Space Center Houston

September 2, 2020

Paul Kay

Space Center Houston is the official visitor center and manned space flight museum of the Johnson Space Center. This learning center is one of Houston’s top rated and attended tourist attractions. We can attest to it’s fun learning environment and interactive education mission.

Parking Entrance, Space Center Houston, Texas

In this post, I’ll cover our visit to the Space Center and what you can expect if you go. I’ll also cover some of the history of the American space program. We learned a lot!


In 2019, Madeline and I were fascinated by the 50-year anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing. Apollo 11 was the spaceflight that first landed humans on the moon. Commander Neil Armstrong and lunar module pilot Buzz Aldrin formed the American crew that landed the Apollo lunar module, Eagle, on July 20, 1969. Astronaut Michael Collins circled the moon and waited until his two lunar explorers returned to the orbiting craft.

Moon Landing Crew, Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins, Buzz Aldrin, Apollo 11

Madeline and I were in high school and dating. July 20 was a Sunday, so we were going out. I remember my dad demanding when we were to return. American astronauts were going to land on the moon! You two will be back by four o’clock!

We watched the lunar lander and the astronauts and were in awe and wonder at how it was possible to land on the moon. We held our collective breath until the lander launched away from the moon and joined Michael Collins to come back to earth on July 24.

The best book on the Apollo 11 landing that I’ve read is: Shoot for the Moon: The Space Race and the Extraordinary Voyage of Apollo 11 by Jim Donovan. The book covers the Apollo program and the Mercury program before it. And Donovan covers the seven American astronauts chosen for the mission.

Buzz Aldrin, Apollo 11 on the Moon, July 20 1969

President Kennedy wanted a goal with which all the country could come together, and space was the glue. Kennedy put Vice President Lyndon Johnson in charge of getting the space program moving.

I lived in Deerfield, Illinois, when Alan Shepard first made his way as the first American to orbit in space, and shortly thereafter my school was renamed Alan B. Shepard Junior High School. Americans were hopeful and proud of our astronauts.

Control of the missions was in Texas. It was originally called the Manned Spacecraft Center and was home to mission control. An act of the United States Senate in 1973 renamed it the Johnson Space Center in honor of Lyndon B. Johnson.


The Space Center spreads over 1600 acres with more than 100 buildings. Astronauts train at Johnson Space Center today. All the International Space Station mission operations run from Mission Control. The Orion program, which eventually will send humans to Mars, is managed from this site.

There is a lot to visit. It’s an impressive museum that serves to inspire and educate through exhibits, talks, demonstrations and the preservation of America’s astronautical history.

Map to Space Center Houston, Texas

We were staying at the Hyatt Regency Houston, which we really enjoy because of its service, rooms and dining options. From there it’s about a 35-minute drive south of downtown.

We purchased our tickets on the Space Center’s website to avoid waiting in line. We also purchased parking online, so it was easier, too. You might consider a membership to the Space Center if you plan on coming back within a year. A one-year membership allows you to come back as often as you want. You also get free parking as well and priority boarding for any of the NASA tram tours. Avoiding the long lines and the Texas heat while waiting in line is a plus. If you’re traveling with kids, there are plenty of hands-on exhibits all over the Space Center.

We entered and asked for a brochure. This is a high-tech place, so no paper brochures are handed out. Instead, they tell you to download the app for the Johnson Space Center. Maps are in the app. I recommend downloading the app and familiarizing yourself with it before arriving at the Space Center.

We spent about five hours there. But you should probably plan on more time, particularly if you have children in tow. You can easily spend a couple of days at the Space Center, but we tried to get it all done in one.

Space Shuttle Independence Aboard 747, Space Center Houston, Texas

Upon your arrival, you can’t miss the Independence space shuttle parked out front. It’s surrounded by a gate, so you need to enter the museum to enter the NASA 905 plane (a heavily modified Boeing 747) or the shuttle itself. However, it didn’t stop us from taking pictures first!

Major Areas to Explore

Main Plaza

When you enter the Space Center, you’ll be in the Main Plaza. Look up to see all sorts of space material. This is also where there are lots of interactive things to enjoy, particularly for kids.

