Hi, friends! I’m back this week with more summer posts, except this week and the next I’ll be traveling (virtually) back to Houston, TX and sharing some of my summer 2016 experiences with you! Better late than never, right? 😛
This week in particular, I will be documenting a weekend trip that my best friend Conor made down to Texas and all the fun activities we did while he was in town. Since this was Conor’s first time in Texas, we tried to fit in as much as possible during his 3-day stay in the city. So I’ll be covering all the things we did in several posts over the next few days. So without further ado, let’s get right into it!
Conor arrived in the evening on Thursday, which enabled us to get a bright and early start at things on Friday morning. We spent the first half of the day at Space Center Houston in Clearlake, TX (where the NASA Johnson Space Center is located) and then made the 45-minute drive out to Galveston Beach for the second half of the day.
Just as a quick caviat before we get too deep into things here, there are seriously soooo many neat sights and exhibits to see and experience at the Space Center Houston. So many, in fact, that I will not be able to share all of them with you here. But through this post I hope to give you a little taste of our short time there and the kind of experience you could have if you happen to visit there in the future! A great place to start planning your trip is this list of attractions, if you are interested. Ok, now on to the good stuff!
While Houston didn’t get one of the three retired Space Shuttles to display, they did get one of the Space Shuttle replicas (Independence, formerly Enterprise). Enterprise was the first orbiter built as a part of the Space Shuttle Program, which rolled out in 1976, and was used for testing out the orbiter design. While the Enterprise was built without functional engines or heat shields, yielding it inoperable for space flight, it was taken to high altitude aboard a modified Boeing 747, renamed the NASA 905 shuttle carrier aircraft, and launched there to perform atmospheric and structural loading tests during approach and landing operations. It was also the first to be used in this piggy-back, mated configuration. Space Center Houston is actually the only place in the world you will see a shuttle mounted on top of the carrier like this and the only place you can explore the inside of both!
I was actually working at NASA JSC when Independence first arrived–what a cool experience! So this is a really neat exhibit that hasn’t always been available to visitors and is a unique opportunity you don’t want to miss if you’re in the area! I’ll share pictures from inside both vehicles a little later in the post.
Below is one of the SSME (Space Shuttle Main Engines) used during ascent of the Space Shuttle system during launch. The SSME’s are liquid-fed engines which take in liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen from the External Tank (the big orange one!) and use them as a throttle-able propellant. For comparison, the SRB’s (Solid Rocket Boosters) were used simultaneously with the SSME’s but instead were made of a solid fuel grain with a constant thrust. Using a liquid fuel enabled the system to control how much thrust was being used at different stages of the ascent into orbit.
The engines are actually quite an impressive sight to see in person…and even as an engineer myself, it baffles my mind how humans were able to develop and successfully use something so complicated and down right amazing to take us beyond the surface of Earth and into space.
In addition to the exhibits dedicated to the Space Shuttle Program, there are also mock-ups, artifacts, and even a real crewed capsule from the Apollo missions and other earlier space programs such as Mercury, Gemini, and Skylab.
Below is a life sized model of the lunar lander used during the Apollo missions to the Moon’s surface. Suspended high above on the ceiling, you can almost imagine it drifting downward to touch the lunar surface for the first time and watching as astronauts stepped out onto a celestial body other than the Earth for the first time in history. What an experience that must’ve been to experience in real time! Maybe in our life times we will get to experience an astronaut touching down onto the surface of Mars!
Solar panels…the intricacy and detail that go into making these! Solar panels are what we use on the ISS (International Space Station) and other spacecraft to convert the Sun’s energy to electrical energy that we can use to power our vehicle. Yet another crazy cool invention that blows my mind! (Watch this video to hear in layman’s terms how a solar cell works!)
And look who else we found! …none other than Robonaut 2 himself! Robonaut 2 is a humanoid robot developed at in house at JSC and used onboard the ISS to help astronauts with their tasks. His dexterous fingers enable him to handle tools as the astronauts would and to complete tasks using fine motor movements. He was even outfitted with climbing manipulators, or legs, that can secure him to the sides of nodes aboard the ISS while still allowing for mobility.
