Space Center Houston

Posted by on October 3, 2012
Some kids check out the space suits at Space Center Houston

Some kids check out the space suits at Space Center Houston.

Today’s Geek Destination of Choice:

The Johnson Space Center in Houston, TX.

 

What it is:

The Lyndon B Johnson Space Center, located outside of Houston, Texas, is where the mission control center was for a number of groundbreaking space exploration missions, including the Moon landings. The attached Space Center Museum houses activities, collections of space suits, moon rocks, artifacts, a  returned Command Module, a Skylab training module, films and mini-lectures, a full Saturn V rocket, and has tours of some of the Space Center facilities, such as the Mission Control Center and the Astronaut Training facilities.

 

We totally put people on the Moon.

We totally put people on the Moon.

Why This Sets my Geek Heart Aflutter:

Oh my gosh, you guys, we totally went to space. I mean, “us”, as a country, as a species, not me personally, unless you consider that Earth is also in space, which is not what I am talking about here.

Space, you guys! Outer space! Like in the movies!

Everybody knows this, so I am not really expecting you to get up out of your seats and cheer. Every child grows up knowing what a real astronaut looks like and has probably seen Apollo 13 and The Right Stuff and maybe even the 12-hour documentary From The Earth To The Moon. But I think my appreciation for it was different when I was a kid, because as a kid I accepted the world that was presented to me with a lot more unflappability. Faces carved in a mountain? Sure, humans did that. Molecules are made out of atoms? Sure, if you say so. Tectonic plate movement causes earthquakes? Good to know. Humans went into space in tiny capsules attached to enormous rockets? Of course.

As a child, knowledge was a series of facts that my brain could piece together like a puzzle, slowly nearing a more complete picture. The moon landing fit right in there with everything else.

Now, as an adult, I’m much more aware of how knowledge isn’t just a series of facts, it’s sometimes the brutal journey we undertake as humans to collect information, make guesses based on that, build a machine that uses that information, stake our lives on that machine, and then do it again and again until we’re literally not even walking on Planet Earth any more. The moon landing wasn’t just something that happened, like some Roman war or a tsunami, it was a monumental human achievement of engineering, conducted with less computing power than I have in my laptop, and by people who have the type of degrees that many of my friends do.

It’s about engineers making science fiction real.

Seriously, have you ever really thought about that? Or just accepted that smart people do cool things and move on to the next news item?

The Space Center Museum is the official visitor’s center for the Lyndon B Johnson Space Center, which is the part with all the official government buildings with no windows surrounded by stray deer. There are two separate tours that you can take, included with admission price, that visit portions of these buildings. These are great, because you get to see where the real stuff happens. We got to see Mission Control, and while it might appear at first glance to be a boxy room, empty of people, you can look up at the wall and see all the badges from all the missions where people physically left the planet with the help of this room. You can practically hear “Houston, we have a problem…” crackling in your ears.

Apollo 17 Command Module

The actual Command Module (the only part that returns to Earth with astronauts inside) from the Apollo 17 mission was on display at the Space Center.

The attached Space Center Museum has so much cool stuff in it that I don’t even know where to begin. There is a huge gallery with artefacts from the missions, reproductions of items they no longer had, all adding up to an incredible visual walkthrough of the stages of the manned space program. I am a little embarrassed to admit that I had gotten all the different phases mixed up: Mercury, Gemini, Apollo, etc. I learned the very basic fact that Apollo was the name of the missions (numbered in order) and Saturn V was the name of the rocket. That’s like mixing up the Millenium Falcon with the Kessel Run. (You can all make fun of my lack of knowledge now.) A neat thing is that each mission has a cool badge with a graphic image and the names of the participants designed for it, and that badge is used in a whole number of things related to the mission, like going on the wall of Mission Control Center or on the jackets of the astronauts, or on all the museum displays so you know which mission they were talking about. Of course you can get all the badges for yourself in the gift shop.

Another part that was unexpectedly awesome was the Skylab training module, where astronauts would practice being in space before getting sent to Skylab. Skylab was a mini space station that was put into orbit in the 70s that was basically made out of leftover Saturn V rockets that were never going to make it to the moon after budget cuts. NASA re-purposed one of the final-stage fuel sections in the rocket as extra living space, put it in orbit around the Earth, and sent astronauts to live in it for a while. I had no idea this phase of the space program ever existed (like I said, I learned a lot), so to round the corner and see this full-sized, completely set up SPACE HOUSE that I could walk through was really awesome. Because it’s designed for space, the sleeping quarters were on the ceiling, the kitchen was on the side, and astronauts could “run” around the perimeter if they got some momentum going. Science!

Interior of Skylab living space at Space Center Houston

Interior of Skylab living space at Space Center Houston. Photo by Dave Wilson Photography.

So, yeah, awesomeness all around.

And plus, space! It’s so exciting!

 

Have you been there?

Yes, just last month. I loved it. It had been a long time since I had really enjoyed sightseeing for the pure joy of learning stuff and experiencing new things. My fiance and I spent all day looking at the exhibits, reading about the space program, ogling their full-sized, never-used Saturn V rocket, touring the Skylab exhibit. I felt like a kid again, in large part because I didn’t really know that much about our space programs to begin with, so there was a lot to learn. In fact, that trip was really what inspired me to make this site, because I realized that learning and doing things is, for some people, much more valuable than looking at pretty vistas, and just as much a valid reason for seeking out vacation destinations as any other reason.

 

The Kids' Play Area

The space-themed play area for small children

How much will it cost me?

Tickets to the Space Center, as of typing this, are $22.95 for adults, $18.95 for children, and $21.95 for seniors. If you buy them online, there is a $5 discount for all categories.

Audio tours cost an extra $8 per person. Wearing the headphones made me feel like a middle-aged mom-shaped out-of-town tourist, but if, like me, you want the maximum amount of information for the only time in your life you are going to be there, go ahead and spend the extra eight bucks, especially if you don’t have kids in tow that will get bored waiting for you to listen to quotes from presidents and clips from broadcasts.

If you have the money and totally want to geek out, plan ahead and be one of only a few people per day who get to go on the four-or-five hour Level 9 tour, which has extra behind-the-scenes goodness. Tickets are around $90, but they include your regular admission to the Space Center Museum and include a FREE LUNCH. (The choice to put FREE LUNCH in all-caps is NASA’s, as is described on their website, not mine, so you know it must be really exciting.) Seriously, I wish we’d been able to do this tour when we went. The museum is fun and wonderful and exciting, but this is more of the real stuff right here. Since we didn’t actually go on the super-special Level 9 tour, I can’t vouch for its awesomeness personally, but it’s backstage at NASA. How could it be anything other than awesome?

There is also a gift shop, a food court, and the opportunity to buy ridiculously overpriced photos of yourself photoshopped into standing in front of various space things, which of course we wanted. Be prepared to either spend money or avoid the temptation to buy space toys for everybody for Christmas.

As is usually the case with these things, if you don’t live in or near Houston, hotels and travel will cost you as well.

 

Websites and more information:

 

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