Space History Comes to Life: Johnson Space Center

Lisa Fritscher June 10, 2011 No Comments

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Johnson Space Center

Johnson Space Center can spark imaginations

Dad and I are both enormous space history buffs. He grew up during the space program’s infancy, and the launches were easy to see from his Central Florida home. I was a small child during the early shuttle program and particularly loved night launches, despite the fact that they apparently couldn’t compare to Apollo night launches. Today Dad and I make a point of visiting space museums whenever possible. When we were in Houston last month, we knew we had to see the nerve center: Mission Control at the Johnson Space Center.

Our Experience

Interactive Exhibits Johnson Space Center

Touching a moon rock is just one option

Johnson Space Center is approximately 30 minutes south of downtown Houston. As we were staying at an RV park 40 minutes north of Houston, we left quite early to make the drive. After getting caught in rush hour traffic and then getting lost near the Space Center, we actually arrived around 11 a.m.

As of 2011, parking costs $6, payable in cash on your way in. The Space Center offers a range of ticket options, including online discounts, so visit the official website before your trip. The Level 9 Tour is an extensive five-hour behind-the-scenes tour open to those aged 14 and over. The tour is pricey, at $89.95 per person (2011 pricing), but includes lunch and a second day’s general admission. Dad and I considered taking it, but only had one day available. It’s on our must-do list for next time, though! The Level 9 Tour is very limited capacity, so book well in advance.

Zero G Diner

The food court was surprisingly good

We were starving when we arrived, so we headed directly to the “Zero G Diner.” It’s basically a food court, with stations ranging from the Blastoff Bistro (sandwiches and wraps) to South of the Martian Border (Mexican food). We opted to split the Beef and Broccoli from the Moon Wok. The portion was just the right size to share, though hearty eaters may prefer to order separately. The food was surprisingly good, a definite step up from traditional museum fare.

Touring the Space Center

Kids Space Place Johnson Space Center

The Kids Space Place is fun for adults, too

The exhibit building is relatively small, but contains a mind-boggling array of exhibits. The Kids Space Place is a definite must-do for children of all ages. With climbing mazes, simulators and a wide range of heavily-themed, child-friendly exhibits, it would be easy to lose track of time. You may want to put this off until the end of the day.

The Astronaut Gallery is a massive collection of historical space suits. The walls are lined with portraits of every U.S. astronaut. If you or your kids are space buffs, plan to spend a bit of time here.

Virtually everything else at the Space Center is a timed presentation, including four theater programs and two facility tours, so take a few minutes to sit down and map out a plan. Dad and I ran straight from lunch to the Starship Gallery and did not stop moving all day. Fortunately, the main building’s layout makes it easy to get from one attraction to the next.

Starship Gallery

Starship Gallery

The artifacts in the Starship Gallery are priceless

If you only have part of a day, put the Starship Gallery at the top of your list. The experience begins with a short film called “On Human Destiny” that is guaranteed to fire the imaginations of children and adults alike. When the doors open, you will enter an expansive gallery filled with priceless artifacts from space history. Look for Gordon Cooper’s Mercury capsule, the Apollo 17 command module and the massive Skylab trainer, among others.

Blastoff Theater

Mission Status Center

The Mission Status Center is a great place for updates

We actually found the first segment of the Blastoff Theater experience to be over-hyped, and the second portion under-hyped. The Blastoff Theater is a standing preshow-style theater with big-screen footage of a shuttle launch, taken on the launch pad. Smoke billows into the theater and the vibrations are terrific, but somehow we just expected more.

The next room, however, was fascinating. We entered a large half-circle seating area surrounding a set of computers and monitors that sort of resembled Mission Control. This is the Mission Status Center, where Mission Briefing Officers update visitors on the current status of various missions. We happened to visit a few days after the final Endeavour shuttle launch was delayed, when no one knew precisely when it would launch. The Mission Briefing Officer was a wealth of information, sharing quite a few details that we had not seen on TV.

Living in Space

Living in Space Exhibit

Living in Space is both informative and entertaining

Living in Space manages to do what many museum exhibits do not: provide information that is complicated enough to keep adults’ interest yet simple enough to draw in even young children. In a mockup of the space station living quarters, a presenter discusses how astronauts perform the tasks of daily living including hygiene, eating and even using the toilet.

Tram Tours

Mission Control

The nerve center of NASA: Mission Control

The Tram Tours are the heart and soul of any visit to Johnson Space Center. The Red and Blue tours visit slightly different areas, so try to make time for both. There is an easy shortcut between the two lines, making it unnecessary to reenter the main building before boarding the second tour.

The tours provide the only public access to such facilities as Mission Control and the Space Vehicle Mockup Facility. Short narrated programs are offered at each stop. Both tours end at Rocket Park, where you may spend as much time as you like examining the Saturn V and other known rockets before catching a tram back to the main building.

Security is understandably tight around the NASA facilities, so all visitors must go through a metal detector and have a photo taken before boarding the tram. Of course, the photos are also conveniently available for sale at the end of the ride! That’s a great marketing technique, one that we’ve seen in a few places around the country. There’s not much space around the metal detectors, so security asks everyone to clean out pockets and be ready to go when you reach the detector. You will also receive a boarding pass, which you must hold onto at all times while touring the facility buildings.

Tips for Parents

Kennedy Podium Johnson Space Center

JFK gave his famous "We go to the moon" speech behind this podium

The Johnson Space Center is a fantastic choice for families. Dad and I grew up during entirely different eras of space exploration, and it was great to hear all the memories that the older artifacts sparked. His eyes lit up like a little boy’s when he realized that the Starship Gallery Theater has the actual podium behind which Kennedy gave his “We choose to go to the moon by the end of this decade” speech on September 12, 1962. Dad was just ten years old then.

You know your kids best, so try to tailor your visit to their interests and let them take the lead. Some kids are fascinated by history, others by the promise of the future. Be prepared for a lot of questions. If you don’t know the answers, employees are easy to find and happy to help in any way.

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avatarAbout the Author:

Lisa is a full-time travel writer. She lives in an RV with her disabled father and writes about their experiences. Although she has no children of her own, Lisa loves being an Aunt to her own relatives and the children of all her friends. You can follow her adventures on her blog, Travel Confessions.

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