Best part of Spring Break? The Space-themed McDonalds, which I. and E. loved!
The trip down to Houston over spring break was mostly for the kids, of course. And largely to visit Johnson Space Center--or, rather, "Space Center Houston," an amusement complex not actually affiliated directly with NASA. Besides the Space Center, well, there really isn't much to do in Houston, unless your tastes run towards driving around refineries and plastics factories and such.
On our way into town, we stopped off at the Art Car Museum , highly attractive to us because it was free. Art Cars are actual operating vehicles that have been gussied up in all different manner by artists. We were looking forward to seeing the cars on the website, but were disappointed to only five four or five cars on display. The rest were probably out driving their artist-owners around to Starbucks or something. From the museum, we headed down to Webster, a few miles west of the Space Center, and settled in for the night. We figured we'd get the Space Center visit out of the way on Monday, visit the San Jacinto monument, battleship Texas and the Houston Aquarium on Tuesday, then back to the Space Center on Wednesday (E. had signed up for a day camp to make rockets) before heading home on Thursday. Galveston was only a couple dozen miles down the highway, but the weather was so crappy all week it hardly seemed worth it.
Houston. . .we have a crowd-control problem!
E. practices "docking" on an inter-active simulator. Lots of fun stuff for kids to do at Space Center Houston. . .
What about that Space Center?
- It's more of an amusement park than a museum/monument/interpretive center for the NASA Houston Space Center. And it was spring break, so the place was a freakin' zoo. We got there before the doors opened, which was a smart move, and got on the first tour of the day out to the Rocket Garden (just three rockets--hardly a garden) and to see the training facilities for the shuttle and International Space Station crews (no one was training). Then it was back to the by-now substantial horde of kids which had made moving around the Space Center nearly impossible. We ate a pizza in the "Zero Gravity" dining room, our ears blasted by an over-amplified and over-enthusiastic stage presentation of Scooby doo, Looney Tune characters, and a Magician. We were hoping Al Bean would show up and entertain us, but it was not to be. We wanted to pay homage to the "Hall of Astronauts" where a photo of every NASA astronaut was on display, but access to that was blocked by a large temporary stage where "High School Musical" as being performed. There seemed some disconnect between the entertainment and the theme of Space Center. . . anyway. . .the kids sure liked playing in the five-story tall playground (think McDonalds' playground on steroids).
Stuffed and Mounted Saturn V. . .
I'm sure every wire and conduit on this stage 3 of the Saturn V was necessary. . .
- The Rocket Garden: A couple of rusty old rockets outside, but the real prize is inside a new building holding an entombed Saturn V. The rocket, rendered surplus in 1972 when Apollo 18 and 19 were cancelled, rotted away out in the elements until it was restored by the National Air and Space Museum. Walking along its 370-foot length you really get an idea of what a complex machine this was, with piping and wiring and all sorts of spherical doo-dads stuck on the ends of the rocket stages. It's a wonder it ever got off the ground, but its record was spotless! The Saturn V weighed 6.7 million pounds (2 large coal trains of weight), and delivered 7.5 million pounds of thrust at lift-off--around 160 MILLION horsepower. All that to put only 100 tons into low-earth orbit and 50 tons to the moon! Mission Control: One tram tour at Space Center Houston takes you to the old Mission Control, as a national historic site and a shrine to our glorious space age where missions from Gemini in 1965 to the Space Shuttle in 1995 were managed. Now, a new Mission Control around 200 feet away handles the duties of shuttle missions and the International Space Station, so the original Mission Control was restored to how it looked when Apollo 11 landed on the moon in 1969. Very interesting: it looks just like the BNSF NOC where I work, only smaller!
E. in Mission Control. With a flat-top haircut and a white linen vest, he'd look just like Gene Kranz!
- Living on a Past Legacy: With the shuttle program winding down in 2010 and the new Orion program to get back to the moon stumbling at the starting gate, NASA seems to be a bit on hard times. . .so you can't blame 'em for playing up their successes: Mercury, Gemini, Apollo. . .the ghosts of the astronauts and their missions 40 years ago inhabit every corridor of the place. Besides, the moon program was back when you could recall the names of most of the astronauts. The shuttle Endeavour was actually orbiting the earth when we visited JSC, but damned if I or anyone else I know can name one of the astronauts on board. That either just shows that space travel is becoming "routine" or it has slipped out of the public imagination. The 60s vintage space hardware is kitchy in a Major Anthony Nelson sort of way. . the flight deck of the Shuttle just looks too much like a Boeing 777.
The ghosts of Buzz, Neil and Mike inhabit the stairways of Misson Control. . .
Gemini V capsule, flown by Pete Conrad and Gordo Cooper, on display. The third Gemini flight, no spacewalk took place on the mission Conrad called "eight days in a garbage can."
- NASA-ville! I'll admit, we did drive around El Lago to look at the once-exclusive community many NASA astronauts lived in when JSC was opened in 1965. . .homes that mostly look pretty average today. And we kept our eyes out for signs of businesses with "spacey" names. The best we came up with was NASA Liquors. . .probably named not after the space agency, but for its location on NASA Road. The McDonald's next to Space Center Houston is done up on a space theme, naturally, complete with a moon-walking astronaut stuck to the front of the building, no way, apparently, to eat the fries in his hand in the vacuum of outer space.
. . .back before a love-struck astronaut in a diaper captured the nation's fancy. Good thing there's NASA Liquors nearby to take the edge off. . .
NEXT: Battleship, and a Ripoff Aquarium--Houston continues. . . .