Scrolling through the brochures in the hotel lobby, I came across one for the Space Center, Houston. It talked about a tram tour and a new exhibit at the Independence Plaza, both of which we had not explored before. We had about six hours between Missy JJ’s events and decided to spend that time at the Space Center.

I booked the tickets online and using the discount code from the brochure, I was able to get about $20 savings for all of us. I then looked to add the tram tour. The price for this is included in the ticket. The advantage to booking online is the timed tickets, a limited number of which can be booked ahead of the visit. Our available times were all later in the afternoon that worked to our advantage. We got the confirmatory email and were all set.

By the time we returned from the event, it was much later than planned. The trip to the Space Center was about 45 -50 mins one way from Sugar Land. We headed out quickly eschewing lunch in favor of arriving on time for the tour. Needless to say, it was a hungry group that entered the Center. We were happy to skip the long lines outside the ticket booth and entered the building. Unfortunately, I had not downloaded the tickets nor had I printed them. So it took a while for Mr. JJ to download the ticket. It was nearly time for the tour boarding and our bellies were growling despite a big breakfast. Things weren’t going quite the way I had envisioned.

But all is well that ends well, we did gain entry, and headed to the far end of the Space Center where the tour lines started. The route took us past the large cafeteria and the aroma of food was an irresistible draw but we doggedly moved forward and joined the line outside. We first had to pose for the quintessential photo and then were asked our choice of tour. We went with the Historic Mission Control and in the next few minutes we were seated on the tram and headed out. Phew! that had been a close call.

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Mission Control at NASA Johnson Space Center, Houston

The Historic Mission Control at NASA Johnson Space Center is the same hallowed space from which nine Gemini and the Apollo missions (including the famed 11 and the infamous 13) were monitored. We first had to climb 89 steps to the viewing gallery from where we got a good look at the Mission Control room. The Room is preserved in exactly the same way it had been while in use from 1965 to 1993. The giant screens at the center of the room dwarf the empty desks and blank monitors. At 51 yrs of age, this room carries a quiet dignity and an awe-inspiring aura about it.

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Historic Mission Control as seen from the viewing gallery

The average age of the people who made possible all those great expeditions to the moon and beyond was a whopping 26! Twenty six years!! And they made it happen with five IBM mainframe computers with 2 MB RAM !! How incredible is that!! The plaques on the right side of the wall have the mission patches from each mission and there were around 40 in all launched from this very place.

The first words spoken from the moon on July 20, 1969 were heard in this Control Room. As were the last. The Apollo 13 emergency was handled in this very room. Talk about history in the making!! Behemoth missions were launched and monitored from this little room that now stands silent. The viewing gallery had once played host to Presidents and dignitaries as important as the Queen of England. And still carries ashtrays, a legacy of the sixties. Tom Hanks and Ron Howard had sat in that very room trying to absorb the ambience and the pulse of the room and faithfully recreating it for their Apollo 13 movie.

What was achieved in those few years of space missions is beyond historical! Truly one giant leap for mankind!! And the pride and passion were fully evident in our guide whose eyes filled up and voice cracked talking about the Mission Control and their achievements!

We all sat there for a few moments lost in our own imagination of those pivotal moments in mankind’s history! But all too soon we were herded out and back onto the tram for the ride back. The voice over gives lot of good information about the Center and its environs. We were dropped off at the Rocket Park where we made our way into the unassuming long space housing the powerful Saturn V rocket. This is one of only three such designed to carry astronauts into space during the Apollo missions

The Saturn V is house in a specially built climate controlled space that is part of an ongoing effort to protect and preserve this unique and powerful artifact of the exploration era. Having spent many years on display outside the NASA Johnson Space Center, the rocket had become subject to corrosion and degradation. Now it spends its time, deservedly, in a room about 36 stories tall on its side! The walls of the building have information about the various Apollo missions. A treasure trove for aerospace enthusiasts, wannabe astronauts and just anyone willing to educate themselves.

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Saturn V at Rocket Park

As the afternoon progressed and our hunger overtook our thirst for knowledge,we headed back to the main building, picking up our souvenir photos. Letting our noses lead the way, we reached the Zero-G cafeteria to find a black bean burger as a protein filled option at the Grill Shack. Surprisingly, the burger was very tasty, moist and hot! Just what we needed at the end of the tour.

We had about a quarter of an hour to spend exploring the Plaza before heading out for Missy JJ’s event. Our biggest regret of the day was not being able to explore the Independence Plaza. This is a new complex that has been built outside the original building. It has a six-story tower that leads to the replica of the Independence shuttle docked on top of the Shuttle Carrier Aircraft. Timed tickets are available for entry to the orbiter. The shuttle carrier and the Plaza do not need tickets for entry. The whole complex looks amazing and will be a must see on our list next time we’re in town.

Here are some tips if you are planning a visit:

  1. Book tickets online. Look for promotional discounts like the one I found on the brochure at the hotel. AAA discounts are also available ($5 off regular price).
  2. Consider buying a Houston City Pass. This combines tickets to five different attractions, including the Space Center.
  3. Timed tickets are available for both the Tram tours as well as to explore the Independence shuttle at the Plaza. Admission to both is included in the price of the ticket.
  4. Timed tickets have to be either printed or downloaded onto your phones for admission. Email confirmation messages are not sufficient.
  5. Timed tickets can also be bought at the Membership Deck where there is a timed ticket station. Or you can reserve them online through your phone while at the Space Center.
  6. There are so many exhibits one can spend a whole day exploring.
  7. Tram Tours include Building 9 where (vehicle mock-up facility for future explorations), Historic Mission control, New Mission Control and the Saturn V Rocket Park.
  8. Buy a bottle of water. The Grill Shack serves all beverages, except water, in a cup. We were asked to use the water fountain!!
  9. Don’t forget your souvenir photo!