Monthly Archives: September 2015

Houston as the Center of the Spacefaring Universe

The Johnson Space Center Exhibition Hall

The Johnson Space Center Exhibition Hall

Houston is currently considered the fourth largest city in the United States, with only New York, Los Angeles and Chicago ahead of it. Having extensively visited all three, I can honestly say that their attractions are far more well-known and iconic than those of Houston, which lacks the pizzazz of an Empire State Building, Hollywood sign or mirrored, over-sized bean. Here in Houston we have a respectable, if inferior skyline, great museums for those who bother to look, and what its critics would describe as its greatest attraction – it’s less than a three hour drive to Austin or San Antonio.

But despite the dearth of world-class attractions that keep the aforementioned cities in the spotlight, Houston does boast an ace in its sleeve which grants it a unique status that in both a figurative and metaphoric sense, elevates it above all other places on earth. Simply put, when it comes to space travel and sciences, Houston is the center of the known universe.

While space travel and research has been going on rather quietly in the background over the past few decades, the world can hardly forget the thrilling events of the 1960’s, where NASA and its Apollo moon missions captivated the world. This would continue on into the early ’70’s, when the world collectively held its breath as the perilous Apollo 13 drama played out. It was during these times that Houston became synonymous with space travel, and the famous line “Houston, we have a problem” etched the city’s name on the world’s psyche.

Nowadays, despite the fact that space travel has lost its public fascination for the population at large, both the glory days and future endeavors are preserved and promoted at what just may be Houston’s biggest and most worthy-attraction – the Johnson Space Center. Here, over ten thousand people are still employed in the business of space, and astronauts from around the world inevitably make their way to this sprawling complex to the southeast of the city for mission training for the International Space Station and beyond. The good news is that you don’t have to have a doctorate degree in rocket science to visit, as I will now explain in greater detail.

How to Get There

The Johnson Space Center is anywhere from a half hour to a seventeen hour drive from the city center, depending on traffic on I-45. Houston Hobby Airport (HOU) would best serve visitors coming specifically for the space center, as it too is located in the southeast quadrant (yes, I just used the word quadrant) of what is a huge and widely-spaced (and growing!) city. Alternately, for cruise visitors arriving in nearby Galveston, you’ll have a ride of about twenty to thirty minutes by car to the town of Webster where you can catch the aptly named NASA Parkway to reach the entrance to the visitors center.

What to See and Do

Once you buy your tickets (about $21 US) you’ll be faced with a number of options, each tucked away in its own ‘wing’ of the center. Directly ahead of you is the nose of a now-defunct space shuttle, of which you can peek inside at the rather ‘low-tech’ looking instruments and cramped legroom astronauts had to navigate for space missions of the ’80’s and ’90’s. To the left is a theater with multiple showings of the film du jour, and next to that is an extensive display of spacesuits and other space-related paraphernalia. There are informative panels describing everything, and if you have an inquiring mind and a love for reading, you can spend hours soaking in every detail. If you’re more of a visual person, you’ll most likely prefer the stuff to the right of the big shuttle.

The original Mission Control

The original Mission Control

The main attraction for most is the shuttle tour, lasting about 1.5 hours. This tram (think Disney parking lots) takes about 87 people out into the bustling complex of buildings that houses the lion’s share of the world’s leading space experts. The first stop is at famed Mission Control, which has been lovingly restored to its original 1965 glory with authentic consoles and ‘primitive’ technology. A guide will give a spiel about the history that took place in that very room, and even those who are quite indifferent to astrophysics in general can’t help but feel a sense of wonder and awe at what was accomplished without so much as a real computer (apparently, the substitute was a bunch of mathematicians with slide rulers – you know, for the calculations and stuff). Appropriately, the building is a registered National Historic Landmark for its role in one of the greatest feats of human engineering.

Other highlights include a chance to see rocket scientists at work on the current Orion project, as well as a life-size mock-up of the International Space Station and a Russian Soyuz capsule, which is now the only way to get above the atmosphere. At a paltry $21 million per astronaut to secure a seat on the next shuttle, NASA has seen great savings by hitching rides with the Russians. I believe I heard that you can save 10% by ordering online, but that might just be a rumor. I hinted to my wife that we have an anniversary coming up and that I’d love to visit space. She seemed non-committal but perhaps she just doesn’t want to ruin the surprise.

Mock-up of the ISS for training purposes

Mock-up of the ISS for training purposes

Another stop is at the so-called rocket park, where genuine rocket engines are lined up in front of a massive hangar that houses a life-size Saturn V rocket complete with all stages. If you’re impressed with all the engineering involved, just think of the guts it took for those astronauts to actually strap themselves to something so huge filled with rocket fuel.

