Who in the United States doesn't remember our first
What a thrill it was to see the
first human beings walk on another planetary body! I felt such
pride that it was my country that accomplished the feat.
I've been an avid fan of space travel since the first attempts
to leave the earth's atmosphere began. There have been many
other manned space flights since the first lunar landing and
each mission is a vicarious thrill to me.
We've been to Houston twice for races at nearby Huntsville State
Park but never had the opportunity to visit the Johnson Space
Center until this trip. This
morning we drove about thirty miles from Galveston north on
1-45 to Space Center Houston, arriving
just before it opened at 10 AM. The timing was good, allowing us to
see everything we wanted before the place closed at 5 PM.
Space Center Houston is the official visitors' center of NASA's
Johnson Space Center. You can drive right up to the door of the
visitors' center, but you can't just drive into the
actual NASA Center unless you're one of its 14,000 employees or
on official business. Once you buy a ticket at Space Center
Houston, you can enter the 1,600-acre NASA complex -- but only
on an escorted tram tour.
Center Houston is a non-profit organization owned and
operated by the Manned Space Flight Education Foundation, Inc.
Its purpose is to educate the public about space flight programs
in an entertaining sort of way, and it does a fine job with that
It's a hands-on science museum on steroids.
Activities inside the visitors' center are self-guided so you
can spend as much time in each area as desired. All the
exhibits, simulators, and activities are as realistic and
possible -- and just as much fun for Big Kids like us as for Little
On this February weekday the visitors' center wasn't very crowded but it
takes planning to see all the attractions in one day. Each is
scheduled at certain times; it almost requires a
spreadsheet to fit everything in, or not miss something you
really want to see. You have to set priorities. We were
fortunate not to have to stand in line for anything and there
weren't very many school-age kids around. I wouldn't
want to visit on the weekend or other seasons when it's busier.
The tram tour over to NASA is also more pleasant
during cooler seasons. Weather isn't a factor if you're just
doing the activities inside the air-conditioned visitors' center.
TRAM TOUR OF NASA'S JOHNSON SPACE CENTER
Of all the various activities we had read about, our first
priority on this venture was the tram tour through the actual
space center. That's where we headed first.
The trams fill fast, so keep this tip in mind.
(And the tip about cooler temps. I wouldn't want to do the tram
tour on a
humid 95-degree day!)
Once on board, we relaxed and enjoyed the 90-minute ride from
one interesting presentation to the next.
As you'd expect, there is a high level of security around here.
We went through a security check going into Space Center
Houston. Security is even higher on the NASA
grounds. We had to get our pictures taken and show our ID to
initially board the tram, remain as a
group in each building we entered, and return to the same seat
when we returned to the tram. Our escorts were constantly
counting heads! I didn't mind it in the least. The guides were
friendly, knowledgeable, and had a sense of humor, even when I
just had to ask why there was a barn and long-horn cattle on the
NASA grounds! (What the heck?? Some sort of FFA or school
Johnson Space Center is a federal (National Aeronautics and
Space Administration) facility.
It's a busy place. Our country's space shuttle program is managed here and
the astronauts are trained here. JSC is the control center for
the shuttle missions even though the shuttle itself usually
launches and lands in Florida. It is also the lead center
in design and implementation of the International Space Station
(ISS). Here scientists and engineers study human adaptation to space and
develop the technologies that allow us to go to the moon, Mars,
and beyond. The Center also houses rocks and soil collected from
the moon and Mars missions; some are also kept in a vault
at the visitors' center.
Our first stop was at Mission Control, where we sat in an
amphitheatre above the control room used for flights (mostly the
Apollo Program) during the
1960s and '70s and listened to a live presentation by one of the
retired astronauts about those missions.
Even better, we got to see videos of the current control room during
yesterday's launch of the Atlantis shuttle, which is on its way
to the International Space Station (ISS) -- very cool -- and
live pictures of the staff working in that control room this
This is a picture of the ever-changing trajectory of the shuttle
and/or ISS in live time this morning:
weren't able to visit the current mission control room but we felt very
"connected" to the whole project by virtue of being in the same
building where all the activity is taking place. The shuttle is
carrying a new module called Columbus to the ISS for one of the
other collaborating countries. The U.S. and Russia initially
worked together to get the ISS set up; now about fifteen
countries are involved. Canada will soon send up a robotic arm
like this that will facilitate activities the astronauts are
doing outside the space station:
Replica of Canada's robotic arm component
SPACE VEHICLE MOCKUP FACILITY
We got to watch real astronauts work with a real replica
of that robotic arm (above) at our next stop!
