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Houston... We Have Rocks!

Touch the moon and experience other wonders of space at the Johnson Space Center.

Johnson Space Center is a collection of nondescript office buildings situated in the southeast corner of Houston, Texas. The structures aren’t named; they are instead assigned mundane numbers, none of which is the least bit science-y. You would think they could have named at least one building 3.14.           

The entire campus seems prosaic until your tour guide points out a building that houses one of the world’s largest thermal vacuum chambers, a cylinder that’s large enough to encompass an entire spacecraft.

A person doesn’t simply roll up to JSC and tell them that you would like to poke around Mission Control. After all, it’s a highly-guarded government facility. This means you will need to shell out a few shekels if you want to peek under the hood.

Space Center Houston is the official visitor’s center for NASA’s Johnson Space Center. It’s an out-of-this-world museum that’s filled with all things space-related. It’s a place where geeks can let their inner geek run wild.

Trams take loads of space travel enthusiasts from Space Center Houston to the campus of JSC. The first stop is Rocket Row. This exhibit alone is worth the price of admission.

Julie Nelson with a rocket
Photo credit: Jerry Nelson

Inside a white steel shed, lying on its side like a 363-foot-tall reclining colossus, is an actual Saturn V rocket. Even though it’s nearly 50 years old, the launch vehicle looks good as new, as if one would only need to add several thousand tons of rocket fuel, flip the switch to “Go,” and BOOM! You’re off to the races!

Still the most powerful rocket ever flown, the Saturn V could loft 310,000 pounds into low earth orbit. Looking up at the yawning bells of the five massive F-1 engines makes you feel like a mouse staring into the maw of a tiger. When the engines roared to life, it was said that their thunder would compress your chest from 3 miles away.

Our tour’s next stop was Building 9. Walking up a flight of stairs, tourists find themselves in a long hallway. A Plexiglas window affords a view of space scientists working on space science-y things. This included full-scale mockups of the International Space Station’s numerous modules and the Orion space capsule.

An eerily humanoid machine hung from a scaffold. It was Robonaut, a robotic spaceman that’s being developed by NASA to assist its human analogues. My wife said that she wants a Robonaut to help clean the house since the human man who lives with her seems incapable of that sort of thing.

Space Center Houston is the epitome of sensory overload. A Lunar Module hangs from the ceiling, its legs splayed like a humungous gold and silver bug settling in for a landing. The spacesuit that was worn by astronaut Pete Conrad when he walked on the moon during the Apollo 12 mission strikes a lifelike pose inside a glass case.

We listened to a talk by astronaut Mike Foreman, who flew two space shuttle missions. His second mission, STS-129, included fetching astronaut Nicole Stott from the ISS. Mike revealed that since she hadn’t ridden up with his crew, Nicole had to be listed as a cargo item for their return to earth.

An area called the Starship Gallery features Mercury and Gemini space capsules. Spacesuit-clad mannequins placed inside the spacecraft illustrate just how cramped those vehicles were. As the astronauts said, you didn’t really fly them; it was more like you wore them.           

The centerpiece of the Starship Gallery is the Apollo 17 space capsule that carried astronauts Eugene Cernan, Ronald Evans, and Harrison Schmitt to the moon in December of 1972. It was awe-inspiring to stand an arm’s length from space history. In fact, someone may have reached out and touched the hatch door. 

Speaking of touching, I was able to take advantage of an opportunity to physically connect with a heavenly body.

The Lunar Samples Vault held several pounds of moon rocks that were collected by the crew of Apollo 17. Staring at the stones through their glass case made me wonder what they had cost by the ounce. Probably more than my wife’s engagement ring.

A small plastic case held a triangular wafer of lunar rock embedded in Lexan. A nearby sign encouraged people to “Touch the moon!” So I did. The stone was as smooth as polished glass. I don’t know if NASA had buffed the rock or if it was worn from all the fingers – some of which belonged to little kids with runny noses – that had brushed across it.

In conclusion, we had a wondrous time at Johnson Space Center. Although it’s going to take a while for my inner geek to recover.

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