Having arrived in the Houston area the previous evening, we were well rested and ready for a day of exploring the region before taking in an evening game at Minute Maid Park. First stop was the Johnson Space Center, a visit both my brother and I had eagerly anticipated.
1. Johnson Space Center
We arrived at the Johnson Space Center (JSC) shortly after it opened at 900 am. Arriving early, we found parking to be ample. Walking up the the visitor center, we encountered the first magnificent site of the day. The space shuttle Independence was placed atop a NASA 747, a mock-up of how shuttles were transported from landing site to launch site in Florida. Being old enough to remember the initial shuttle flight of the Enterprise piggybacking on a 747, it brought me back to the day of that flight so many years ago.
Upon arriving at the visitor center, we decided to take the Tram Tour of the JSC. The $29.95 price seemed to be a bargain for what was sure to be one of the highlights of the trip. Assembling just outside of the visitor center to the right, we boarded the tram and awaited the start of the tour. Once we were underway, we saw something is did not expect to see: Longhorns.
Before this trip, I honestly didn’t know much about the JSC, and the tour guide took the time to explain the history of the Longhorns and the space program. Much of the land that the JSC now occupies what was once a steer farm, and NASA wished to retain some of the history of the land. If you are curious (as I was) about the connections, you can check out the Longhorn Project.
Following the visit with the Longhorns, we passed over a small gully, which contained surprise number two of the tour. In the gully was a five foot alligator. Seemingly unfazed by our presence, the gator sat nearly motionless as we passed by. Apparently, gators occasionally visit the JSC, traveling from Armand Bayou Park across the street.
The Tram Tour is different each day, though there are stops it makes each time. We passed by several buildings on our way to Mission Control. As we walked up to the access point to the old Mission Control, we were informed by our tour guide that access would require us to climb 82 steps to reach the site. Though there was an elevator for those with mobility issues, my brother and I decided to climb the stairs to reach the old Mission Control.
The effort was well worth it. We sat in the gallery seats just behind the controller locations. Unfortunately, the site was being renovated for the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 launch, so we were unable to walk among the workstations. While mildly disappointed, I was still thrilled to be in the same room where the magic happened. In fact, we sat in the seats were the Lovell family watched the Apollo 13 broadcast, not long before their mishap.
Being old enough to remember the final Apollo missions, sitting this close to where a group of people worked together as one was like a dream come true. It reminded me of how far we came so fast in those days, and how we haven’t fulfilled the promise of the future forged by the Apollo program.
Personally, had the tour ended there, it would have been time well spent. However, there was much more to see. Next on the tour was Building 9, which housed some of the new technology NASA was developing for future space mission. While there was plenty to see here, I became transfixed by the Orion spacecraft.
The Orion is the capsule the will house astronauts as we return to space. Orion is expected to ferry four astronauts to the moon, where the yet to be built lander will bring them to the surface. Seeing the capsule buoyed my spirits concerning NASA and our potential for returning to the moon and possibly beyond.
Another piece of technology caught my eye on the floor in Building 9. Mimicking the movement of creatures on Earth, one of the probes was modeled after a spider. Though we didn’t see it in motion, it was intriguing to speculate how it might fare on an alien world.
The 90 minute tour ended far too quickly, though there was still one more place of interest to visit. The Saturn V building caught our attention. In front of the building as an ad hoc museum of the rockets used in the NASA arsenal through the years. While interesting, the Saturn V held the my gaze. The most powerful rocket ever to launch humans into space, the Saturn V is huge, occupying a building more than the length of a football field. Seeing it in person was sobering, a reminder of how amazing the program to put men on the moon truly was.
My brother has remarked that this was his favorite part of this trip. Even though I respectfully disagree, I will return to the JSC in the future, if only to visit the fully refurbished Mission Control.
Never having seen the Gulf of Mexico on the Texas coast, we drove down to Galveston to find some lunch. We found parking near the beach, and walked down to the water near the pier. The white sand and amusement area on the pier reminded me of the Jersey shore. Being a work and school day, there were few people on the beach, which afforded in nearly unfettered access.
Walking onto the pier, we were disappointed to see that it was closed. Returning to the beach, I was captivated by the view of the Gulf. It reminded me of the story of Isaac Cline trying to warn the residents of Galveston that a hurricane was approaching in 1900, and how vulnerable the place seemed to the Gulf.
Lunch was next on the agenda, and we decided on Jimmy’s on the Pier. Arriving late during the lunch rush, we were surprised to see so many people there. Despite being a seafood restaurant, we ordered more land based entrees. Seating was scarce after getting our food, but we were able to sit outside while we ate.
As soon as we were ready to leave, there were people prepared to take our seats. One last walk around the pier section of Galveston was followed by the trip to the hotel to relax before the game that evening. Though this was designed to be a baseball blog, I couldn’t help but share our experiences from the JSC.