Houston Mission Control at the Johnson Space Center in Texas is the Houston astronauts are referring to when they say, “Houston: Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed,” or “Houston, we’ve had a problem.” Ever since the Gemini IV mission in 1965 the Johnson Space Center has trained every astronaut and overseen every manned U.S. spaceflight, and today it supports missions to the International Space Station.
And in the early ‘90s it was developed into a must-see museum for space fans!
Space Center Houston was co-designed by members of the Disney Imagineering team and it features hundreds of artifacts and exhibits aimed at all ages. Outside the front door stands a full-scale replica of a Space Shuttle and carrier plane. Just beyond the entrance are actual Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo capsules and moon rocks you can touch and flight suits worn by the likes of Michael Collins, Pete Conrad, and Sally Ride. They even have a Skylab training module and the podium from which JFK delivered his famous “We choose to go to the Moon” speech.
The main attraction, though, is a tram tour that gives guests an overview of the sprawling 1,620-acre complex. It’s included in the price of admission, but for an additional fee you can join the “Level 9” tour, which offers smaller group sizes and access to areas not normally visited by the general public.
I debated the price tag for the Level 9 tour while drooling over the thought of seeing the Neutral Buoyancy Lab and getting exclusive access to the ISS training area. But the “shut up and take my money” moment was finding out that the Level 9 group would get to sit in the actual chairs in front of the actual consoles inside the actual historic mission control room!
Also, lunch was included. Done and done!
FIRST STOP: A FRIGGIN’ SATURN V ROCKET!
There are only three Saturn V rockets on display in the world, but the Johnson Space Center holds special bragging rights because theirs is the only one comprised of all flight-certified hardware. The stages of these rockets are usually dropped into the ocean so it’s impossible to assemble all the pieces from a single mission, but at least one or more of the components of this particular rocket were used between 1967 and 1973 to launch a combined total of 27 astronauts into space.
Just the building they keep the rocket in is immense. Imagine if you laid the Big Ben clock tower on its side and then built another building around it. Once we were inside, our guide walked us through a brief history of NASA missions as we took a lap around the rocket and marveled at the scale of it. The Saturn V rocket is part of the Space Center’s standard tram tour, but being able to gaze at it quietly as part of such a small group was a significant perk.
SECOND STOP: NEUTRAL BUOYANCY LAB
The NBL is an enormous swimming pool facility used to acclimate astronauts to the sensation of weightlessness. It’s 202 feet long, 102 feet wide, and 40 feet deep, holding 6.2 million gallons of water and replicas of International Space Station modules.
Our vantage point was an enclosed balcony above the pool, which allowed us a panoramic view of the whole lab. I had been looking forward to walking along the edge of the pool itself, but I was informed that tour groups are no longer allowed to do so because some idiot guest once jumped into the water, ruining a delicate experiment in the process. We all rolled our eyes at the thought of someone being so inconsiderate. But deep down there is a part of me that understands how overwhelming that kind of temptation might be.
THIRD STOP: LUNCH
All-you-can-eat cafeteria. This is where Jeff makes his admission fee back.
FOURTH STOP: SPACE VEHICLE MOCKUP FACILITY
Space Center’s Building 9 is basically the Neutral Buoyancy Lab without the water. Sprawled across a massive room that could fit TWO Big Ben clock towers END TO END were replicas of all the key modules of the International Space Station. Unlike the NBL, this time we were able to walk right on the floor and get a close-up look at robots and experimental vehicles meant for use on the moon and, someday, Mars.
FIFTH STOP: MODERN MISSION CONTROL
Our penultimate destination was FCR-1, the modern day control room used for current space missions. This, in and of itself, would’ve made for a completely worthwhile tour. We observed NASA team members calmly toiling at their computers, orchestrating the unfathomably intricate daily operations of the International Space Station. While we were all excited to walk through other exhibits showcasing NASA’s history, in this room we were witnessing history being made.
Live video feeds from the ISS were displayed on huge screens, showcasing the fruition of all the training facilities and mockups we had just seen. The view was glorious: It was right around sunset. Or maybe sunrise. The astronauts witness one or the other every 45 minutes up there so who can keep track?
SIXTH AND FINAL STOP: HISTORIC MISSION CONTROL
This was it. The rest of the tour had already been a total space nerdgasm, but this was the reason I was here. The doors opened and we were hit with the smell of the ‘60s: musty carpet, old hardware, and stale cigarette smoke. It was glorious.
I made a beeline for the Flight Director’s console. I knew it would be a coveted spot (and I happily surrendered it to my fellow guests once I got my fix) but I wanted to sit in the seat where Gene Kranz and Chris Kraft and so many others had sat while overseeing landmark scientific victories as well as devastating defeats.
I wish I had absorbed more of what our tour guide was saying at that moment, but I was entranced by the ancient technology in front of me. Plastic push buttons, CRT monitors, rotary dials…even a cylindrical container meant for passing messages via a pneumatic tube system. The obsolescence of it all was both hilarious and inspiring. Just as the ancient Polynesians were able to navigate thousands of miles across the ocean with only canoes and the stars, NASA scientists were able to land men on the moon with what today looks like a toddler’s busy board.
I was born too late to have personally experienced any of the Apollo missions, but I flashed back to the launch of the Hubble and the heartbreak of the Challenger. The weight of it all was still there, pressing me down into the seat cushions. As our group roamed the room we peeked into drawers, where we found old notepads, inkwells, and rusty paperclips. One drawer contained a single Rolaid tablet, with part of the wrapper still on it. I chuckled as I imagined an overstressed crew member popping a full sleeve of antacids during some mission irregularity. Other drawers and shelves held thick binders full of instructions for space shuttle missions. At one time they were likely crucial components to complex operations, now they only faintly hinted at wondrous scientific accomplishments. And gastrointestinal relief.
Our guide pulled open some of the computer panels to show us the dusty, tangled wires inside. And she pointed out a small, framed mirror on the wall, which was part of the Aquarius landing module used during the ill-fated Apollo 13 mission. The Apollo 13 astronauts gifted the mirror to mission control to reflect the image of those who helped get them back home. It now hangs over the water fountain.
A jealous tram tour group watched us through glass as we wandered freely among the consoles and took photographs of ourselves nuzzling up to history. I couldn’t believe the privilege and honor we were being afforded.
Turns out it was a fleeting one.
Since my visit, NASA has painstakingly restored Historic Mission Control to recapture its appearance at the moment of the Apollo 11 moon landing. Flat screens and LED lights have been installed to illuminate those old CRT monitors and push button switches. Every inch of the room has undergone a retro remodel, all the way down to period-accurate carpet and individual coffee mugs. Tour groups today are treated to a re-enactment of the Apollo 11 moon landing in a control room full of electricity and dazzling visuals—a far cry from the dormant husks witnessed on my tour.
The restoration is nothing short of stunning, and I long for an opportunity to return to Houston so I might see it for myself. But never again will a tour group have the chance to sit in the Flight Director’s chair and ponder the extraordinary responsibility and psychological toll of guiding human beings to and from space with rotary dials and pneumatic tubes.
While I’m sure other tour groups will still have a fantastic experience on future Space Center tours, I am thankful to have the memory of my unique close encounter with Mission Control. It’s hard to think of another experience that could connect me any deeper to the stirring legends of the NASA space program.
Unless they want to power up that Saturn V rocket and strap me to the top of it. Your move, Houston.