Something else you won’t want to miss, adjacent to the tour entrance point, is the spaceship gallery. There is a film, recounting the history of space travel (a particularly chilling and poignant moment is the loss of the Challenger) as well as actual capsules and equipment from previous missions. Most interesting to me, is the opportunity to touch a sliver of genuine moon rock, which to be honest, doesn’t feel all that different than touching a smooth Earth rock, but actually touching something from beyond our world is a rare and unique experience that just isn’t available elsewhere. Once again, Houston is the center of the space-faring universe.

And if all that isn’t enough, there is a simulator where for $4 you can virtually explore space phenomena, as well as a hands-on, interactive kids area replete with Mars rovers, more simulations and plenty of space-related toys to play with. In the near future, a new exhibit of a replica space shuttle atop a jet is being built in full view of the parking lot and will no doubt be another fun and informative place to explore.

Odds and Ends

There are a few details that you should know to enhance your visit. First, parts of the tram tour are obviously outside, which means that coming in the summer may or may not expose you to temperatures similar to those on Mercury. Mission Control and some other parts of the tour are located in the upper levels of the buildings, so the physically infirm (or extremely lazy) should contact their guide so that they may take the elevators.

Check out a Saturn V rocket up close and personal

Check out a Saturn V rocket up close and personal

Another pertinent detail is that of how much time to allow for your space explorations. As was already mentioned, the tram tour takes about 1.5 hours and said 1.5 hours are according to the posted schedule, which means you may have to schedule more time for standing in line purposes. The films also run at set times and you may need to schedule enough time to coincide with the fixed schedule. As for the rest, it all depends on how much you wish to enrich your knowledge of the universe and the history and nuances of space travel. There is an abundance of information posted alongside all displays, and if you’re the type who cares to know what they’re looking at and why, then budget in some time for that as well. Ditto for those who wish to grab a bite to eat and/or shop the gift stores where you can buy dehydrated ice cream and t-shirts with witty rocket humor slogans (my favorite was ‘May the Force = Mass x Acceleration Be With You’). Basic rule of thumb: count on 3 to 4 hours for a basic viewing of all attractions. Add another hour or so if you are there to learn something.

To Infinity and Beyond

Houston may not have the same panache as New York or Chicago, nor the star power of Los Angeles, but the Johnson Space Center has a star power all its own, and continues to keep Houston as the center of the world’s space endeavors. If extraterrestrial contact is ever made, you can be sure that East Texas will be the likely port of entry, so come see it now before the rest of the universe arrives.


Have you visited the Johnson Space Center in Houston? Share your thoughts by commenting below?

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Second Fiddle in Agra is Still a Show Worth Seeing

Looking out at the Diwan I Am

Looking out at the Diwan I Am

It must be hard living in someone/something’s shadow. It must be even harder when said person/thing isn’t even half your size. But that’s the reality for Agra Fort – a colossal stronghold across the river for the world famous Taj Mahal, and a worthy destination in its own right.

While the Taj is known for its delicate white marble and inlaid stones, the Agra Fort would comparatively be considered utilitarian; at least by Indian standards. Its mammoth facade is made of reddish sandstone, and what it may lack in luxury it more than compensates for in size. Some 70% of the 94 acres are currently occupied by the Indian military and therefore off-limits to tourists. Regardless, both the sprawling grounds and hazy views of the Taj Mahal across the way make visiting this fortress worth the price of admission.

Seeing Red at Agra Fort

Seeing Red at Agra Fort

If all you want to do is admire the architecture, a guide will not be necessary. If you care to know anything about what you’re looking at, I would highly recommend hiring one. Doing so will bring the various halls, courtyards and apartments into context and enhance your appreciation for what you’re seeing. Yeah, it doesn’t have the same romantic backstory as the Taj, but that doesn’t mean it’s without a decent plot line. The most interesting twist was finding out that the builder of the Taj Mahal, Shah Jahan, was eventually deposed by his son and imprisoned there in the fort – allegedly in full sight of his masterpiece just across the way. Lovers of irony and or tragedy will no doubt prefer the “unhappy ending” version of events. Romantics might want to just stick to the Taj.

While not as ornate as the aforementioned diva, there is great detail in the architecture -especially the doorways, columns and arches. There is perhaps no greater display than at the Diwan I Am, or the Hall of Public Audience. This is where the emperor du jour would hold court and interact with his subjects. Nowadays it’s filled with tourists snapping up pictures with whatever space is left on their memory cards after visiting the Taj Mahal.

Sit back. Relax. And Enjoy the Architecture

Sit back. Relax. And Enjoy the Architecture

Depending on one’s speed and stamina, the highlights of the fort can be seen unhurriedly in less than half a day. Often guided tours will take in the Agra Fort in conjunction with the Taj Mahal and sometimes the nearby abandoned city of Fatehpur Sikri. While that’s a lot to take in, be sure not to skip this monument that if it were found in any other city, would be considered the star of the show. Just because it’s nearby to that other famous monument doesn’t diminish it in the least. I suppose that if you’re going to be overshadowed by something, it might as well be the most beautiful building in existence. Yet, here in Agra, the Agra Fort may be second fiddle, but I promise you’ll never see another sideshow looming so large.

