Have a Blast at Houston’s Historic NASA Space Center - TribPapers

Have a Blast at Houston’s Historic NASA Space Center

NASA’s Control Center in Houston recreates for visitors the sounds and sights of the lunar landing in 1969. Photo by Pete Zamplas.

Houston – American astronauts are to return to the moon next year, after a 53-year absence since 1972.

The NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration) announced on Jan. 9 that the next lunar mission is put off from this year to September 2025 with a four-astronaut manned orbit.

NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said “safety is our top priority,” wanting to fine-tune engineering of the spacecraft and get safer landers and moon suits from private industry.

An Artemus III landing on the moon is planned for 2026, with a female as the first person to step on the lunar surface. Artemus I was the Orion craft’s unmanned orbit in August 2022. The Lunar Gateway is a deep-space orbiting outpost near the moon.

Eventual human exploration of Mars is among upcoming phases. A “Curiosity” rover first moved on the Martian surface in 2011, for ongoing research of the Red Planet.

The Space Center museum in Houston has sections on various programs past and upcoming. Their scientific discoveries and technological innovations are useful on Earth, far beyond Tang drinks of over a half century ago. A film chronicles the space program.

‘Space City’

The Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center (JSC) began in 1961 as the Manned Spacecraft Center, the U.S. space program’s Mission Control Center. The $1.5 billion multi-building complex is on 1,620 acres in Clear Lake, near Houston.

Mercury flights were out of Cape Canaveral, Fla. (“Cape Kennedy” in 1963-73). The new Space Force military program is based there.

NASA flights shifted to JSC in 1965 with the Gemini program, then Apollo missions such as the Apollo 11 landmark lunar landing on July 20, 1969. The Apollo-Soyuz U.S.-Soviet Union joint mission was in 1975.

Next was the U.S. Space Shuttle program in 1981-2011, transporting Skylab (1968-74) and Spacelab (1983-98) crafts for long-term research from space. The ongoing International Space Station is a collaboration of many nations.

Astronauts train in JSC. Visitors can see video of astronauts somersaulting in a Skylab 1-G trainer, acclimating to light gravity.

Mission Control

Mission Control still operates in JSC, a floor below the early Mission Control where tourists see and hear replication of the lunar landing. A sound tape has voices of astronauts, control scientists, and then-President Richard Nixon praising the astronauts. As the first human to step onto the moon, Neil Armstrong proclaimed it was “one small step for man; one giant leap for mankind.”

There are visuals of what control scientists saw – scientific data, a tracking of the lunar module as it approached the moon, and sketchy imagery on black-and-white monitors.

Interestingly, as a tour guide noted, television viewers saw Disney-created animation of the lunar surface as the module neared it. There is a mere $15 surcharge for the tram ride and tour of this popular attraction, on top of the $30 general admission.

Saturn V, Shuttle

The huge T. Rex of spacecrafts at JSC is an actual, 363-foot-long Saturn V booster rocket. This is the most powerful, tallest and heaviest rocket ever flown. It is the only fully-intact Saturn V booster remaining. It weighs an astonishing 6.2 million pounds — equal to 400 elephants. It launched the last six successful Apollo moon missions, starting in 1967, and the last Skylab.

Saturn V is displayed on its side in a long room. It has five sections for flight propulsion phases. The initial stage has five F-1 engines that fired for merely two minutes and 47 seconds, to get the entire rocket 42 miles above Earth. It was then jettisoned. The next two stages took the rocket into deep space, and put it into “parking orbit.”

Its display room has historical graphics about each of the 17 Apollo missions. Visitors can walk in it after taking a free tram ride to Rocket Park.

Just outside the museum’s front entrance is an authentic 747 NASA 905 Space Shuttle jet carrier, with a replica of the 80-ton Independence shuttle atop it. The 159-ton jet, the first of two shuttle carriers, transported shuttles 223 times over 42 years.

Command Module

Crafts in the Space Center museum include Command Module America of Apollo 17, the last mission to land humans on the moon. The module’s exterior is scorched from heat upon reentry into the earth’s atmosphere.

In that mission, Harrison “Jack” Schmitt became the first scientist in space. He had a doctorate in geology. Schmitt and Eugene Cernan collected 243 pounds of moon rocks, in 75 hours on the lunar surface.

A small, dark slate-shaped moon rock is displayed. The museum’s other fascinating artifacts include the lunar module LT-8, Explorer 1 that orbited on Jan. 31, 1958 as the Space Race commenced, Mercury-Redstone rocket from 1960-61, the Mercury-Atlas 9 mission’s Faith 7 capsule from 1963, and a replica of the early rocket (with two tubes out front) that Dr. Robert Goddard launched in 1926. There is also a reusable SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket booster from 2017, a lunar rover trainer, actual space suits, shuttle test ejection seats, and JFK’s lectern for his famed space exploration speech in 1962.

President Kennedy said the U.S. would take on challenges such as going to the moon “not because they are easy, but because they are hard.”

For more about the Space Museum and its exhibits, check https://spacecenter.org/.