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You can follow in astronauts’ footsteps with this tour of the Johnson Space Center in Houston

Touring the Johnson Space Center in Houston
A Level 9 tour group learns about astronaut training done in mockups of the International Space Station at the Johnson Space Center in Houston.
(Dinah Eng)

Houston, we have a problem.

Most people know the Bayou City is home to the Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center, but fewer realize those familiar words, repeated most notably in the movie “Apollo 13,” were misquoted. (Apollo 13 astronaut Jack Swigert Jr. actually said, “Houston, we’ve had a problem here.”)

Such tidbits abound in displays that take a fascinating look at the past, present and future of America’s exploration of the skies at Space Center Houston, a Smithsonian Affiliate museum that has become one of the city’s top attractions.

Space Center Houston is the official visitor center of the Johnson center, but it is a nonprofit, owned and operated by the Manned Space Flight Education Foundation and not a part of NASA.

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A general admission ticket will allow you to see the world’s largest collection of moon rocks and lunar samples, as well as more than 400 space artifacts in the center’s permanent and traveling exhibits.

If you’re a space buff like me, you’ll want to take the museum’s Level 9 Tour, an in-depth, behind-the-scenes experience that lasts about five hours. It costs $89.95, plus a $1.50 service charge if you buy your ticket online. But I thought this look at NASA facilities where history was made — and where future missions are being shaped — was well worth the price.

I started the tour one April morning with a look at the Saturn V rocket, which was used to transport and land astronauts on the moon during the Apollo missions in the ‘60s and ‘70s. As I stood at its base, I could imagine the fire roaring out of the tail of the 36-story rocket as it blasted off.

Saturn V Rocket

The Saturn V Rocket is a big part of the famous NASA Tram Tour and other tours as well.

(Space Center Houston )

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This restored Saturn V, the most powerful rocket ever built, is one of three in existence. The two others are at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida and U.S. Space & Rocket Center in Huntsville, Ala.

The exhibit reminds us that astronauts Virgil “Gus” Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee died on the launchpad during a 1967 test of Apollo 1 well before the first humans — astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin — landed on the moon on July 20, 1969.

Today, the missions are different, but the goal to explore the unknown remains. Eager to see the astronauts’ workplace, my tour group boarded a small van for a drive through part of the 1,620-acre campus. Tour guide Neal Wiley explained that the NASA complex has a 99-year lease with Houston’s Rice University.

“In the ‘60s, no one was sure that NASA would last, so the university trustees thought if it didn’t work, they would have a ready-made campus called Rice University at Clear Lake,” Wiley said. Fortunately, the campus survives as the Johnson Space Center.

To fuel up for the tour, we stopped at a campus cafeteria for lunch (included in the tour price). Although the tour promotes it as an opportunity “to eat where astronauts eat,” the few folks we saw were desk jockeys picking up meals to go.

After lunch, the group headed to Building 9, otherwise known as the Space Vehicle Mockup Facility, where NASA astronauts train for duty on the International Space Station, or ISS. The place looked like a huge airplane hangar, with people dwarfed by the mock-ups housed there.

We walked past replicas of different ISS sections and stopped for a preview of what could be the next big step for mankind. NASA aims to send humans into deep space, landing on an asteroid by 2025 and on the planet Mars in the 2030s.

To get there, engineers are designing the Orion, a capsule that will hold a crew of four, and with the addition of a habitat module, could expand to six. At first glance, the Orion looked a lot like the Apollo capsules of yesteryear. As I peered into the small chamber, I couldn’t help but hope that we’re taking a step back to the future.

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The next stop on the tour was Building 30, the Christopher C. Kraft Jr. Mission Control Center, a tall and mostly windowless structure named for NASA’s first flight director, whose parents were prescient enough to name him Christopher Columbus Kraft Jr.

We gathered first in the observation deck above the flight control room for the ISS, where a ground team monitors the station and astronauts as they circle the Earth every 90 minutes. Dominating the room are five giant screens with views of space and an orbital tracking map that shows the location of the station at all times.

