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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