Space Center Houston
If you wake up now and then thinking “I need to do something exciting today; I need to see and hear something that makes me feel like we all have a bright future ahead of us,” I have a suggestion. Drive over to Space Center Houston.
My daughter and I made the one hour drive last week, willingly enduring the congested roadways for the sake of a positive message. I realized it’s been at least ten years since we last visited. Much too long, especially considering how much I’ve always enjoyed a trip to NASA.
The first time I saw the facility was 30 years ago. Although we lived in Austin back then, it always seemed an important place to take visitors. At that time, you would arrive at what I assume must have been the main administration building. There were a few glass enclosed displays, but they weren’t the main attraction. We would get on a bus that drove us around to various buildings, passing the Saturn V rocket on the way. The most exciting part was always mission control.
In 1992 NASA opened Space Center Houston, the facility that visitors today arrive to see. When we arrived at 10:40 on a Thursday morning, 40 minutes after it opened, we had no problems finding parking close to the entrance. I was a little disoriented at first because everything looked so different. The first thing you see now when you pull into the parking lot is a full scale replica of the space shuttle, mounted on top of the original NASA 905 shuttle carrier aircraft. More on that later.
Tickets are a bit on the expensive side at $30 per person, but there’s a lot to see. Additionally, nothing beats the sense of optimism you carry with you out the door. If you have cash on hand when you arrive at Space Center Houston, paying the $5 parking fee will be quick and easy.
Since I’ve seen the permanent exhibits a number of times, I normally aim straight for the movie theater. I would suggest taking the time to read about the documentaries before arriving at NASA, so you’ll know what your priorities are. I had picked the film I was interested in but my daughter was more interested in seeing the other option. We ended up seeing both. I really can’t recommend the documentaries enough. They’re switched out every so often, so there’s usually something new when you visit. NASA’s archives must be enormous, so I doubt they’ll run out of material any time soon.
Between movies, we walked in front of the large wall on which NASA displays pictures of all their flight crews. It’s impressive to see how many have made it into space, and therefore especially sad when you recognize the faces of the crews that didn’t return.
Adjacent to the picture wall you will find display cases containing the various space suits the astronauts have worn through the years.
If you haven’t visited before, you’ll enjoy seeing the Gemini 5, the Faith 7 Mercury spacecraft and Apollo 17. They’re so cramped, especially the first two; it’s hard to believe anyone was willing to get in them and be shot into space. There’s also an opportunity to touch a rock brought back from the moon.
Let’s get back to the space shuttle and the shuttle carrier. The duo was put on display in 2016. Had I known, I would have made it a point to visit sooner. You can get on an elevator to reach the space shuttle on the top floor, and then use the stairs to access the lower levels. Even though it’s a replica, it’s a unique experience to walk into it and imagine this thing that feels and looks like a plane flying right on the edge of the vastness of space. It allows us mere mortals a sliver of the feelings the astronauts must have had looking back at earth. Makes you wish we earthlings were better equipped to see past our differences and conflicts. Imagine what we would achieve if we could.
Looking down on the plane that transported the shuttles gives you a unique perspective on the size of it. I’ve crossed the Atlantic countless times, but I’ve never had an opportunity to get such a close look at any of the planes I’ve flown on, from so many angles. Just seeing the wheels and the bays they retract into was an interesting experience. Looking up from the ground past the wings of the NASA 905 and seeing the enormous black underside of the space shuttle felt unexpectedly emotional. It is an impressive sight. You’ll know what I mean when you see it in person.
We did not do the tram tour, although we’ve done it in the past. The tram tour is what we used to enjoy before Space Center Houston was created. If you haven’t visited before, this tour should be considered a must. This is your chance to see NASA up close and personal, or at least as close as NASA allows.
If you can schedule a visit during the week, I would recommend it. If you get hungry during your stay, you’ll find a convenient food court, and if you’re in need of gifts or souvenirs, there’s a really nice gift shop.