The year was 1969 as I sat sleepy-eyed on my parents’ bed, watching the flickering black and white TV image of the first man to walk on the moon. Space of my childhood meant the adventures of my heart-throb Captain James T. Kirk and I committed to heart the opening words, “Space the final frontier, these are the voyages of the Starship Enterprise…” and sang along to the Bowie classic, Ground Control to Major Tom, “Here am I sitting in my tin can, far above the world…” . My kids’ perspective on space exploration may have been formed more by Star Wars, Battlestar Galactica and Buzz Lightyear but on our recent holiday in Texas the whole family was keen to visit the Space Center Houston of “Houston we have a problem” fame.
Having arrived in Houston the day before, the sat-nav guided us from the Park Inn Hotel in north Houston to the Space Center Houston on the south east edge of the city. I’d heard that it was best to take the tram tour as soon as you arrive in case it gets crowded later in the day and the lady at the gate told us that thunderstorms were forecast for that afternoon in which case the tram tour wouldn’t run for fear of lightning strikes. We took the advice and were only briefly distracted by the gift shop before making our way to the tram tour to get in line.
The Tram Tour
Pausing for a family photo for “security” (and naturally with the opportunity to buy the photo later) we boarded the open sided tourist train. The tour took us around the working buildings of the NASA compound which were not especially exciting to look at, as they comprised mainly large office blocks and hangars. What made the tour fascinating, however, was the commentary, partly pre-recorded stories and anecdotes from astronauts, partly from the guide who pointed out places of interest.
There were two main stops on our tram tour, a big hangar housing the Space Vehicle mock-up facility and the Rocket Park. Sometimes you can visit Apollo Mission Control Centre but we didn’t get to see it on that day. The guide from the tram tour continued the commentary inside the mock-up facility where we could see a girl in a space suit who presumably was an astronaut in training. The enormous hangar contained one big workshop containing mock-ups of the space craft to allow astronauts to get the feel of the confined living and working areas where they will be spending time when in space.This was the scaled up NASA equivalent of your dad’s garage, if your dad just happened to be a space craft inventor in his spare time with half finished projects and spare rocket parts littered all around the place.
On the way back to the Space Center we stopped at the Rocket Park with a few rockets to see outside another enormous hangar that contained Saturn V, the powerful rocket that took the astronauts to the moon. Most of the hangar was taken up by the part of the rocket that contained the fuel with just a small capsule that brought the astronauts back to earth.
Cool Space factoids from the Tram Tour
There is no way to recreate a weightless environment on earth, so astronauts fly on a jet that creates microgravity by flying on a trajectory like a 2 mile high roller coaster. On this Zero Gravity flight a lot of people feel sick, giving it the nickname of the “Vomit Comet”.
Sound doesn’t travel in space due to the lack of atmosphere, but you can hear sound if you touch something being knocked so that the vibrations pass through your body.
On the tram tour you will pass a grove of oaks, the Astronaut Memorial Grove. Each tree commemorates an astronaut who died on a space mission, such as those in the Challenger and Colombia space disasters. President George Bush said “Each of these astronauts knew that great endeavors are inseparable from great risks and each of them accepted these risks willingly, even joyfully in the cause of discovery. America’s space program will go on.”
Living in Space
After the tram tour we scanned the times of activities and sat down in front of a small stage for a presentation for how astronauts live in space with a volunteer called up from the audience to help in the demonstration. We learned that space food is not so very different to the meals we eat at home except that lunch in space is prepared by inserting a tube of hot water and leaving to rehydrate for 20 minute. The astronauts have to exercise for around 2 hours per day to ensure that in the weightless environment they keep their muscle tone and generate calcium in their bodies (our volunteer duly demonstrated on the exercise bike).
Apparently the burning question that everyone wants answered is how astronauts go to the bathroom. I can report that it’s achieved either by peeing into a cup attached to a tube or by securing yourself to the toilet and then a bit of suction and the job is done so to speak! Showering isn’t really possible as the drops of water would simply float away, so the astronauts give themselves a daily body wash instead.
For our next activity we filed into the Blast-off presentation, standing in a darkened room where we experienced the sights, sounds and even the smoke of a rocket take-off with the floor vibrating and film of the space craft during take off. After the Blast-off simulation, we moved into the presentation theatre with a mock up of the mission control room on stage and heard the latest news about the space programme. Apparently, with NASA budget reductions private companies will be used in future to ferry astronauts and supplies to the International Space Station that’s manned by crew members from 16 different nations.
More cool Space factoids
The phrase “Houston we’ve had a problem” was used by the crew of the Apollo 13 Moon flight in 1970 to report a fault with the electrical system of their oxygen tanks. Despite the explosion of an oxygen tank which crippled the services to the Command Module, the crew returned to earth safely.
In space the astronauts can sleep standing up, face down or upside down as it doesn’t make any difference in the weightless atmosphere of space.
By the time we’d tried on a few space helmets for the family photo album and looked around the gallery of space suits, we’d already been at the Space Center Houston for a few hours and could have easily spent a few hours more. But by now we’d reached space saturation point and it was time to hit the road, our heads filled with plenty of space facts as well as the infectious NASA excitement for space travel.
Information for visiting the Space Center Houston
- Space Center Houston, 1601 NASA Parkway,Houston, Texas 77058
- Entrance costs are £22.95 adults, $19.95 children but these costs are reduced if you pre-book online.
- It’s best to take the tram tour at the beginning of your visit as queues can build up when the space center is busy
Other useful links for visiting Houston
- We booked the hire car that we picked up at Houston Airport through Argus car Hire
- On the first day of our holiday we stayed at Park Inn Houston North, a comfortable hotel that was convenient for George Bush Intercontinental airport
- On the last day of our Texas holiday we stayed at Hotel Sorella, a stylish boutique hotel in vibrant City Centre neighbourhood on the west side of Houston.
More tales from our Texas trip
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