Growing up in Huntsville, AL, nicknamed the “Rocket City” and having family and friends that work(ed) for NASA, the space program has always been of interest to us. Our schools were named after astronauts and we were always excited when our schools managed to snag one to come speak to us. So, when planning this year’s trips, we decided to add Houston to the list primarily for the chance to visit Space Center Houston.
The Space Center Houston is vital for the space program. It covers a lot of ground, approximately 1600 acres. It serves as the home of mission control for the International Space Program (ISS) and human space missions. In addition, it is the facility where astronauts train for future missions.
Since there is a lot of ground to cover, we recommend arriving when the Center opens. It is located a 20+ miles outside of downtown, so you will need to plan for commute time. We found that covering the museum with all the available activities takes most of a day.
We decided to purchase a CityPass ($56/person) which allowed us to save time by skipping the admission ticket line. We also preregistered for the Tram and Shuttle Tours (included with admission), which allowed us to begin our day exploring right away. General museum admission is $24.95/adult or $19.95/child.
We began our visit by making our way to Independence Plaza to tour the historic Shuttle Carrier Aircraft (SCA), NASA 905, and the Shuttle replica Independence, which opened in January 2016. Once making our way there, we were surprised to find there was no wait. In fact, we were only surrounded by about 10-15 other people the entire time we were on the shuttle. This is the only SCR and shuttle replica to be open to the public for touring. It is a completely self guided tour, but there are staff members around the exhibit available to answer questions. It is a fantastic educational tool available to those who are interested in learning about the shuttle program, the contributions the program has made, the impact the program has on current and future missions. In addition, much time is spent on the people that contributed directly and indirectly and are ultimately responsible for the failures and successes of the program. It was a moving experience to actually be inside the replica and be able to get a sense of what life was like for many astronauts chosen for missions. We were in awe of the ingenuity and what many of our nations heroes were able to accomplish for our country that will forever be remembered.
Afterwards, we made our way to the Tram tour line. The day we were there, the line was not long and it did not seem to matter if one had a timed ticket because both lines moved relatively quickly. We were able to make the next tram that came, which seemed to run in 10-15 minute intervals. We are told that lines do get longer in the summer months, so securing tickets is recommended. Be prepared as they fill the tram with as many people as possible, which we honestly found a bit uncomfortable. Thankfully, guests are not on them long as they are just used to move guests between sites.
Normally, there are two tour options known as the “red” or “blue” Tours that either take guests to Historic Mission Control, or Building 9 to see mock-ups of ISS and Orion. The day we were there, we did not have an option as there were special events taking place. Instead, we were taken to building 16 to see a simulation of the Shuttle Avianotics Integration Laboratory (SAIL), where the flight software is checked and verified before takeoff. The steps were steep and there are wires everywhere. The number of exposed wires is surreal in person. It really makes one appreciate the workers responsible for this part of the shuttle program and leaves you in awe of their accomplishment. It contains a mock up of a Shuttle titled OV-095 (Orbiting Vehicle, 95-mockup). For those that go on a Level 9 tour, they get a behind the scenes tour of the OV-095.
After spending roughly 20 minutes in the SAIL building, we were taken to Rocket Park. The highlight of the four rockets is the Saturn V, which was restored in 2007 and is only one of 3 still left in the world. The 30 story rocket is stored in a warehouse, where guests are allowed access. If this is your first time viewing one, be prepared to be blown away. This is a popular picture taking place and where you will be sure to see many selfie sticks.
Guests may stay at the park for as long as they need and may return to the Space Center on any tram at the tram station. We stayed for 45 minutes to view the rockets and take photos.
Once we retuned to the Space Center, we made our way to a few of the other exhibits (Skylab, ISS) before calling it a day.
We thoroughly enjoyed our day at the Space Center. The ticket price includes movies, the tours we took and astronaut talks. There are several designated kid areas, which makes this place a great treat for the entire family.
For true space geeks, we recommend signing up early for the more in depth/behind the scenes tour available, known as the Level 9 tour. Unfortunately, tickets were not available the day we were there, but this is something we would probably make the trip back for.