“Houston, we have a problem.” Who doesn’t remember this line from the movie Apollo 13, when the astronaut played by Tom Hanks notifies NASA’s mission control about an explosion that damaged the spaceship?
Since we moved to Houston, we have been discovering the city a little bit at a time. We quickly realized that there is no shortage of things to do in the fourth largest city in the nation. No surprises there, right? My surprise came when I found out that NASA’s Johnson Space Center is the most popular tourist attraction in town.
After our first visit, I understood why.
Thinking about space as a surreal, out-of-reach place is far from reality at NASA. There, you can look at actual rockets on display, see simulation labs, touch a piece of moon rock, learn about upcoming missions, and much more. Your curiosity is the rocket that will take you as far as you want to go.
But that is not all. The inspiration and belief from NASA experts that the kids of today will be the astronauts of tomorrow for the Mars Mission was almost shocking.
“Our future scientists may be sitting in front of me right now,” said the speaker of a live show while looking straight at the kids in the audience.
It blew my mind.
From its many past achievements to the full story about its future expeditions, a visit to NASA is a must-see learning experience for all ages.
Here is what you need to know when going on your own outer space journey.
There is a lot to see at the NASA Space Center
You can choose from spending a couple of hours or a whole day (or even a few days) at NASA. There is so much to see that you could devote an entire day and not experience everything. According to your level of interest and the age of your kids (if applicable), choose the exhibits that will suit you. That said:
- Arrive early.
- Pick up the Daily Schedule from the Information Desk. Another option, visit Space Center Houston to build your customized trip.
Shows and movies
There are several movies and live shows throughout the day. With your Daily Schedule in hand, find the ones suitable to you.
The Living in Space is one of our favorite shows. In a spaceship model, a NASA team member speaks to the audience about the astronauts’ routine in the International Space Station (ISS): how they sleep, eat, exercise and manage all daily tasks. The kids in the audience had their eyes glued to the stage, showing emotions varying from laughter to perplexity with what they heard.
“Euuww!” was a group shout when they heard that our astronauts recycled and drank their own urine.
Plan your day around the shows you want to see
Once you have the daily schedule sorted out, keep in mind the times for each show you want to see. In between, explore the Center. From spacesuit collections at the Astronaut Gallery to interactive exhibits on Mission Mars and temporary exhibits at the Main Plaza, you will learn about the past, present, and future missions of American astronauts in outer space. Don’t forget to see the historic, authentic space capsules in the Starship Gallery, and be sure to walk through Independence Plaza to see the enormous, actual shuttle carrier aircraft that has a space shuttle replica mounted on it.
Do not miss the NASA tram tours
Keep in mind:
- Take the tour early in the morning as lines quickly become long.
- The tram tour is included in your admission to Space Center Houston.
- The tram is open on both sides, so bring a sweater for a cold day (yes, we have cold days in Houston).
- Tram tours may be cancelled if it’s raining.
This do-not-miss experience will take you behind the scenes of the NASA Johnson Space Center, showing not only historic facts but also sites where the American astronauts of today work in new missions.
Depending on the time of the year, the trams may have different schedules. In the busy season, which is most of the time, there are two different tours – a red line and blue line – each about 60 minutes long. In the slow seasons, there’s only one combined tour that is 90 minutes long.
Red Tour – While driving through the campus, an audio guide explains what happens in the different buildings. First stop is at Building 9, the Astronaut Training Facility where astronauts develop and train for new missions. Depending on the day of the visit, you may see astronauts working. The second stop is at the Saturn V Rocket.
Blue Tour – Similar to the red tour, but instead of the Astronaut Training Facility, the first stop is at the Mission Control. From this historic room, NASA monitored all Apollo lunar missions, including the historic Apollo 11 trip – when the first two men stepped on the moon for the first time – and the final Apollo 17. From the same room, scientists watched with disbelief as the Space Shuttle “Challenger” exploded.
Both tours end at the Rocket Park, where a massive Saturn V Rocket is located. My jaw dropped the first time I saw the Saturn V. According to NASA, it is the tallest, heaviest and most powerful rocket ever launched. You won’t want to miss this part, believe me.
Rocket Park is the last stop for both tours, and you can explore the site at your own pace. At this point, you don’t have to take the same tram you’ve been riding; instead, you can hop on any tram whenever you are ready to head back to the Space Center.
Definitely do both tours if you have time. However, skip the Rocket Park on the second tour.
The reality is that your visit to NASA’s Johnson Space Center is an out-of-this-world experience. At the end our visit, we realized that we are nothing more than a particle in the universe. The history, displays, and new studies made us wonder what we will learn about space in the upcoming years, who and what is out there, and whether our kids’ generation will travel to Mars!