And speaking of the ISS…there was a whole area focused just on ISS technologies and even a live show detailing the different types of experiments currently happening on board and what it’s like to live on the ISS day-to-day. So lots to learn about and take in!
When Conor and I were there two summers ago, they had a MythBusters exhibit that showed lots of the actual experiments used by the team and even ones you could partake in on the spot. It was a really neat area to go through! That’s another nice aspect of the Space Center Houston–there are rotating exhibits that come into town so that every visit is a new experience. I’m not sure if the MythBusters area is still there today or not…but you can bet if it isn’t, they’ve replaced it with something just as insightful and interesting to explore!
I can’t remember what the black light was supposed to be for…but we sure had fun posing for a silly picture in front of the mirror! 🙂
There is also a space shuttle cockpit simulator that you can walk though and see what it would feel like to be an astronaut commander. So neat!
And down below there is a full-sized mock up of Orion MPCV (Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle)…the next crew capsule to take us to Low Earth Orbit (where the ISS is located) and ultimately beyond (to Mars!). Orion is designed to support 4 astronauts and will be carried atop SLS (the Space Launch System) currently under development. The first test flight of Orion (known as EFT-1) was conducted in December 2014 and the first crewed test flight is slated for 2023.
A view of the main floor of Space Center Hosuton shows just how expansive the space is! Lots of different things to see and do just in this one area! (And there’s much more to go!)
I had to stop and pose for a silly picture as a Mars astronaut, right?! 🙂
There were also exhibits detailing the design and testing of the Space Shuttle, including artifacts such as the following wind tunnel model used for aerodynamic testing.
And like I mentioned above, there were also several historic exhibits documenting the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo Programs. The Apollo 17 Command Module and the Mercury 9 Capsule are two of the highlights shown below. For those that may not know…a brief history of the NASA manned space program follows.
- Project Mercury was the first manned space program for NASA (1958-1963) with the objectives 1) to orbit a manned spacecraft around the Earth, 2) to investigate man’s ability to function in space, and 3) to recover both the spacecraft and man successfully.
- The Gemini Program was the second manned space program for NASA (1961-1966) with the objectives 1) to test an astronaut’s ability to fly long duration missions (up to 2 weeks in space), 2) to understand how spacecraft could rendezvous and dock in orbit , 3) to perfect re-entry and landing methods, and 4) to further understand the effects of longer spaceflights on astronauts.
- Apollo was the third manned space program for NASA (1961-1972) with the main objectives to land a man on the Moon’s surface and to bring him back to Earth successfully.
- Next came the Space Shuttle era (1972-2011) which focused on building a permanent, manned space station in orbit around the Earth (Skylab >> ISS) and developing a reusable vehicle (the Space Transportation System, STS) to support it.
- And finally…here’s what’s next on NASA’s horizon.
There were also tons of real Moon rock samples on display that were brought back by the Apollo astronauts. And the collection at the Space Center Houston is actually the largest collection you will find anywhere in the world! Another interesting fact: NASA JSC is the physical location of most lunar samples brought back during the Apollo Program. There is a special facility on site that studies and preserves the samples here on Earth. So this is a particularly unique experience to have while in Houston!
After we explored all of the attractions and exhibits within the main building, we headed outside to explore Independence Plaza (which I talked about at the very beginning of the post).
Inside the NASA 905 shuttle carrier was information all about how the piggy-back concept was developed, including video footage of remote control concepts tested and even wind tunnel models used for analyzing aerodynamic loads. The inside of the Boeing 747 is surprisingly quite large!
Heading back outside and up the stairs to the entry of the Space Shuttle replica, we couldn’t help but snap a few pictures with Independence!
