When you're in Space City, aka Houston, you have to make a special trip to Space Center Houston (SCH), the Official Visitor Center to NASA Johnson Space Center, and the heart of NASA- otherwise known as Mission Control. Of course, if you're as inspired by all things space as I am, Space Center Houston is the reason for your trip.
At this space place destination the general public can tour areas of NASA Johnson Space Center, meet astronauts and join in on other special mission events that are hosted in partnership with NASA. It's also filled with several exhibits and theaters where you can see the history of space exploration as it progressed, and learn about all the science, technology, and passion behind our country's space program.
Space Center Houston is first and foremost a nonprofit educational and learning center, a place where kids can discover space science and history for themselves. Meridyth Moore, a Public Relations Specialist at SCH, spoke about several of the programs available, including a Girls STEM academy and an educators conference, available to children and educators all over the world. "Here at Space Center Houston, we strive to build confidence in STEM for all children, and we work hard to encourage more girls to be a part of our academy to increase diversity in the space field. Not just in science, but all disciplines." said Moore.
During my visit, the "WOWs!" from summer day campers filled the building and groups of international high school students were busy designing, creating, and testing spacecraft capsules for thermal testing in liquid nitrogen. Exhibits require children to test and experiment with options in order to determine for themselves how and why things work, or learn what life in space requires.
The New Independence Plaza
The spectacle of a shuttle launch, and the work astronauts performed in orbit, got most of our attention throughout the duration of the Space Shuttle program, but once the orbiters landed the problem of how to ferry them around needed solving. Space Center Houston's newest exhibit, Independence Plaza, was a major undertaking, and sheds light on an aspect of the often overlooked part of space history.
Four years in the making, SCH had to find contractors to do a job that had never been done- in accordance with everything NASA- in order to give the public the ability to board and explore a full size shuttle replica and the original NASA 905 aircraft that carried it. Step aboard the former commercial carrier and you'll see firsthand how inspired, out of the box ideas are given a chance at NASA. JSC engineer and model enthusiast, John Kiker, conceived, developed, and tested the aircraft ferry concept which had to take into account control, weight, separation, and dozens of additional factors.
The design concepts and challenges are demonstrated as you walk through the as is condition airliner to try out test simulation exhibits that require problem solving skills and collaboration. Highs and lows of the space shuttle program are celebrated and remembered, and astronauts share recorded reflections of their time in flight. Given that there are only two aircrafts in the world that were capable of carrying shuttles, and NASA 905 is the only one open for public viewing, it really is a piece of space history worth visiting.
Climb further up the platform and board Independence, where you can get a feel and look at the crew's quarters and cockpit for yourself. The shuttle features artifacts and displays that highlight the technology and engineering that both went into and came out of making space travel and life in space possible. Because Independence is a high fidelity shuttle the tools and equipment, including a replica of an engine, the actual flown cradle for that engine, and Canadarm, are all true to size.
Main Plaza and Johnson Space Center Tours
Throughout the Main Plaza of the Space Center you can walk through the most comprehensive display of NASA's space exploration history that I've ever seen. Flown vehicles command your attention, and exhibits and demonstrations give you a taste and feel for what life in space entails. The rockhound and lab assistant in me urges you to touch the moon fragment on display and then really appreciate how important the rocks in the lunar vault were to shaping the Apollo program, as well as our understanding of the lunar surface.
Two tram tours to Johnson Space Center, the only way the public can visit, take you on a ride through the campus and on to view the historic Apollo Mission Control room or the Space Vehicle Mock-Up Facility. Both options take you to Rocket Park, to behold the massive SaturnV rocket- one of only three and the only one whose stages were flight ready.
More to Explore
Throughout the year Space Center Houston also hosts traveling exhibits that explore other areas of science and popular culture, but also incorporate space tie-ins. Currently on display is, Destination Moon, a Smithsonian exhibit featuring the Apollo 11 capsule and additional space artifacts celebrates the historic landing on the Moon.
Children of all ages are able to participate in year round programming and camps hosted by SCH year-round, and families and adults can attend mission specific events, celebrations, and even astronaut meet and greets.
Moore tells us that two new exhibits are coming to Space Center Houston! The VAB and shuttle mockup indoors will be replaced with a Journey to Mars display featuring Orion, Mars robotics vehicles, a model of SLS, and a Martian landscape. Look for this exhibit ahead of the next Super Bowl, which Houston hosts in 2017. Even more exciting is the 905 Innovation Lab, a makers space for guests, students, and teachers.
Our Must See and Do List:
- Explore Independence Plaza, and don't forget to walk the shuttle arm into the White Room.
- Touch one of only 8 moon rocks on display to around the world!
- Both NASA Tram Tours- Mission Control and Astronaut Training Facility!
- Tour Starship Gallery to see the progression of space exploration.
- Learn about life in space in the ISS Gallery
- Consider adding on the Level 9 tour, lunch with an astronaut, and the audiotour
Tips for Visitors
- Invest in the City Pass to save both time & money if SCH is one of many trip destinations.
- Visit spacecenter.org to see the daily schedule & grab timed tickets
- Check in on Facebook for free wifi
- Grab a NASA Passport at the Visitor's desk, earn your first stamp & take advantage of special discounts!
To learn more about Space Center Houston, connect via:
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