In my continuing quest to see every aerospace related attraction across the country (as my poor wife can wearily testify) the family and I recently visited Space Center Houston, the official visitor’s center for the Johnson Space Center. If you have just emerged from a 50-year stint in cryogenic suspension, the Johnson Space Center is the place where astronauts receive the bulk of their training, and is the location of Mission Control for all of NASA’s manned space operations.
The first thing you notice upon entering Space Center Houston is the noise level. The reason for the noise is that just beyond the entrance doors is a huge child’s play area. Daredevil Island has minor stunt-type attractions for the older kids, including a bungee harness, an obstacle course, and a trapeze with a crash pad underneath. For the younger ones, the Kid’s Space Place is the largest kid-sized Habitrail-like structure I have ever seen. (If it were not for the rockets and foam meteors decorating the framework, I would swear I was in the world’s largest fast-food restaurant.)
Once you get past the entrance area, you find more "traditional" NASA fare. There are films and simulators and artifacts. There is a slice of moon rock you can touch. There is an interior mock-up of the Space Shuttle and, of course, the obligatory Gift Shop. It all culminates with two tram tours. The "Red Tour " goes to the Astronaut Training Facility, and the Blue Tour goes to Mission Control. Both tours stop at the Saturn V facility, where one of the three remaining Apollo Moon Rockets resides.
Space Center Houston is a self-supporting, non-profit organization. They do not receive funding from NASA or any other governmental source. This means, of course, that it is not cheap. Parking is $4.00, and basic admission is $18.95 for adults and $14.95 for children, age 4-11. If you plan to visit more than once, the annual Family of Four Membership is the best bet at $79.95, which allows you to purchase add on tickets for $19.75.
For those who want the Full Monty of NASA experience, the Level 9 Tour goes behind the scenes in several exclusive areas of the complex. Tickets for these tours cost $79.95, the tour lasts 4-5 hours and is only available to those 14 years and older. Advanced reservations are required at least one day prior to visiting the center. Since neither of my young ones have reached that lofty age, we were unable to tour these areas on this particular trip. (Which provides me a convenient excuse to visit there again with adult-types later!)
If you have visited the Kennedy Space Center or the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum, you may find the Space Center Houston visiting experience not quite as meaty. There are far fewer attractions than at the launch site in Florida, and there are far more aerospace artifacts on display in D.C. There is, however, something pretty cool about going behind the scenes of the Johnson Space Center with your kids. I had a blast showing them the actual Mission Control Room that I remember from watching the Apollo missions on TV with my Dad. The kids did have fun playing in the mind-numbing (did I mention loud?) children’s play areas. And, if nothing else, we always have the tradition of sharing some overpriced Space Dots Ice Cream…