Ground controller Bill Foster popped in to answer questions and explained that “there are setups of mission control rooms elsewhere in this building for other countries that are ISS partners, and we have people in those rooms too.” Other ISS mission control operations exist in Germany, Japan, Russia and Huntsville.

Mission Control

Built in 1995, this facility took over from the “historic Mission Control” as part of a $250 million renovation project. This room is manned 24/7 to help our Space Station team with whatever they need.

(Regan Geeseman / NASA)

Next up: the historic Apollo Flight Control Room, used from 1965 to 1992. Here, we were allowed to walk the floor and sit at the actual consoles where state-of-the-art technology meant small TV screens connected by miles of wires to a ground-floor mainframe computer.

Although it was neat to sit where history was made, I was dismayed to see that the consoles themselves were not protected by Plexiglas, allowing curious visitors to flick the switches and play with the historic setup as though they were faux exhibits.

The last stop was a quick peek at the Sonny Carter Training Facility-Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory, where astronauts train for space walks in a 40-foot-deep pool to simulate zero gravity.

All too soon, the tour was over. The walk down space flight’s memory lane was a reminder of what people are capable of accomplishing when we work together. With luck, in the not-too-distant future some intrepid astronaut is going to call home and say, “Houston, Orion has landed on Mars.”

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If you go

THE BEST WAY TO HOUSTON

From LAX, United and American offer nonstop service to Houston, and Alaska, Delta and Southwest offer connecting service (change of planes). Restricted round-trip airfares begin at $277, including all taxes and fees.

Space Center Houston, 1601 NASA Parkway, Houston; (281) 244-2100. www.spacecenter.org. Open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mondays-Fridays; 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Level 9 tours (spacecenter.org/attractions/level-9-tour) are limited to 12 participants, age 14 or older; advance reservations are required. Ticket purchase can be made on the day of the tour at the museum information desk, if space is available. Tours often sell out a month in advance. Tour costs $89.95 and includes lunch.

WHERE TO STAY

Kemah Boardwalk Inn, 8 Kemah Waterfront St., Kemah, Texas; (281) 334-9880, www.kemahboardwalkinn.com. This charming 52-room inn sits on the Kemah Boardwalk, which offers dining, shopping and midway amusements along with a great view of the waterfront and Galveston Bay. Doubles from $189. Room rates drop in the fall.

South Shore Harbour Resort & Spa, 2500 South Shore Blvd., League City, Texas; (800) 442-5005, www.sshr.com. This elegant hotel on the south shore of Clear Lake has 240 rooms and is a favorite for romantic getaways. Doubles from $159.

WHERE TO EAT

Dave’s Smoke House Restaurant (Bay Area Meat Market & Deli); 537 Kirby Road, Seabrook, Texas; (281) 326-7164, www.bayareameatmarket.com/restaurant.html. The sign outside says Dave’s Smoke House Restaurant but you’ll find this place online as Bay Area Meat Market & Deli. The small barbecue restaurant, open Tuesdays-Saturdays, is attached to the market and, judging by the many astronaut photos on the wall, is a clear NASA favorite. Entrees $4.99 to $23.99.

Tookie’s, 1202 Bayport Blvd., Seabrook, Texas; (281) 942-9334, www.tookiesburgers.com. This inexpensive burger joint has been a hangout for locals for more than 30 years, with half-pound patties, vintage décor and a toy train that circles the restaurant overhead. Entrees $5.69 to $8.49.

Lupe Tortilla, 891 W. Bay Area Blvd., Webster, Texas; (281) 338-2711, www.lupetortilla.com. Craving Mexican food? This only-in-Texas chain offers everything from quesadillas to shrimp and poblano enchiladas. It even ships its lemon-pepper-marinated fajitas, ready for the grill, anywhere in the United States. Entrees start at about $10.

TO LEARN MORE

Houston Convention & Visitors Bureau, www.visithoustontexas.com

travel@latimes.com


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