By Joe Southern
The average person may never venture into space, but they can go to Space Center Houston and experience space like nowhere else on Earth.
The space museum and activity center is the official visitor’s center for the Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center, home of mission control and NASA’s human spaceflight activities. The popular tourist attraction is operated by the nonprofit Manned Spaceflight Educational Foundation.
Celebrating its 25th anniversary, Space Center Houston has made several upgrades in recent years and has a full slate of activities planned for the coming year. Gone is the space shuttle Adventure mockup that came out of the wall. In its place is Mission Mars, a new exhibit focused on NASA’s objective of sending humans to the Red Planet. The centerpiece of the exhibit is the mock-up of the Orion spacecraft, which will someday carry humans to the moon, Mars and other deep space destinations.
Although the space center did not receive one of the retired space shuttles, it did get the mockup formerly known as Explorer, which used to greet visitors at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Renamed Independence, it now sits atop the retired shuttle carrier aircraft, NASA 905. Visitors can go inside both the shuttle and the carrier as part of the price of admission.
Starship Gallery is home to the Mercury 9 capsule (called Faith 7 and flown by Gordon Cooper), the Gemini 5 capsule (flown by Cooper and Pete Conrad), and the Apollo 17 command module (flown by Gene Cernan, Ronald Evans and Jack Schmitt). There is also a replica of a lunar module, a lunar rover trainer, the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project docking module trainer and the Skylab 1-G trainer, which is so large the center had to be built around it.
One of the major highlights is the lunar sample vault, where actual moon rocks and moon dust are on display. There is also a moon rock that visitors can touch. There are artifacts on display covering all aspects of the American space program from Mercury through the space shuttle. Even the lectern where President John F. Kennedy gave his famous moon landing challenge in 1962 at Rice University is on display in the Destiny Theater.
The Astronaut Gallery contains the space suit Pete Conrad wore when he became the third person to walk on the moon, along with several other space suits and space-worn attire. The refurbished Galileo 7 shuttlecraft from the “Star Trek” TV show is exhibited at the space center, although it is currently on loan to another museum.
The center has three theaters showing different NASA films, including the Destiny Theater, Space Center Theater, and Blast-Off Theater – which also serves as a lecture hall. Children will enjoy playing in the Kids Space Place or the interactive exhibit about the International Space Station. Visitors can dine in the Zero-G Diner or buy souvenirs in the Space Trader Gift Shop.
The center of the main plaza is reserved for traveling exhibits and this summer guests can explore Science Fiction Science Future and learn about futuristic technologies that are no longer limited to the realm of science fiction.
No trip to the space center is complete without taking one of the tram tours and visiting Johnson Space Center. Tours go to the Chris Kraft Mission Control Center, where controllers monitor space missions, and to the Space Vehicle Mockup Facility, where astronauts train for their missions in space. All of the trams stop at Rocket Park, which includes the Little Joe II test rocket, a Mercury Redstone rocket and a restored Saturn V rocket.
Visitors can also opt to take the Level 9 tour, which requires a reservation and an additional fee. It goes more in depth and goes places the tram tour does not, including the Neutral Buoyancy Lab where astronauts train under water to simulate the weightlessness of outer space.
Currently, the historic Mission Control center is undergoing renovation and is not open for tours.
On Oct. 14, Space Center Houston will debut Destination Moon, a traveling exhibit of the historic Apollo 11 command module that took Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins to the moon.
To learn more or to plan a visit, go to spacecenter.org.