Jim and I were fascinated with our tour of the huge building
where the astronauts train
on life-size mock-ups of the equipment they will be using in
The sign above shows the layout of the training center. Space
station training equipment is to the right, shuttle trainers in
the middle, and robotic trainers to the left.
walk above the main floor and can read information about the
training that is done and the types of equipment below:
First I'll show you some of the space station training
equipment, exact replicas of the components that are already
in place or soon heading to the ISS.
The next photo shows a Quest joint airlock, which is a
pressurized unit that was installed on the ISS in 2001 to
facilitate space walks. Very handy piece of equipment to have up
there! You can read all about it
The long cylindrical
Zarya Module shown below was
the first component launched for the ISS. It provided the
initial propulsion and power. The module was funded by the U.S.
but built and launched by Russia. Zarya means "sunrise" in
English. Who says we can't all just get along?? I'm impressed
with all the cooperation between the countries involved with the
Replicas of two important U.S. space station modules named
Destiny and Harmony are
Destiny, delivered by shuttle
in 2001, is the "guts" of research, command, and control of the
ISS, including control of the robotic arm upon its arrival this
spring. This laboratory module supports a wide range of
experiments and studies that are intended to improve the life of
folks on earth as well as facilitate future missions to the
moon, Mars, etc.
is the very appropriate winning name for the second module,
chosen during a contest for school kids. This pressurized
module will be the connecting point between the U.S. Destiny
lab, the European Space Agency's Columbus module, and the
Japanese Kibo module. (Get it? "Harmony" exemplifies the
cooperation by all the space station partners.)
Kibo ("hope") are additional
[Addendum: Columbus and the first
section of Kibo arrived at the space station in February;
the second part of Kibo is scheduled to go up on shuttle
Discovery at the end of May, 2008.]
Now here's a blast from the past: Soyuz.
I saw that sign and wondered why the astronauts would be
working with such "old" Russian equipment. Turns out the
program, which began in 1966, is still churning out spacecraft!
Russia just doesn't rename its programs every few years
like we do. A Soyuz space capsule took the first crew to the
International Space Station in November, 2000. Since that time,
at least one Soyuz has always been at the Station, generally to
serve as a lifeboat should the crew have to return to Earth
unexpectedly. The intelligence of that decision was underscored
by the Columbia shuttle accident in 2003.
Two photos above have shown the Zaryz component. Attached to the
other end is the Russian Zvezda ("star") service module:
Zvezda was one of the first
components of the space station. It's a fairly self-contained
module providing living quarters, life support system,
electrical power distribution, data processing system, flight
control system, and propulsion system. It also provides a
communications system that includes remote command capabilities
from ground flight controllers. Although many of these systems
are being supplemented or replaced by other countries'
components, the Service Module will always remain the structural
and functional center of the Russian segment of the
International Space Station.
When it is complete, the space station will house seven crew
members and will have five laboratories for conducting various
types of research in micro gravity. There are several more
pieces that will be going up.
Shuttle equipment training takes place in a full
compartment replica, two crew compartment trainers, a precision
air-bearing facility, and a partial gravity simulator. The next
photo shows the nose of the shuttle:
web site, "The space shuttle
is the world's first reusable spacecraft, and the first
spacecraft in history that can carry large satellites both to
and from orbit. The shuttle launches like a rocket, maneuvers in
Earth orbit like a spacecraft and lands like an airplane. Each
of the three space shuttle orbiters now in operation --
Discovery, Atlantis and Endeavour -- is designed to fly at least
100 missions. So far, altogether they have flown a combined
total of slightly more than one-fourth of that."
Behind the nose is the cargo bay. Here the doors are open:
You can see the engines at the base of the shuttle several
photos above where Jim is looking down at the components. Here's
another view of the business end of the shuttle and some
other training equipment (Manipulator Development Facility). Notice
how small the people look:
You can find all sorts of photos and interesting information
about the shuttle and ISS components at the links in blue above.
this link to see the schedule
for future shuttle missions to take more components up to the
ONE SMALL STEP FOR MAN . . .
The third (very long) building we toured features spacecraft and
exhibits from the seventeen
lunar missions during the 1970s.
That was quite interesting, too.
First, a quote
about the Apollo program from one
of the NASA
On May 25, 1961, President John F. Kennedy announced the goal
of sending astronauts to the moon before the end of the decade.
Coming just three weeks after Mercury astronaut Alan Shepard
became the first American in space, Kennedy's bold challenge set
the nation on a journey unlike any before in human history.
