NASA Space Center
Light years away from ordinary cultural attractions is NASA’s Space Center (1601 NASA Pkwy., 281/244-2100, www.spacecenter.org, 10 a.m.–5 p.m. weekdays, 10 a.m.–6 p.m. weekends, extended summer hours, $19 adults, $18 seniors, $15 children 4–11).
NASA is about as big as it gets for Houston tourist attractions, and it’s one of the only cities in the United States to host such a distinct icon of contemporary American history. However, this might not be apparent when you step through the front gates. There are no timelines or text panels dedicated to the history of America’s proud space program; instead, there’s a 40-foot-tall playground and exhibits about nature’s slimiest animals. At this point it becomes apparent that NASA is about two very distinct experiences: kids and adults. Fortunately, it works well.
Those who want to experience the significance and history of the facility should go directly to the Tram Tour at the far end of the main building. The open-air tram transports visitors to the space center’s significant buildings, including the remarkable Mission Control Center. Here, visitors can learn (or relive) the fascinating saga of the Apollo manned-spacecraft missions. A knowledgeable and entertaining guide takes you on a descriptive tour of the extraordinary manned-spacecraft experience as you peer through a glass partition at the dated yet iconic original gray-paneled equipment and flat monitor screens.
Goosebumps involuntarily rise on your neck as you realize you’re in the exact same room where the words “The Eagle has landed” and “Houston, we have a problem” were first heard. Next door, you’ll get to see real astronauts in action at the Space Vehicle Mockup Facility, containing space shuttle orbital trainers, an International Space Station trainer, a precision air-bearing floor, and a partial gravity simulator.
Children may not understand the historical significance of Mission Control, but they’ll certainly appreciate Kids Space, a massive collection of exhibits, games, and hands-on activities. Most of NASA’s main facility features educational and entertainment-related elements, including an enormous playground for kids, interactive flight simulators for young adults, and the compelling “Starship Gallery” for all ages, offering life-sized models and an educational effects-filled film.
Space exploration used to be major international news; now, we hardly know when a mission is taking place. Throughout the past four tumultuous decades, NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston has been the hub of America’s celestial activity.
The facility was established in 1961 as the Manned Spacecraft Center and renamed in honor of former president and Texas native Lyndon B. Johnson in 1973. The Johnson Space Center will forever be associated with its earth-shattering early missions with mighty extraterrestrial names, such as Gemini and Apollo.
These days, Mission Control handles all the activity related to the space shuttle and International Space Station. Training for these missions takes place at an adjacent building, where astronauts and engineers prepare for their time in orbit by using the Space Vehicle Mockup Facility. This enormous edifice houses space shuttle orbital trainers, an International Space Station trainer, a precision air-bearing floor, and a partial gravity simulator.
Johnson Space Center’s workforce consists of about 3,000 employees, mostly professional engineers and scientists. Of these, approximately 110 are astronauts.
For the past 40 years, these men and women have helped humans transcend the physical boundaries of Earth to enhance our knowledge about the universe.
To learn more about Johnson Space Center, visit www.nasa.gov/centers/johnson.
© Andy Rhodes from Moon Texas, 6th Edition