When we prepared to move to Houston nearly six years ago, there were a lot of things I considered. I kind of understood we were moving into hurricane country. I knew it would be hot for much of the year. I looked forward to warm winters.
But somehow I missed all of the initial signs that we were moving to “Space City.”
Looking back, I have no idea how I missed it. After all, I watched Apollo 13 as a teenager. I had heard the famous line, “Houston, we have a problem.” I knew about the Houston Rockets and Houston Astros, and I saw all of the space themed items in the airport gift shops. But for some reason, it never occurred to me why there were so many space themed details about the city.
It wasn’t until we had officially moved that I made the connection that NASA command was stationed in Houston and had been since the early days of the space program. After years of just considering the Kennedy Space Center that I had driven past in Florida a couple times, it finally dawned on me the complete picture of a single site for control and training and a single site for launch. Clearly, there were gaps in my understanding of the history of space travel.
The first time my parents visited us from Michigan, my mom insisted that we take a family trip the Johnson Space Center. Then our kids returned to NASA during one of my in-laws’ visits. I decided to make a whole “space day” of it and go by myself. I knew that I wouldn’t be able to do all of the things, but I would be able to do what I wanted to without wrangling a pre-teen, a nearly pre-teen, and a husband who reads everything that is put in front of him.
Challenger 7 Memorial Park
I was in first grade and home with the flu on the day the Challenger exploded in Florida. I was still home recovering on the day of the publicly televised memorial. I remember my mom crying as she listened to President Reagan speak about the astronauts as the country remembered the crew of seven, one of whom would have been the first teacher in space. Like many who were young children in 1986, it was the first major disaster that stuck in my memory.
Then last fall my husband and I watched the Netflix documentary Challenger: The Final Flight. It was so strange to watch a documentary about an event that shaped our childhood and realize just how complicated the whole situation had been.
When we went on a hiking date to Brazos Bend State Park a month ago, we noticed several signs directing travelers to Challenger 7 Memorial Park. Since it also just happened to be the 35th anniversary of the disaster, we looked on the map to see how far out of our way it would be to make that stop on our way home. When I realized it was much farther than the signs indicated (like on the other side of the city farther), we decided that would have to wait for another day of Houston adventuring. When I made my plans to go to NASA, I discovered that the park was only five miles from Johnson Space Center.
That was going to be my first stop.
The memorial to the seven astronauts is small but it is surrounded by a pretty park with wide hiking/running trails and a large fishing pond. Given its close proximity to NASA, it was a good and quick first stop on my way to the much larger attraction.
Johnson Space Center
Johnson Space Center is a 1,620 acre complex in the southeast Clear Lake area of Houston. Rice University donated the land (which had been donated to them by Humble Oil Company) to NASA in 1961. The area is still very much on the outskirts of the fourth largest city in the US. Local students use part of the property to raise their longhorn cattle, deer graze in the fields surrounding the complex, and apparently the property is home to at least one alligator.
I pre-purchased both my ticket and my parking pass before arriving in a nearly empty parking lot shortly after the visitor center opened at 10:00. I started in the museum, walked through Starship Gallery, which is home to multiple flown spacecraft and treasures from those missions, as well as a breakdown of the history of each mission starting from the beginning.
The halfway point through the Starship Gallery takes visitors outside to Independence Plaza, where they “can enter the shuttle replica Independence, mounted on top of the historic and original NASA 905 shuttle carrier aircraft, and then explore the giant plane. It is the only shuttle mounted on an SCA that the public can go inside.”
The newest addition to Independence Plaza is the SpaceX Falcon 9. I walked around the now-docked reusable spaceship, taking some photos to make my husband jealous that I got to see it first.
Next, I boarded the tram to take the tour to the Astronaut Training Facility. The trip over to the facility is like taking a step back into time. All around you know that employees are working on some of the most advanced technology in the world…in buildings straight out of the 1960s.
The training facility is currently being used to prepare for multiple missions and is the same facility where astronauts have trained since the 1960s. In preparation for my trip, I had sat down the night before to watch Apollo 13 with my family (it was the first time for our kids) and I pointed out the large building where the astronauts were preparing for their disastrous mission, telling my kids “you’ve been there.” There is definitely something to being able to picture an event because you’ve seen it in person.
The second stop on the tour is Rocket Park. Outside, visitors can see Little Joe II, Mercury-Redstone and the Gemini-Titan.
Inside the facility, visitors get to view of one of only three Saturn V rockets on display in the world. The one on display at Johnson Space Center is the only one with all flight-certified hardware. It is truly an incredible display, complete with explanation of how the rocket worked during the Apollo missions. On the other side of the facility one can read the history of the entire Apollo program and also see the newly unveiled Apollo 13 sculpture and display.
After a final walk around the visitor center, including checking out the Mars exhibit and learning about how the space station uses solar, I was ready to leave the complex for the day. As always, it is an amazing place where one can learn both history and science and see just how far we have come in our technology and our understanding of space.
Note on current COVID-19 restrictions and procedures: Facemasks are required at all time. Because this is a government facility, expect that to remain until pandemic numbers are significantly lower. The tram has plexiglass between each row of seats and the employees are keeping groups separated in each row. There are some exhibits closed, including the Tram to the command center (which I had really want to see, especially since they recently renovated the historic command center to look like it did during the 1960s). Also note that the cafeteria is currently closed. They are taking advantage of COVID restrictions to renovate the entire space. I recommend eating either before arriving at the visitor center or plan your visit around meals for the time being.
Timber Cove (Kind of)
A couple years ago a friend, knowing about my love of history, recommended that I read the book The Astronaut Wives Club. Eager to know more about the women behind the history that helped to build my new hometown, I quickly added it to my audiobook queue.
It presented a different side of the space program than most people usually talk about. Instead of focusing on the astronauts or the engineers that got the first men into space, it focuses on the women who were left behind to maintain stable lives for their children and their husbands when they weren’t flying around the earth. I learned about Timber Cove, the neighborhood where many of the NASA employees, including the astronauts and engineers, settled with their families. The subdivision exploded in the 1960s as more individuals settled into the southeast Houston area so that they could contribute to the space race.
In the 1960s and 70s, residents worked tirelessly to protect their famous neighbors from tourists who wanted to catch a glimpse of astronauts living a normal life. Now, over 50 years later, I wanted to see the neighborhood where these women had held their families together, through disasters and triumphs. What I found was a neighborhood much like my parents’ neighborhood up in Michigan: 1960s architecture mixed with more modern architecture in the houses built on the outside edge along the lake front. It’s the kind of side trip that helps me realize just how normal the original residents really were.
I didn’t see everything that I could have seen of Houston’s space history, but I got to experience quite a bit in four hours. It’s something that everyone should do if they are in Houston for longer than a couple days. After all, it’s not just part of Houston’s story; it’s part of our national past, present, and future.