My Trip to the Space Center (Houston, TX), Part 1

This is part one of a two part series. The first will review my recent trip to the Space Center in Houston. The second part will be an examination of the feelings, good and bad, this inspired in me.

I am a space nerd from way back when. I can pinpoint the exact moment too. The year was 1993 and my mom sat me down to watch Start Trek: Deep Space Nine (DS9). This opened up a whole new world.

Such a great Star Trek series featuring an African-American lead.

Such a great Star Trek series featuring an African-American lead.

On a whim, I decided to take a short vacation to Houston to check out the Space Center before the Memorial Day weekend. It would be a chance to check out the center, test out my new car on a road trip, and enjoy the deliciously varied cuisine of Houston.

Although technically listed as Space Center Houston, the museum isn’t actually located in Houston. It’s located about 25-30 miles south of Houston. There’s quite a commercial area that’s popped up around it with lots of shops and restaurants.

The Space Center is an impressive display when you turn in. Parking is pretty easy and relatively cheap at $5. The first thing that’s hits you is the giant replica of Independence. That is when it becomes real that you’re going to see all the space things. All. The. Space. Things.

I splurged and bought this really cool coffee mug. I have a thing for collecting unique coffee mugs.

I splurged and bought this really cool coffee mug. I have a thing for collecting unique coffee mugs.

Ticketing is located outside which can be problematic especially given it was a hot day and there wasn’t much shade so you stand in the sun while you wait. I don’t even want to think about if it rains. I chatted with some lovely folks behind me before purchasing my general admission ticket + Astronaut Audio tour at $36.95.  Now, you should know that any time there is an audio tour offered at a museum, I always do it. I tend to breeze through museums without reading. Audio tours help me to slow down and reflect. Often, I find out pretty cool tidbits that aren’t included on the text panels.

When you walk in, there is so much to take in. Giant replicas of a Mars land rover, rockets, and lunar land modules. My inner space nerd squealed. Unlike most people, I didn’t immediately make beeline to the information desk to inquire about the tram tours. Big mistake but I’ll explain in a moment.

I loathe having to wait in a line so instead I picked up my audio tour equipment and headed to the first exhibit on the International Space Station. The audio tour was easy to navigate as you punched in the number to the iPod Touch. The audio/videos were only 1-2 minutes long which, I think, is the perfect length.

The two things that stuck out for me during that exhibit were the space toilet and the crew quarters. Now, I think we’ve ALL wondered what its like to use a space toilet in zero gravity and acutely aware that everything floats in space. Everything. Think about that for a second. Go ahead, I’ll wait.

Waste is recycled back into this self-sustaining system. To do that, when you use the toilet you have to have a vacuum seal so nothing, ahem, floats away….. Each astronaut has a funnel that attaches to a hose that’s in the toilet. I think you know where this is going. To keep you from floating away, the toilet is equipped with these straps that go over your thighs.  And then, you know.

Now the crew quarters are barely bigger than a refrigerator. You have to strap yourself in to your bed, essentially a sleeping bag mounted to the wall. According to the audio tour, despite looking uncomfortable, some of the astronauts say that it’s the best night’s sleep they ever got in their life.

I was about 40 minutes into my visit when I started to notice the downsides of the museum. First, outside of the International Space Station exhibit, the audio tour was pointless. So I spent $7 additional dollars above the regular $29.95 general admission cost. Next, a big section of the museum was roped off because they were installing a new exhibit. It took up prime real estate in the space. Also, some of the really cool things to do, like the space ship simulators, cost money. My advice to you is save money on the audio tour and do one of the simulators instead.

Two positives is that they had two theaters: one with a 15-20 minute video on loop about the space program. The second theater was timed as there was a speaker. I saw the speaker that talked about Mars. Unfortunately, this wasn’t so much a Q&A but a let me tell you about Mars. There wasn’t a chance to ask questions.

Now the tram tour. Up to this point, you can easily spend a solid hour here and get some enjoyment. Where the Space Center really hooks people is the tram tours. You have two options: Independence Plaza (blue) and Astronaut Facility (red). Each tour is a one hour long. People pile on these carts and head out to explore the rest of the Space Center proper. If you factor in doing both tours + the floor exhibits you can spend about three hours at the Space Center.

I ended up not going on the Blue tour. Why? That line was hella long and getting longer by the second as it was the more popular of the two. I ended up on the Red tour because the line had died down and I literally walked past the 50+ people to grab a last minute spot on the red tour.

For a tour, you have two options. The timed tour guarantees you a spot on the cart and you can manage your time around it. I believe you are given priority over those who just show up and get in line.

Now the Red tour. You hit up two locations: the Astronaut Facility and Rocket Park. Now, something that I didn’t realize is that, although space crafts no longer take off from Houston, it is a training and research facility. So people are actively working on the space program. At the Astronaut Facility, you get to see (behind a glass of course) where astronauts train for going into space. There is all this equipment, life size modules, and people busily working. It was immensely fascinating. Admittedly, I opted out of Rocket Park which consisted of, you guessed it, rockets. At this point, I was hungry and ready to go.

L-R (clockwise) - Freeze dried Cookie and Cream Ice Cream Sandwich (delicious but hard af), inside the Astronaut Facility as part of the Tram tour, replica of a lunar module in the museum area.

L-R (clockwise) - Freeze dried Cookie and Cream Ice Cream Sandwich (delicious but hard af), inside the Astronaut Facility as part of the Tram tour, replica of a lunar module in the museum area.

Overall, the trip was pretty fun. Save your money and just get the general admission ticket. Be willing to spend a little extra cash and check out the simulators. And, if you have time, do the one or both tram tours. Even if you don’t have the time, it’s still a great place to visit.