Categories: Miscellaneous | Tags: , , , , , , ,

Amsterdam: Advice Without the Vice

Amsterdam Street Scene

Amsterdam Street Scene

The city of Amsterdam – showpiece of the tiny nation of Holland – draws much attention to the legality of vice within its borders. From the open use of narcotics to the infamous ‘red light district’, the city appears to take great pride in the fact that you can legally do things here that you’re not usually allowed to do elsewhere. Some may call it morally enlightened; others just call it sleazy. Personally, I just avoided it altogether, and as a result had a wonderful time in a must-see city for anyone passing through northern Europe.

Moral relativity aside, Amsterdam’s true appeal comes in its historic nature as the principal city of a former empire that has had a disproportionately large influence on world affairs for such a little country perched so precariously on the short side of sea level. Once controlling strategic ports in both the West and East Indies (and a little place once called New Amsterdam, now known as New York), the world has certainly had its exposure to Dutch culture – from the famed Dutch Masters to the six-pack of Heineken in your fridge. This rich heritage of trade and wealth has resulted in a lovely panoply of narrow mansions set in concentric circles of busy canals that draw more than their fair share of tourists – even those completely uninterested in the less-savory offerings available.

Getting There

Holland may be small, but its location at the crossroads of international trade means that it is well-connected by road and train. Amsterdam in particular is well-serviced by air carriers from around the world (especially national carrier KLM) with flights constantly passing through Schiphol Airport (AMS). From there it is possible to procure train tickets right to Amsterdam Centraal Station – a great starting point at Amsterdam’s front door for touring the city .

What To See

The famous (but crowded) Amsterdam sign

The famous (but crowded) Amsterdam sign

Provided the purpose of your visit is one of enlightenment and not vice, from Centraal you can either hop on a tram to points around the city, or take a walk down a main thoroughfare called Damrak, which houses tour operator offices, tons of restaurants packed with tourists, and several large souvenir stores, where you can buy all sorts of t-shirts, coffee mugs and bric-a-brac emblazoned with marijuana leaves or in the shape of the genitalia of your choice. If you’re looking to steer clear of such things, stick to the airport shops.

Down in the southwest of the city – past several rings of canals – is the Museum Quarter (regular ones – not the salacious kind). Here you’ll find many of the aforementioned museums – some dedicated to diamonds or Van Gogh – but many people come here to see the iconic life-size, block letter I AMSTERDAM sign found just behind the Rijksmuseum. Here you can take your picture on the vowel or consonant of your choice while dozens of other tourists try to do the same. Special Tip: there’s an identical sign just outside the doors of Schiphol Airport that draws far less photobombers.

Strolling the World Heritage Jordaan District

Strolling the World Heritage Jordaan District

Following the gentle curve of the canals to the northwest of the Museum Quarter, you’ll soon find yourself strolling through the leafy Jordaan district – a peaceful neighborhood considered a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its history as a triumph of urban planning. For the modern, urban-planning-ignorant visitor, it is an excellent microcosm for all that is good about Amsterdam. You’ll see characteristic multistory houses, barges and boats aplenty moored along the edges of reflective canals, and more bicycles than you can count as they vie with cars and pedestrians filtering through its historic streets. It is a neighborhood with personality; a ‘retro-chic’ vibe that acknowledges its age, but effortlessly insists that it is cool and hip despite it. This is also where you can visit the Anne Frank house, whose namesake’s diary provided the world with a glimpse into the horrors of Nazi occupation. After that you just might feel so depressed that you’ll be tempted to partake in the city’s vices, so I say beware to all who enter.

Take a canal tour for a sea-level perspective

Take a canal tour for a sea-level perspective

Probably the most popular (and recommended) activity is to buy a ticket for a canal tour, which usually run every half hour from a variety of companies all with their own purpose-built barges, complete with glass coverings, multilingual soundtracks and size specifications to navigate the sometimes frighteningly low clearance of many bridges. Tours usually last about an hour (more if you do a dinner cruise) and provide insights into the history of many buildings, along with a backstreet glimpse into the heart of the old city; resplendent with quirky houseboats and mansions galore. For the 15 Euros or so it will cost you, it is definitely worth the price of admission.

Summing It Up

Amsterdam is an international city with a wealth of history and attractions to keep any visitor busy for days – and I haven’t even mentioned all the day trips to the windmills and tulip gardens that make the country so famous. In Amsterdam you can expand your mind and culture in its art museums, architecture and culinary offerings. You can also experiment will all sorts of vice. The choice is yours, but if you like ‘clean living’ you’ll not lack for things to see and do. If you don’t, well, vice is never more than a canal or two away.

Categories: Destinations | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , ,

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