If, like me, you’re a bit of an astronomy geek/space enthusiast/Brian Cox lover (delete as applicable), then no doubt you’d be as excited as I was to set foot on the hallowed ground around the Johnson Space Center. To be able to say ‘Houston, we have a problem here’ out loud, while standing in the viewing room at the original Mission Control, is something pretty special. If you’re planning to visit Texas for nothing else, this alone is worth it. And with direct flights from Manchester to Houston with Singapore Airlines launched last month, there’s never been a better time to do it.
Here I’ll show you the best bits of NASA’s Holy Grail, so you can get a glimpse of what to expect when you book your trip:
Space Center Plaza
This is the Space Center’s beating heart; it’s the spot where you first enter and clap eyes on some of the most memorable space paraphernalia, not to mention where you can partake in interactive exhibits and shows. From here you can also pick up the Tram Tour – which takes you around the site’s 1,600 acres, as well as Rocket Park, Building 9 and the Mission Control Center – before trying a range of space flight simulators and a plethora of merchandise. Don’t leave without a NASA snapback, I guarantee you’ll regret it.
If you ever wanted to get inside NASA’s brain, you can do it here. Future designs, mock-ups of working parts of the International Space Station and new systems, in the process of being tested, are on display here. You’ll walk along a seemingly neverending catwalk while a feast of cutting-edge space gear is being worked on beneath your feet. This is where you can get a snapshot of the future of space exploration – and that’s definitely something to brag about when you get home.
There are three vessels on display in Rocket Park, but there’s one that will catch your attention more than most. Saturn V – the most powerful rocket ever built and successfully operated to the moon and back – has to be seen to be believed. Perhaps because it is utterly MASSIVE. We’re talking 36-storeys or 111m tall (it’s laid on its side here, it’s that big) and broken into three stages to demonstrate how it split apart when forced into action. When fully fuelled, this high-power behemoth weighs 6.2 million pounds – over 12 times the weight of the Statue of Liberty. Basically, prepared to be impressed.
Historic Mission Control
I got chills when I first stepped inside the Mission Control Center. It’s humanity’s history, and future, all in one building after all. And when I sat in the viewing room at historic Mission Control (designated a National Historic Landmark in 1985), I could almost feel the stories permeating the walls and the archaic computer systems beyond the glass. Here, they have commanded around 40 space missions, including the iconic Apollo 11 moon landing and the Apollo 13 emergency – from which the misquote made famous by Tom Hanks in the Apollo 13 movie originates.
Nothing has changed here since 1992, when the control room was last used, and, sitting in the front row, our guide told us we were gathering where famous presidents and even The Queen have perched in anticipation.
You can even go beyond the glass and walk through the rows of computers by taking the Center’s ‘Level 9 tour’.