Eight years of hard work by thousands of Americans came to
fruition on July 20, 1969, when Apollo 11 commander Neil
Armstrong stepped out of the lunar module and took "one small
step" in the Sea of Tranquility, calling it "a giant leap for
first Apollo spacecraft was launched
in 1963; the successful program ended in 1972
after seventeen moon-related missions. Seven of the Apollo
flights were unmanned, ten manned. Astronauts in two of the
early Apollo missions orbited the earth, then two more manned
missions orbited the moon without landing. In six of the later
missions (Apollo 11, 12, 14, 15, 16, and 17) astronauts safely
landed on the moon and studied soil mechanics, meteoroids,
seismic activity, heat flow, lunar ranging, magnetic fields, and
solar wind. Later today we would see some of the "moon rocks"
brought back to earth on those missions.
Apollo 11's famous crew and information
about that mission
We passed these two spacecraft displayed outside the building
but we don't remember which missions they flew. I believe they
are Little Joe II and a Saturn V launch vehicle, from the
internet research I've done. If I'm wrong, please correct me.
The one on the right is actually bigger than the other
Each manned Apollo spacecraft (which included a command module,
service module, and lunar module) was launched by a Saturn V
launch vehicle. The "V" signifies the five huge engines that
powered the first stage of the rocket. We'd soon see those engines up
close inside the Saturn/Apollo display building:
In fact, we saw the whole shebang from one end to the other.
This is one of only three surviving Saturn V rockets that was
used in the Apollo program.
It was impossible for me to find a place to stand where I could
get the entire Saturn V rocket and the Apollo spacecraft in one
photo, so I took the first two pictures below from either side of the engine end
(the bottom), and others along the way
as the tour group made its way past the beautiful parallel display
featuring each of the seventeen missions:
One side of the lengthy Saturn V rocket
(first and second stages shown)
Third stage of the Saturn V rocket
From left (bottom) to right (top): an Apollo lunar module,
command module, and launch escape
There is a tribute to each of the Apollo missions along one entire wall,
with photos of the astronauts involved in each flight, a
picture of the crew patch (each crew designs its own specific
patch), highlights of the mission, quotes, etc. There wasn't
time to read everything, unfortunately.
There are links above to several of the NASA web pages about the
Apollo missions. Here's another interesting Apollo site produced
Smithsonian National Air and
Space Museum. (And if you haven't been to that museum in
Washington, D.C. -- go. The Smithsonian museums are
phenomenal and they are free.)
. . . ONE GIANT (RISKY) LEAP FOR MANKIND
As we rode back to the visitors' center on the tram we passed a
memorial garden for the seventeen astronauts who have sacrificed
their lives in the U.S. space program. Three died in 1967 in a fire
during an Apollo launch pad test, seven in the Challenger launch
disaster in 1986, and seven in the Columbia return disaster in 2003. A
tree has been planted in honor of each:
That got everyone's attention.
Exploration, progress, and adventure are not without risk.
an interesting CBS article
here about risk assessment in the space
program. It was written in 2006, just before the resumption of shuttle
flights after the manned flight program was shut down for 3½
years following the Columbia accident. More adventurous, curious,
intelligent, ambitious, hard-working, courageous men and women aspire to be astronauts
-- and are willing to take this
risk -- than the program can hold. Bless 'em!
BACK TO SPACE CENTER HOUSTON
By now it was nearing noon and the winter morning was really
warming up. We were happy to spend the next four hours inside
the air conditioned visitors' center trying to cram as many activities as we
could into that amount of time. (We wanted to leave early enough
to avoid rush hour. Ha! It's always rush hour in metro Houston).
We were getting hungry, so one of our first stops inside was
the cafeteria. Although we sneaked in a couple of food bars,
they don't encourage visitors to brown-bag it! The cafeteria offers six or seven
different theme "restaurants" during the busy season but only two were
open today. The prices were reasonable for the quality and
quantity of food we got (huge Southwest chicken wraps with lots
of white meat -- we should have shared one instead of getting
There are lots of choices of activities inside the center, from
hands-on exhibits and historic artifacts to flight simulators to movies
presentations. We viewed and participated in just about
We visited the exhibits of moon rocks (photos below), lunar rovers, and
trainers; real capsules from the Mercury, Gemini, and
Apollo programs; replicas of Skylab and the international
space station (ISS); space suits from every era of space
exploration; and equipment used
on board the aircraft throughout the history of our space
Lunar sample vault
"Moon rocks" AKA lunar samples
We sat in a full-size replica of the shuttle and
pretended we were headed for the ISS:
We played with the flight simulators and failed miserably at
"landing" the shuttle (as did the others near us!):
We stood in front of a wide video screen in a dark room and felt
the whole room shake as the (very noisy) "shuttle" blasted off.
We sat in a comfortable theatre and listened to an enthusiastic
young man's presentation about the current shuttle mission
(photo below). I'm glad we were there during a mission and the
images were in "real time."
