Space Center Houston
We didn’t make it too far today, mainly because Space Center Houston proved to deserve a whole day of our attention. We’d vaguely intended to spend about three hours there before heading to Austin, but found ourselves staying until closing time as there was so much space fun to explore!
Space Center Houston is attached to the Johnson Space Center, which is where much of NASA’s astronaut training is based, and, most famously, where Mission Control is situated. You can take tram tours to both Mission Control and Building 9 – a development and astronaut training centre – and as we couldn’t choose, we did both.
At Building 9, astronauts prepare for their experience in space by training on a life-size mock-up of the International Space Station. We saw someone attached to a harness preparing to complete tasks while floating, and also a team working on the development of the alarmingly-named but surprisingly cute Valkyrie, a space robot that, it is in intended, will complete menial space tasks on the ISS, freeing up astronauts to spend more time on science.
Mission Control was also very cool – the iconic mission control of the moon landings and Apollo 13’s ‘Houston, we have a problem‘ is now no longer used, but has been preserved exactly as it was in the 60s, ashtrays in the backs of seats and all. It’s certainly impressive to think that all of the space age achievements of the 60s were undertaken with less computing power than one would find today in a mobile phone – guess Cold War superpower rivalry (plus the contribution of a couple of Nazi rocket scientists) really did drive innovation…
The tour also takes you to Rocket Park, where there is a surviving example of the Saturn V rocket that was used to power the Mercury and Apollo missions – it’s been restored and is absolutely massive, so much so that it is lying on its side inside its gigantic shed.
Outside there are a couple of early rockets stood upright, including the Little Joe II below, a rocket for the early Apollo missions.
Back at the Space Center, there are lots of fascinating exhibits, including moon rock, and actual capsules that from the early Mercury space program (there is a tiny, tiny mention at the bottom of the explanation that the Soviets got there first). The Mercury crafts were absolutely miniscule and were essentially tin cans in orbit – the “Faith 7” that we saw, and that was used to propel Gordon Cooper into orbit for 34 hours in 1963, was aptly named, as you would have needed a lot of belief to volunteer to go for a spin around the atmosphere in this:
There is also lots of information about the Space Shuttle age; a new exhibit is Independence Plaza, a mock-up of a shuttle rested atop the actual restored Boeing 747 that was used to ‘piggyback’ the Space Shuttles back from their landing sites to Florida. There was also a great talk (delivered by a wonderfully enthusiastic scientist who was clearly absolutely passionate about space) about the scientific developments that can occur in the zero-gravity environment of the ISS, which was absolutely fascinating to hear about.
Overall, Space Center Houston hadn’t been my idea to visit, but I’m so, so glad we went. It recaptured the excitement about space that you feel as a child reading about the moon landings, and I’m now following various NASA-related twitter accounts, including the adventures of a robot named Valkyrie.
Highlights: Space Center!
Lowlights: A half hour period where I thought I’d lost my phone and was wandering aimlessly around the Space Center in search of it, only to find it had slipped down the side of the car seat.
Up next: Boiling heat and bats…