Houston, we have a problem. Well, at least Raffles does. You see the boy is so obsessed with space that’s he’s saving up all his pocket money for a $250,000 a hit ticket on a yet-to-launch Virgin Galactic space flight (yes, he’ll be saving until he’s about 157 by my calculations), and has grand plans to ski the ice planet of Pluto (once he can work out a way around the “trivial” issues of the deadly -240 degree Celsius temperatures turning him into a human popsicle and the lack of breathable oxygen).
This, though, is not his problem. I am. Because while he is back in Australia, I am exploring Texas and the incredible Space Center Houston, fondling moon rocks and getting mano a mano with real live astronauts. And let me tell you, the kid is pretty miffed.
Can’t say I blame him. Space Center Houston is enough to turn even the most hardened hipster into a raving space nerd! The place is epic, both in size and experience. Just don’t tell Raff that, eh? I’m in enough trouble already.
Space Center Houston is the wonderfully accessible, nonprofit gateway to the NASA Johnson Space Center. One of the things that immediately stands out, besides the enormous space ships, is that, in one small leap for man and one giant leap for those with a disability, there are no roadblocks for anyone here. There are accessible ramps and lifts throughout, and sensory friendly evenings for visitors with autism spectrum disorder and sensory processing disorders. There are also Sensory Backpacks available at the front desk that include fidget spinners, stuffed animals, ear muffs, and sunglasses, among other things, to ensure all visitors are looked after. They even host a multiple day Vis U program for visually impaired students.
Outside in Independence Plaza is the Space Shuttle Independence, a full-scale, high-
Inside are auditoriums screening movies and literally hundreds of exhibits. The centre houses amazing artefacts including ACTUAL really real Gemini, Apollo and Mercury space capsules, which are so surprisingly small, the mere sight of them causes me claustrophobia.
There’s a Skylab Training module that you can walk through, pieces of moon rock and mars rock you can touch, an enormous collection of space suits, interactive exhibits and virtual reality experiences. Especially for kids are the Angry Birds Space-themed, interactive play area, and fun pop up shows based on STEM technologies.
I shake hands with an astronaut (at least his wax counterpart) and also find real-life astronauts sauntering about.
Well, not exactly sauntering, but talking to visitors in the auditorium.Today, Dr. John-David F. Bartoe, a former Space Shuttle astronaut and Chief Scientist for the Space Station and currently Research Manager of the International Space Station, is on hand to chat about his missions into outer space. Nerd swoon!
But for me it is the Tram Tour that ferries us to the heart of NASA’s Johnson Space Center and Historic Mission Control, in all its retro glory, that sends me into orbit.
I mean, I’m walking the same hallways as Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin and sitting in the very seat that Queen Elizabeth sat in when she came to see a flight mission on her visit(the second from the left in the front row of the VIP viewing room, if you’re wondering).
Unfortunately, no regal vibes rub off and I let out a suitably heathen snort of excitement when I spot the tiny speaker that delivered Neil Armstrong’s magic words “Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed” on July 20, 1969.
It’s also the same speaker from which the Apollo 13 team famously declared “OK, Houston, we’ve had a problem here” which erroneously gets reported in the somewhat snappier form quoted by Matt Damon who, incidentally, also once nestled his bottom into one of these very seats.
I’m a little gobsmacked by the technology, or lack thereof, that safely guided humans across 356,000 km of space from the Earth to the Moon and back. I mean these massive computers had less memory than the average USB stick, and the tiny iPhone I’m holding can process information 120,000,000 times faster.
Upstairs, the tech gets visibly more gnarly. We walk on an elevated path past the Space Vehicle Mockup Facility where NASA astronauts still train for missions and where scientists and engineers develop the next generation of space exploration vehicles.
It’s also the place NASA’s R5, aka Valkyrie, was designed and built and we can see the humanoid space robot, looking for the all the world like a prototype Ironman.
The tour finishes in an immense hanger, where as I walk the prone length of an enormous Saturn V rocket ship at 3pm, I decide to Facetime my small, barely even awake boy in Australia (its 6am at home) and make him hate me that little bit more.
But I have a cunning plan in place to win back his fickle affections! You see, the facility’s Space Center-U offers five-day lunar programs for students ages 11 and over. The programmes combine classroom theory with cognitive and tactile tasks, collaborative projects, simulated astronaut training in the Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory and NASA Johnson Space Center, plus real-world NASA experiences in areas such as robotics, rocketry, thermal protection systems and space habitats. And I think that next year we might just let him blast off on a mission from Sydney to Houston for some out of this world adventures of his own. As long as his newly-minted space nerd mum can come to.
Need to know before you go
Tickets are available online or at the door.
Get there early at opening time to beat the crowds.
Pick up a daily schedule on arrival and plan your day.
Bring a pram if you’re visiting with little ones because this place is huge.
Allow at least four hours to see everything.
Do the tram tour to NASA Johnston Space Center first as wait times can become long as the day progresses.
Space Center Houston is accessible. Visitors with autism spectrum disorder and sensory processing disorders can attend Sensory friendly evenings or head to the front desk for a Sensory Backpack.
If you’re travelling with kids over 14 and over, book the Level 9 Tour, to be immersed into the ultimate, behind-the-scenes VIP experience of NASA.