Monday, July 3, 2017

A Step Into History: Johnson Space Center - Houston, Texas

This has always been a big destination on my wish list. I'm a child of the 60's and 70's. Watching the brave men of the earlier space program was a right of passage for us. Imagine it, it was less than two months before I was born that a human ever left the bonds of our planet to float around in the microgravity beyond our atmosphere.

It's more commonplace, now. Almost routine enough that tourists are already taking the trip to space but back then, it was something groundbreaking, cutting edge science, and incredibly dangerous.

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While the coast of Florida proved to be aligned just right for launches, the control center for these flights needn't be co-located in the days of modern telecommunications. A list of criteria was drawn up and 22 sites fit it but only one had the backing of the vice president from Texas, Lyndon Johnson.

Politics has a great influence on the decision to locate here.

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There is one bus that goes from downtown Houston to Johnson Space Center (JSC). It'll take about an hour and a half from our hotel. That's more time than I'm really willing to invest so, for just a few dollars more, I reserve a car from Avis for the day.

The rental office is not near our hotel. It's a couple of miles to Avis so I catch an Uber ride. It was almost my last ride as the driver ran a red light near our destination with a big van barreling down on us. As Maxwell Smart would say, "missed us by that much."

Jittery but OK, I get back to the hotel and pick up the rest of the crew. About forty minutes later, we're in the parking lot of the Johnson Space Center visitor's center. This is a large museum with various exhibits related to space and space travel.

A corner is given over to missions to Mars; a demonstration gives us a glimpse of life on the International Space Station (ISS); we can wander through a full-size replica of Skylab. It's all very interesting and, it seems to me, heavy on exhibits on how astronauts use the toilet in zero gravity conditions.

Included in the admission (AAA and AARP members get a discount so show your cards) are two tours on wheelchair accessible trams...just like the vehicles at Universal Studios or our previous Captain Morgan Distillery tour...each one going to a different historic site on the actual campus about a half mile away.

First, we board the tram to the Christopher Cross Mission Control Center. This is it, what I really came to see. The nerve center of the early space program. Gemini, Apollo, and even early shuttle missions.

This is the room where Neil Armstrong's words came in upon stepping on the Moon. Jim Lovell reported here when he had that problem on Apollo 13. We've all seen this room on the news and historic films and documentaries.

It's no longer in service, it's now a historic landmark and a preserved monument to America's space program. A guide points out different spots where different specialist would sit at their consoles to guide those early missions. The seats we're in are where VIP's such as Queen Elizabeth II sat when she came in to observe.

It's a short presentation...maybe just a tad too short...but an incredible slice of history.

The next tour takes us to the Astronaut Training Facility where a full-size mockup of the ISS is installed in a giant room. Astronauts train here for missions to the station. There are also gizmos here to emulate working in zero gravity along with a robot facility making androids to go into space.

Another mockup of the spaceship that will someday go to Mars is here to train those astronauts.

Both tours end up at Rocket Park where a few rockets and engines are on display.

Sitting in the sun is an Atlas II rocket with a Mercury capsule on top. It's really a tiny little thing.

Inside an adjacent building is another story altogether. In here is one of the few remaining, fully intact Saturn V rockets.

This is the largest rocket ever made. We're dwarfed by the five massive engines that propelled this giant into space.

It's a bit of a walk to the other end where an Apollo capsule sits at the top, just above the Command Module that provided living quarters for the three astronauts on their mission.

This particular rocket would have been designated Apollo 19 for it's mission to the Moon had the program not been scrubbed after Apollo 17.

After our break at Rocket Park, we board another shuttle back to the visitor's center. Before visiting the gift shop and after perusing the exhibits outlined above, we go outside where a full-sized replica of a space shuttle sits atop a real 747 carrier plane.

This particular plane was purchased from American Airlines by NASA during the shuttle program's years and was used to ship the shuttle back to Florida when circumstances dictated that the space plane land in California instead.

An elevator is available to take wheelchair users to any of the three levels of this display. 

We've been on a shuttle before and this one is no different. We inspect the pilot's cockpit and the cramped crew quarters before heading out to the cargo bay to see a satellite waiting to enter orbit via the Canadian arm, a space crane that is used to move heavy objects in space.

The carrier plane is new to us and we take a little more time inspecting this stripped-out former passenger plane. 

There are huge concrete weights behind the cockpit that were placed there to balance out the heavy load on top. Displays explain the difficulties and quirks of carrying a plane on top of another. Displays let you try your skills at navigating the various tasks associated with shipping a space shuttle, coast-to-coast.

Tim tries his hand at flying the entire contraption in various wind conditions at one of those displays.

It's been a fun morning turning into afternoon and we're a bit hungry.  It's time to head back to Houston, have some dinner, and pack up. Tomorrow we're heading back to the airport.

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Darryl Musick
Copyright 2017 - All Rights Reserved

Photos by Letty Musick
Copyright 2017 - All Rights Reserved

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