involved there, as chairman of the United Way for Brevard County and with the National Space Club and Foundation,” Abramson said. “Sometimes, it’s not just about making money but becoming a better corporate citizen. I didn’t know anything about space. Now, I’ve got dozens of astronauts as friends.”