Map of Space Center Houston, Texas

I recommend going to the information desk first. You may need to get a ticket for a specific tram ride time or to enter Independence Plaza. It’ll depend on the day you arrive. They are very friendly and will get you sorted out quickly.

Lunar Lander, Main Plaza, Space Center Houston. Texas

We took in the sights (and took some photos), and then headed into the Destiny Theatre. It’s a large theatre that shows a 15-minute introduction to the beginnings of space travel. To the right of the entrance is the lectern used by President Kennedy when he announced the plan to put a man on the moon.

Starship Gallery

When you exit the theatre to the left, you enter the Starship Gallery, which has even more space mission artifacts.

Paul Entering Skylab, Space Center Houston, Texas

They have the Skylab, which you can walk through.

Astronaut Outside Skylab, Space Center Houston, Texas

Skylab was the predecessor to the International Space Station. It was decommissioned at the end of the 1970s. The gallery also showcases a chronology of American space travel.

Mercury 9 Capsule, Space Center Houston, Texas
Apollo 17 Command Module, Space Center Houston, Texas

Within the gallery are the spacecraft from each of the major space eras: Mercury, Gemini and Apollo. There are space suits, patches and other memorabilia from various missions. Also here is the Moon Rock Vault, where you can see and touch moon rocks.

Independence Plaza

Next, we went to Independence Plaza, which has the gigantic 747 and the space shuttle. From the parking lot, it looks large enough. But when you are standing under it, it’s immense!

Space Shuttle Independence Aboard 747, Independence Plaza, Space Center Houston, Texas

The plane is real, and the space shuttle is a replica of the Independence. There is an elevator if you need some assistance. The alternative is an outdoor stairway that rises four stories to allow you to enter the shuttle. You walk down a couple of flights and enter the 747, which is officially a NASA model 905.

Quote Inside 747, Independence Plaza, Space Center Houston, Texas

Neither of us ever dreamed we’d tour a space shuttle. Even though it’s a replica, it was built exactly to scale. It just doesn’t have all the other things real astronauts require like heat shields, working electronics and wiring.

As we approached reentry (dad joke!), we noticed a shiny walkway on our right. It’s the metal frame walkway that was used at Kennedy Space Center as part of the Apollo program. The astronauts used it to board the command modules!

If you need some refueling (I did it again!) before you head off on one of the tram tours, check out the Zero-G Diner, which offers plenty of options.

Zero-G Diner

The food at the Zero-G Diner isn’t cheap, but you aren’t close to any alternatives. This is an upgraded cafeteria-style facility that has a Global Kitchen and a Cosmic Grounds Coffee and Sandwiches. The food options include hamburgers, salads, snacks, pizza and vegetarian options.

NASA Tram Tours

Christopher Kraft Mission Control Center, Johnson Space Center, Houston, Texas

The NASA tram tours vary from day to day. We needed a reservation for the Mission Operation Control Room tour. That was in the Christopher Kraft building.

There, the Mission Operation Control Room was carefully reconstructed. The replica allows you to experience what it was like to work in the NASA control room that started with the first space flight by Alan Shepard. The tram tour started in the main building and returned to the main building.

The other tram tours start in the main building and stop at the Saturn V in Rocket Park.

Rocket Park

Rocket Park is away from the main building and requires taking a tram to get there.

Rockets used to launch the astronauts into space changed considerably from Mercury to Gemini to the Apollo program. Mercury relied on the Redstone rocket, which was a modification of an Army unit. During its suborbital flight, the rocket carried the Mercury capsule to an altitude of 130 statute miles. All the rockets used in Mercury only carried a single astronaut and the payload was kept to a minimum.

For Gemini, an Air Force Titian II ICBM rocket was modified. It was much more powerful than the Redstone rockets. There were two astronauts on every Gemini launch and they did extra vehicular activities (space walks) and experiments that added up to more payload. Gemini was the next step after Mercury to prepare the astronauts for a trip to the moon.

