‘Rocketing High’ at Space Centre Houston

‘That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind’ – famous words by Neil Armstrong as he took his first step on the moon’s surface in 1969. Everyone in the world no matter which generation you are from, myself included – knows this phrase well and would have seen that clip of Neil Armstrong taking those first steps on the moon.

If you’re in Houston – the Space Centre is an absolute must-do! You can book a car, or you can do what I did – just join a tour. I got a free pickup/drop off at my hotel in Houston Downtown. The distance between the Space Centre from Downtown is slightly more than 40km one way. You should expect to spend more than half a day here.

About the Space Centre

Space Centre Houston, is the visitors’ centre for the Johnson Space Centre (JSC) next door. JSC was established in 1961 – this is where NASA designed and developed spacecraft technology, trained its astronauts and controlled space missions such as Gemini, and Apollo.

Am sure everyone is familiar with the phrase ‘Houston, we have a problem’ by Commander Jim Lovell (played by Tom Hanks) in the movie Apollo 13. This phrase became so popular – people started using it humourously when things go wrong. The actual phrase was ‘Houston, we’ve had a problem’ – communicated first by astronaut Jack Swigert, then repeated again by Jim Lovell to the Houston Mission Control Centre in Building 30 at JSC. 

One of the many highlights of the Mission Control Centre is of course when on July 20, 1969, Neil Armstrong reported back to Mission Control from the lunar surface, “Houston, the Eagle has landed.” And history was made! (The Apollo Lunar Module (lander spacecraft) he was on, was named Eagle).

What to Expect

NASA Tram Tour

This is not just any tram tour. The tour takes you to the actual sites in JSC. The tram will also make a few key stops, such as:-

Rocket Park

sHere you will see one of the three remaining Saturn V rockets on display. A total of 13 Saturn V rockets were launched into space. Don’t think it is so clear from the picture below – but the rocket is very long – it goes all the way to the back. It is about 363 ft tall – as tall as a 36 storey building. Saturn V was used in the Apollo programme and also the launch of the Skylab Space Station. Interesting facts:-

There are three key stages of a rocket launch to the moon (source – Spacecentre.org)

  • Stage 1 – The first base (bottom part of the rocket) has powerful engines which are fast enough to propel the rocket to escape the Earth’s gravity. The first stage engines burn at liftoff and the module then separates from the rest of the rocket. The first stage is used only for 2 minutes and 47 seconds before falling back into the ocean
  • Stage 2 – The second stage burns about 9 minutes and 9 seconds to take the rocket into space, after which it will separate, fall back to Earth and burn in the atmosphere
  • Stage 3 – This stage burns about three hours to send the remaining components to the moon. Along the way, the spacecraft will detach from the rocket and leaves the rocket floating in space 

Mission Control

The tour includes a stop at Building 30 – the Christopher C. Kraft Mission Control where the Gemini and Apollo missions were monitored/controlled. This room was re-opened around mid-2019 this year, after a three year $5 million repairs and refurbishment work.

On the weekends/holidays, depending on the tourist traffic, you may get a tour of the current Mission Control where the team is monitoring the activities in the International Space Station. 

Starship Gallery

Here, you get to see several flown spacecraft on display such as:

  • The Apollo Command module. The command module brings back the astronauts back on Earth via water landing or what is referred to as ‘splashdown’. It has a heat shield that protects the core capsule body from burning/melting when re-entering the atmosphere.
  • “Mercury 9 “Faith 7” – Project Mercury was the US first ‘manned’ spacecraft program. This particular aircraft was launched on May 15, 1963. The pilot of each of the Mercury spacecraft had the privilege of giving their spacecraft a name ending with number 7. Gordon Cooper named his spacecraft Faith 7.
  • Skylab 1-G Trainer – Skylab was the first space station NASA launched into Earth’s orbit. The Skylab Trainer helps prepare astronauts to live and work in space.
Mercury 9 Faith 7
Apollo 17 Command Module
Skylab 1G-Trainer

Astronaut Gallery

Here you can see the collection of the different spacesuits from training flights and actual missions. Suits on display include

  • Extravehicular activity (EVA) or spacewalk suits which evolved with technological advancement
  • Skylab inflight garment which came with a network of tubes of chilled water to keep the astronauts cool when working 

Living in Space

There are many exhibits and presentations, about living in space. There is a replica of the International Space Station – with daily presentations on how the astronauts daily routine – how they sleep, eat, exercise and work. A couple of cool facts – 

  • Astronauts sleep in sleeping bags secured to the wall.
  • The water supply comes from 3 sources – outside ships, gathered from humidity in the air and recycled from urine
  • Food is freeze-dried or thermo stabilised so that they can be kept at room temperature. No refrigerator, or oven up there – only food warmer! 
Astronauts sleep on sleeping bags secured to the wall
Personal items and equipment are secured using velcro pad - otherwise everything will be floating in the air
One of the two toilets on the ISS. This one costs $19mln. One of them burst earlier this year - wonder if it's been fixed.

Independence Plaza

At the Plaza, you can explore the space shuttle replica – Independence. The top deck is where the pilot navigates the orbiter, the floor below is the living space for the astronauts. 

Gift Shop

To me this is also kind of an attraction – I spent a long time at the gift shop! They sell everything from books, shirts, caps, backpacks, mugs, fridge magnets, rocket replicas. I bought quite a lot of stuff. I would have spent more time here if I didnt have to go back to the bus.

Great Day Out

I had a super time. I guess there was one thing that would have made it perfect – having the kids here with me. They would love this place. Highly recommended to all types of travellers – solo, couples, families, and it doesn’t matter what age you are, you’ll have a blast. Also – if you can squeeze it in – lookup the Lunch with Astronaut package – it’s a great opportunity to hear stories from a real astronaut! 

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