If you do a Google search on things to do in Houston, NASA’s Space Centre Houston will undoubtedly appear on every listicle you come across. And there’s a very good reason for this: there’s actually not that much to do in Houston. Well, that is unless you get your jollies off in museums; in that case you might never leave the place. Space nerds, regular nerds, and people with a vague interest in space travel will all find Space Centre Houston a must-see attraction.
And just to clear the air so there is no confusion: Space Center Houston is the museum or visitor centre, Johnson Space Centre is the NASA control Centre where the astronauts play.
This is what we did on our day there, and what you can do to make you day run smoother.
The NASA Tram Tour
The NASA Tram Tour is more than just a tour on a shuttle bus around a facility. I had in mind it might be similar to the Universal Studios Hollywood Tram tour, where you are driven around the backlot looking at stuff. But no, the NASA tram is merely a mode of transport between 4 or 5 different active facilities at NASA, where you can get off and have a poke around.
The first stop, and in my opinion probably the most interesting was the Saturn V rocket: a gargantuan hunk of metal that was used in 13 Apollo missions in the 1960s and ’70s. The thing is absolutely incredible. It largely consisted of engine and fuel tanks and it took a million and a half pounds of thrust just to get off the ground. Let me say that again so it sinks in.
A million and a half pounds of thrust.
And when the first fuel tank empties, the first stage of the rocket drops into the ocean, which implies that it goes through a whole tank before it’s even left our atmosphere.
The next stop on the Tram Tour is Historic mission control, from where Gemini, Apollo, and most space shuttle missions were controlled. It is recognised as an historic landmark.
After that you are taken to the New Mission Control, which looks similar but doesn’t look like it was used in a 1970’s space movie. It the one that is still used today.
The tram tour takes about 2 hours plus whatever time you spent in the initial queue so allow this to be a significant portion of your day. We didn’t actually realise how long the tram tour would take and thought it would just be a bit of a ride-along “wave as we go past” kind of tour, but we were very wrong.
It is best to get this done early because there are 3 or 4 shows that run for 20-30 minutes each that are pretty interesting but are only shown hourly. It does take a bit of planning to make sure you see them all if you want to.
Independence Plaza is the first thing you see at you enter the car park in the morning and contains the very impressive and imposing full scale replica of a 747 piggybacking a space shuttle.
This is the other major attraction of Space Center Houston and also requires queueing. You can also get timed tickets for this before you go so you don’t have to stand in line as long.
While the sight is impressive, it would be way cooler if inside the plane it actually somewhat resembled what the space shuttle and 747 would have looked like. 90% of the contents were merely more exhibits and museumy stuff. I mean, signs and videos are interesting and all, but I want to see the real deal!
Space Center Plaza
NASA’s Space Center Plaza is the main building. This is where you begin the day and predominately contains exhibits and theatres. The exhibits mainly feature items and posters about missions and spacecraft.
Here are some of my best tips for making the most of the day.
I mean, this is “Being a Tourist 101” here guys: when the opening hours are finite, you don’t know how long things will take, hedge your bets and set that alarm clock a little earlier than usual. Get there when gates open. It’s about a half hour drive from the city so take that into consideration as well.
Get timed tickets online before you go
This is actually a big one. This is genuinely something I wish I knew before I went. There are a number of attractions there that are really popular (the tram tour and Independence Plaza. There are also a finite number of people who can go on either of these at any one time so if for some reason you can’t get a timed ticket, get in the line as early as you can.
Get the audioguide
I don’t always get the audioguide at touristy places, but in this instance I’m really glad I did. There was a reasonable amount of time waiting in lines at NASA and this felt like a productive way to spend that time. The audioguide was especially a good idea because if I had to read the equivalent amount of information from signs I would have almost certainly blown my brains out before the end of the day.
The only downside was that there was very little information on the audioguide for the Tram Tour. Since this is such a major part of the NASA experience, I felt this was a major let down, especially since I still had to carry it around my neck for the 2 hours on the tram.
The audioguide was more than just info on what you were looking at, it included interviews with past and present astronauts and people who were involved with the attraction in front of you.
Is NASA’s Space Centre Houston a good place to bring your kids?
I actually don’t think it is, despite being overrun with kids there all day. The focus is very much on the science and the history of space travel and exploration and while I’m sure any people of all ages can enjoy seeing giant spacecraft, I think 90% of the exhibits will be lost on them.
The entry price is also only marginally less than an adults ticket for kids 4 years and over, so I genuinely don’t think a 5 year old would get that much out of it. You’d be much better taking them to the zoo.
Of course, there is a dedicated kids section with interactive, educational exhibits, which I didn’t venture into. There was also a couple of shows that were designed specifically for kids, but even these were probably more aimed at the older kids because really, how much can a 7 year old understand about space exploration? They probably hardly even know what a country is.
Space flight simulators
I didn’t actually have a go on the space flight simulators because it was an extra $7, but they did look pretty cool. And if you go by the law of large lines then I expect it was worth every penny. And from the way that the simulators literally rock and roll around; it did look pretty cool. Just make sure to do it before lunch.
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