For the Apollo moon missions, the payload was much bigger. Not only did they have three astronauts but a capsule capable of circling the moon and another which would land on the moon. A bigger and more powerful rocket was needed. The Saturn rocket went through many changes. It was the most powerful rocket ever developed. The Saturn V got the astronauts to the moon.

Saturn V Building, Rocket Park, Space Center Houston, Texas

In Rocket Park, the Saturn V lays horizontally within a gigantic metal structure.

Paul and Saturn V Rocket, Space Center Houston, Texas

Once we entered the building, we were amazed at the gigantic size. It’s more than 360 feet in length and over 30 feet wide. Just standing by one of the 5 nozzles at the bottom of the rocket is amazing.

Mercury Redstone and Little Joe II, Rocket Park, Space Center Houston, Texas

There are lots of other rockets in Rocket Park. These are the real rockets used by NASA, including a Mercury Redstone and Little Joe II, a finned rocket and predecessor to the Redstone.

Astrosteers, Rocket Park, Space Center Houston, Texas

Also at Rocket Park are astrosteers. It's Texas so there must be longhorns! Actually it's part of NASA's endeavor to give back to the community that hosts it. The Center for Agriculture, Science, and Engineering (CASE) works with local groups to help young ones raise and show livestock, like astrosteers. Beyond husbandry, students learn how food is part of manned space flight.

Tram Tour Boarding Area, Space Center Houston, Texas

After we explored Rocket Park, we reentered a line that offered two more tours. Each tour starts and returns to Rocket Park and lasts approximately 45 minutes. But the wait for the tram easily can be 30 minutes.

Tram Tour Route, Space Center Houston, Texas

It gets hot in Texas, particularly during the summer, And the trams are open air. Plan your trip carefully. As I said earlier, if you buy a membership to the Space Center, you bypass the line and get on the next tram. It’s something to consider.

Here are the tram tours that were available during our trip.

Building 9 at Johnson Space Center

Every tram tour has a driver and a guide who explains the buildings you will be passing. The buildings are arranged similar to a college campus. Some buildings have names, but all have numbers.

Building 9, houses the Vehicle Mock-up Facility. This is where astronauts train on the various modules that are launched into space. It’s also where NASA works on new projects. In this building are replicas of the Orion capsule, the International Space Station, Soyuz and others.

Robotics Team, Vehicle Mockup Facility, Space Center Houston, Texas

We also saw the robotics team at work. They had two robots in training. One was called Robonaut and had no feet but had pegs where the feet would go. This robot was constructed to work on space missions, and we wondered how it would move with no feet. The pegs we saw are called end effectors that take the place of feet. The robot is built so that it can use sockets and handrails to move about. The robot can then be secured to a specific area. We forgot that everything is weightless in space so it makes sense to build a robot that can be secured to a station by at least one leg.

Valkyrie, Vehicle Mockup Facility, Space Center Houston, Texas

The female styled robot is named Valkyrie. She is 6 feet and 2 inches tall and weighs over 300 pounds. Our guide said that her role will be to assist astronauts in Mars. She has cameras and sensors and, yes, she has feet. NASA initially developed Valkyrie for disaster relief but reconfigured her for deep space in 2014. Valkyrie will assist in establishing living compounds on Mars, maintaining power and life support systems until humans arrive.

Mission Control: Apollo 11

There are two versions of this tour and we saw both. The one that required a reservation was the one where we visited the recreation of the original mission control.

Apollo 11 Mission Control Center, Space Center Houston, Texas

Everything was restored; even the seats we sat in were used more than 50 years ago. We noticed ashtrays behind every other seat. There were corded phones in phone booths, original equipment used by CAPCOM and the flight commander.

Our guide said that a flag was flying above only if we had an American astronaut in space at the time. As it turns out, there has been an American astronaut in space for the last 19 years. We don’t hear that much about them in our daily lives anymore. Our guide said that, at the time of our tour, three Americans were on the International Space Station.

We also noticed that the flag was at half-staff. That was to honor the recent passing of Christopher Kraft, for whom the building is named. Kraft is a legend within NASA. He created the concept of Mission Control. Mr. Kraft developed the organization, operational procedures and culture of NASA's Mission Control, which was a critical element of the success of the nation's manned spaceflight programs.