We watched several other movies in the Destiny Theatre and
on the five-story IMAX screen about the history of our
space program, how the astronauts are trained, how the ISS was built,
what it's like to live up there for several
months, and future space program goals.
The only activity we
didn't do was enter the Little Kids' play space and learning
center (Martian Matrix).
By 4 PM we were fairly well exhausted by all this and ready to
go! And we're in good physical shape, so also keep that in mind if
you plan to visit. The place will wear you out. While there is ample opportunity to sit,
you'll be on your feet a lot, too. If you take any children with
you, expect to be even more worn out by the end of the day.
brains were just about maxed out, too -- from all the
information we'd processed and the stimulation we'd experienced.
Or maybe it was from our "lift-off" in the shuttle . . .
We definitely feel like we got our money's worth (and we're
pretty much tight wads!). The regular entrance fee for adults is $18.95. We
got $2 off each ticket and 10% off lunch with coupons in a
booklet we picked up at the Galveston Island State Park
campground office (coupons are available many other places, too).
We almost sprang for a good offer on an
annual pass to the center that we could use next winter if we return to the
Huntsville or Galveston Island state parks, but we decided that was
premature. It's a great deal for locals, though.
Lost in space?
As proud of our country and fascinated with our space program as I
am, I can't help but wonder
how excited children and teenagers would be to visit both Space
Center Houston and the Johnson Space Center. I think many would
dream of becoming an astronaut, scientist, or engineer after
seeing all the opportunities spread before them here.
Imagine the possibilities . . .
Heck, even this 58-year-old woman dreams about being rich enough
to buy a tourist ticket into space (since they say I'm too old to
become an astronaut). Now there's an
You can find a shuttle-load of information about the past and future of our space program at these
two NASA sites. Have fun reading and dreaming about the moon,
Mars, and 'way beyond.
ADDENDUM MAY, 2008: WATCHING THE ISS FLY OVER
We discovered during one of the presentations at NASA that
most everyone on earth can watch the International Space
Station fly overhead as it circles the earth. Who knew there is
a web page with the very precise sighting schedule for a
gazillion cities around the globe?? I guess we haven't been paying enough
attention the last few years!
After dark on a clear night, when the trajectory is right for
your longitude and latitude, the ISS is quite visible to the naked
eye. It's orbiting at an altitude of "only" about 220 miles
above the earth and completes each circle in 92 minutes. You'd be
amazed how fast it streaks across the
sky, so be outside in an appropriate place (without a lot of
surrounding light or trees, etc.) a few minutes before it's
supposed to appear.
It's very cool to watch, similar to a shooting star. We got home
while the space shuttle was still up there, and could see it,
too! This spring has been rainy enough in our area, however, that about
a third of the time we go out to see it, it's hidden by clouds.
Sign explaining components of the ISS
Here's the URL for the space station sighting schedule:
That's a general NASA home page. Click on "Realtime Data"
in the menu bar across the top, then "Sighting Opportunities."
In the left column, choose your country, then state and closest
city or town (if you're in the U.S.). You'll get a list of dates
and times for your area for the next couple of weeks, including
the approaching/departing directions, degrees above the horizon,
maximum degrees on that pass, and the length of time you may be
able to see the ISS. The higher the space station above the
horizon, the longer you can track it visually.
Here's an example for our area in Virginia. The May 21 and May 22 evening times would be
great for us because we're awake, it's dark, and the durations are
five minutes. That's because the maximum elevations are higher
When the ISS stays closer to the horizon in your location, it
doesn't appear for as long and it's easier to miss.
|Sun May 18/05:11 AM
|11 above NNW
||16 above NNE
|Mon May 19/05:33 AM
|10 above NW
||10 above ESE
|Tue May 20/04:21 AM
|10 above NNW
||16 above NNE
|Tue May 20/10:19 PM
|10 above SW
||56 above W
|Wed May 21/04:43 AM
|10 above NW
||10 above ESE
|Wed May 21/09:07 PM
|11 above SSW
||11 above ENE
|Wed May 21/10:42 PM
|11 above W
||10 above NNE
|Thu May 22/03:31 AM
|10 above NNW
||10 above ENE
|Thu May 22/05:05 AM
|10 above WNW
||10 above SSE
|Thu May 22/09:29 PM
|10 above SW
||12 above NE
The ISS is moving fast and it's big enough that you should see
it on a clear night if you're looking in the right direction, aren't near a lot
of artificial light, and have a fairly
unobstructed view. Even with all the trees around our house,
we've had good visibility from our
second-story deck. When the shuttle is also orbiting the earth,
there will be a schedule for it, too (when it's not docked at
the space station).
Enjoy the show!
"Runtrails & Company" - Sue Norwood, Jim O'Neil, Cody, and
© 2008 Sue Norwood and Jim O'Neil