Family Vactions as Big as Texas: HoustonAugust 22, 2010 No Comments
While Texas makes us think of the untamed West with cowboys, shootouts, ghost towns, and the mysterious frontier, our family saw another side of the Lone Star State (its nickname as well as an apt description of Texas’ flag) during our recent vacation in Houston, the largest city in Texas (beating Dallas and the state capital of Austin) and the fourth largest city in the United States.
Instead of stagecoaches and cowboys, we were greeted by space shuttles and astronauts. If you go by the idea that space is the next unexplored frontier like the western part of the United States once was, then the valiant astronauts are today’s equivalent of yesterday’s brave cowboys.
I don’t think my boys cared much whether they bumped into the past, present, or future in Houston. However, here are three “kid-friendly” places in Houston, your family MUST visit.
Space Center Houston at the Johnson Space Center
Apart from “Toy Story’s” Buzz Lightyear, my two boys, both born in the late 1990s, are not as exposed to astronauts and space exploration as I was, growing up in the 1970s, with the “space race” between the United States and Russia. Therefore, a day-long trip to Space Center Houston at the Johnson Space Center was an opportunity for the kids to be introduced to all the marvel of space exploration. Moreover, their old dad, who does remember the late 1970s with Skylab and what seemed like monthly space shuttle takeoffs in the 1980s, felt nostalgic for a time when my eyes were just as wide open with wonder.
At the Johnson Space Center, we were immediately immersed in a five-hour tour called the “Level 9 Tour” where we got an up-close and personal look at real life in NASA—how the astronauts train, the often stressful work at Mission Control, and more.
This comprehensive behind-the-scenes tour took us to where we least expected. We got to visit Level 3 where the Astronaut’s Cafeteria is housed. We even got lunch (included on the Level 9 package) with some astronauts in training. What a thrill for the boys and myself to meet these often unsung heroes. Subsequently, we blasted off for the next site and saw a space vehicle mock-up facility complete with observation catwalk.
As if that wasn’t enough to encourage my kids to dream of becoming astronauts (as I once did), the stop at the new Mission Control Center alongside Building 30N with the historic Mission Control Center filled us with a sense of history as the baton was seamlessly passed down between the two locations and generations.
Next, we went through a space environment simulation lab (also called “the vacuum chamber”) where the astronauts test their mettle. Afterwards, the Sonny Carter Training Facility had more inside info on what all aspiring astronauts go through with a neutral buoyancy lab that can be experienced from the observation catwalk.
Finally, we took a tram tour, taking us through the Astronaut’s Gallery to see a collection of spacesuits taken from the Space Program’s history, including John Young’s ejection suit (from the Apollo 16 moon mission) and Judy Resnik’s T-38 flight suit (from the doomed Challenger mission). We were reminded of both the victories and tragedies of the United States’ Space Program. However, getting to see the portraits of every astronaut there ever was, kept us all in high spirits.
At the end of the visit, there was still more to see, but the boys decided to change gears at the Kids Space Place with its kid-friendly, interactive presentations. There was also a themed area that explored the various elements of manned space flights and the space program from a pint-sized point-of-view.
Battleship Texas and San Jacinto Monument and Museum
The following day of our Houston adventure, we got a little bit “grounded” to the past with a visit to the Battleship Texas and the San Jacinto Monument and Museum. Both were indeed popular tourist attractions, commemorating, respectively, the United States’ role in World War I and II and Texas’ war of independence from Mexico.
The towering San Jacinto Monument proudly displays Texas’ symbolic Lone Star. At the base of this monument, you will find a museum that houses much of Texas’ rich culture and history. Across from the monument, on the nearby waters, sits the Battleship Texas (also called the USS Texas).
On the Battleship Texas, a friendly and knowledgeable tour guide told us the grand, sweeping history of the naval ship along with more personal stories of life onboard for its personnel through World Wars I and II. We even got to climb to the flying bridge, almost 60 feet above the water. Then, 20 feet in the opposite direction, we went below the water to the cramped engine room where the men’s sleeping quarters have been authentically restored along with the adjoining medical facilities. In the engine room, we also viewed guns, anchors, and even an amazing collection of trophies and other awards connected to the vessel and its men.
Next, we moved to the Monument where we rode the elevator 489 feet above the ground to the Observation Floor. Not only were we able to see Houston’s gorgeous city view from here but also Houston’s busy ship channel and harbor.
At the base of the Monument, we went to the museum-side where we relived the famous battle for Texan independence by talking a stroll with a tour guide through the San Jacinto Battleground. Granite markers throughout our walk identified prominent events that happened at each spot.
Meanwhile, inside the museum itself, exhibits greeted us and unveiled more of the story. We especially appreciated the watercolor paintings depicting the war by Sam Chamberlain, an artist, writer, and soldier who traveled through the Southwest and Mexico.
Afterwards, an early dinner at the nearby recreation park complete with picnic tables and water fountains hit the spot with some sandwiches and snacks we packed along.
Houston Museum of Natural Science
That Houston’s own Houston Museum of Natural Science is considered by many to be on par with the world-renowned Smithsonian Institute in Washington D.C. speaks volumes about the exhibits you will find inside. In fact, as many visitors flock here yearly as descend on the more famous Metropolitan Museum of Art & the Museum of Natural History, both in New York City.
So when the kids and I decided to go here on our third day in Houston, we were not disappointed at the destination that is also popular with the locals. Here, some of the favorite permanent exhibits include the Paleontology Hall where past rulers of the area, the dinosaurs still tower and rule. Next, we learned the ways oil and natural gas are made at the “made-for-kids” Wiess Energy Hall. The boys somehow managed to avoid an explosion at the Welch Chemistry Hall where they participated in chemical reaction experiments. They even deepened their introduction to chemical processes by learning how our daily lives run on chemistry.
Meanwhile, at the Strake Hall of Malacology, we learned more about shells while at the Cullen Hall of Gems and Minerals; we saw crystallized minerals in action.
At the Serengeti Plain, we marveled at the complex ecosystem of the fertile African region. We then met the Houston Museum of Natural Science’s resident mummy, Ankh-hap, and learned more about Egyptian culture by examining his life.
From the past, we went back to the future at the Isaac Arnold Hall of Space Science to see an actual moon rock and the Mercury spacecraft itself from the early days of the United States Space Program—all the way back to 1959.
The Foucault Pendulum exhibit taught the boys with fun, touchable exhibits. Afterwards, a stop at Discovery Place gave them a lesson on the relationship between energy and matter with some hands-on displays.
There were even more current exhibits like the CSI: The Experience (based on the hit TV shows), Verdura: The Life & Work of a Master Jeweler, Morena Moderna: Virgin de Guadalupe, and Lucy’s Legacy: The Hidden Treasures of Ethiopia. It was a fun-filled yet educational afternoon all in all that I am sure sparked a lot of questions and a desire to learn more in my always curious kids.
So before you assume that the only things you will discover on a family trip to Texas are tumbleweeds and tombstones, think again. This bustling metropolis has its eye to space, while at the same time, keeps its feet grounded in its past.
And if you do want to visit more of Houston’s Wild West hotspots, we recommend the George Ranch Historical Park, a 480-acre living historical site complete with costumed historical re-enactors, the Heritage Society historic museum and park, and the Historic Houston Heights Shopping District, stuffed with antiques, vintage clothing, and modern-day stuff you can actually buy.
My boys and I cannot wait to travel and explore more of Texas. This huge state is sure to hold many more BIG surprises!