Displays, Apollo Mission Control, Space Center Houston, Texas

Our tour included a short video that brings you back to the Apollo program and the initial landing on the moon by the Apollo 11 crew of Aldrin, Armstrong and Cooper. It was amazing to see how lovingly restored everything was. It looked much smaller than we imagined when we tried to remember our TV broadcast with Walter Cronkite explaining what was happening.

Mission Control: International Space Station

The other mission control tour is for the International Space Station. It didn’t require a ticket, but we did have to get back in line.

ISS Mission Control, Space Center Houston, Texas

This tour was of a working mission control. We saw the NASA engineers training. The simulator comes up with a mission and the mission control team need to work together to solve one of many hundreds of problems that can arise in any mission. Hopefully none of the problems are serious, but they train for everything.

CAPCOM Desk, ISS Mission Control, Space Center Houston, Texas

Our guide explained what the people were doing and noted that a few doors down was the real ISS Mission Control. We were not allowed to go there, so it was nice to see how NASA trains its engineers for the real thing.

Astronaut Training Facility

Seeing the Astronaut Training Facility is not part of your normal ticket price. In order to see this, you need to book the Level 9 tour, which is much more private and personal. You also see things that are not on the tram tour. The Astronaut Training Facility is an off-campus building where astronauts train in a gigantic six-million-gallon swimming pool and other simulation devices.

NASA astronauts go through rigorous training before any mission. To say they are well prepared is an understatement. Astronauts train in the highly specialized flight vehicle replicas. In many cases, they need to train in a way that simulates a microgravity working environment.

To accomplish this, astronauts use an array of simulators to train in all sorts of operations. A motion-based trainer simulates the vibrations, noise and views astronauts experience during launch and landing. A fixed-base simulator is used for docking and payload operations training. The space station simulator trains astronauts in the use of the in-orbit laboratory’s systems.

Docking Station Simulator, Space Station Houston, Texas

Before their first mission, astronauts typically train for a combined total of 300 hours in these simulators. Astronauts preparing for spacewalks or robotic arm operations test their skills in the Virtual Reality Laboratory, which immerses them in a computer-generated microgravity environment.

Launch Simulator, Space Center Houston, Texas

To simulate microgravity, NASA has the world’s largest indoor pool holding more than six million gallons of water. It’s 200 feet long and 40 feet deep. The full-size replicas of space station modules are all under water. They spend more than 10 hours under water for every hour they spend walking in space.

The trams that start and return to the Rocket Park don’t take you back to the main building. To do that, we needed to walk the length of the Saturn V rocket and enter yet another line for a tram to take us back.

Mission Mars

The Mission Mars is all about the Orion, which is NASA’s program for visiting asteroids, the moon and Mars. They have a Mars rock that you can touch. Exhibits talk about the new the Space Launch System which will be used.

Paul and Orion Capsule, Space Center Houston, Texas

The whole experience is mind bending. For people of a certain age, that followed Alan Shepard’s first space flight or watched Neil Armstrong step on the moon, it’s just amazing.

We talked with a few people on our tram trips who said that the current activities available at the Johnson Space Center are much better than what they remembered years ago.

NASA educates Americans about the history of space flight. But it also cultivates excitement about Mars and other upcoming space exploration missions. After all, it won’t be cheap to get astronauts to Mars, and public support and education helps.

We think you’ll love the Space Center Houston. It’s fun, it’s educational and there’s something for everyone. Don’t leave Houston without taking a mission to the Space Center!

Accessibility Options

We were impressed with how all the accommodations for people with mobility challenges. On every tram, there was a way to get a wheelchair on board. People with mobility issues were treated with respect and care.

There were elevators in every building we saw on our tram tours. The guide told us how many stairs we were going to climb. They ranged from 50 to 100 steps. If you feel that this is too much, the guide said the driver helps others into the elevator.

We saw quite a few people in wheelchairs all over the complex. You can use your wheelchair even in the Independence space shuttle and 747. Don’t let mobility challenges keep you from enjoying this great activity!

Find out more about the Space Center's accessibility options on their website.

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