Inside you’ll discover just how large the payload bay of the Space Shuttle orbiter is, where spacecraft such as the Hubble Telescope were carried into space and later deployed from once in orbit. The shiny silver doors you see on the ‘ceiling’ of the image below actually open to space and allow the payloads inside to be disconnected and deployed to space.
Something I didn’t seem to get pictures of but would highly, HIGHLY recommend is purchasing tickets for the tram tour, which gets you on site to NASA JSC. There are three different tracks to choose from–Building 9, Historic Mission Control, and New Mission Control–all of which also take you by the impressive Saturn V rocket and the Rocket Park.
Building 9 is the Vehicle Mock-up Facility where a large part of astronaut training happens using mock-ups of various ISS modules and robotic manipulators. On any given day you could see astronauts training in one of the airlock mock-ups or even space engineers testing out equipment on the air bearing floor, which better simulates motion for space applications.
Historic Mission Control is where the Apollo Missions were operated out of, as seen in the famous Apollo 11 movie. It has been preserved with all the old time computer equipment and desks still in tact. And the New Mission Control is where most of the Space Shuttle missions were operated out of and where the ISS operations currently happen. All are exciting to visit for their own special reasons–you really can’t go wrong with any of them!
And finally, the last stop on the tram tour is the Saturn V building and Rocket Park. Here you’ll see the tallest, heaviest, most powerful rocket ever flown, the Saturn V, which was used to take Apollo astronauts to the Moon. It’s quite impressive to witness in person! I only wish I could have been alive to watch it launch, as I’ve heard it is an incredible event to live through. The Saturn V is also the only rocket (so far!) to have taken astronauts beyond Low Earth Orbit (to the Moon).
Another interesting fact: There are only 3 Saturn V rockets on display in the world!! And the one at Space Center Houston is the only one fully comprised of flight-certified hardware. The other two (at Marshall Space Flight Center and Kennedy Space Center) are comprised of flight hardware, mock-ups, and test components. So it’s a truly unique sight to see while here in Houston!
At the front end you’ll find the crew capsule where the astronauts resided and the launch abort system, which propels the astronauts away from the launch stack to safety if something were to go wrong during ascent.
In the middle you’ll find engines of all the different stages. The Saturn V had 3 different stages of engines it used in getting to orbit, which you can learn all about in this video. Since I’ve started from the top of the rocket here, the stages are shown in reverse order below. Stage 3 uses one J-2 engine and Stage 2 uses five clustered J-2 engines.
And finally you reach the back…the business end, known as Stage 1 ,where there are a cluster of five F-1 engines. The F-1 engine remains the most powerful single combustion chamber liquid-propellant rocket engine ever developed. Boom! Packing a lot of power back here.
These rocket engines are ginormous, so we had to take picture in front of one for scale of size!
Outside in Rocket Park, you’ll find other historic rockets from the Mercury and Gemini programs. The following two rockets were used in the Mercury Program–the Mercury-Atlas rocket and the Mercury-Redstone rocket, respectively.
And here’s another look at the F-1 engine, as it’s unattached from the Saturn V rocket.
After Rocket Park, we decided to call it an afternoon. We could’ve spent an entire day at the Space Center Houston, but we were trying to pack a lot into our weekend since this was Conor’s first time to Texas. I’d say at minimum plan for a 1/2 day there, but if you’re an avid space geek like me…plan for longer! It’s also a great place to bring the whole family with a wide range of activities for kids and adults alike.
Afterwards we stopped at a local sandwich shop for a quick bite to eat before heading down to the coast of Galveston for some beach time. The drive from Clearlake to Galveston is 45 minutes to an hour, depending on where you leave from (and time of day)…so not too bad! One of my favorite parts about Galveston is all the colorful beach houses you’ll pass while driving around the town.
We pulled into a little sand parking lot and headed out to the beach for a some good ol’ fashion afternoon relaxing. Galveston may not have the whitest of white sands or the clearest of water, but it’s a beach nonetheless and a good way to spend a weekend afternoon with sand between your toes and salt water in your hair.
Loved finding lots of pretty seashells along the sea shore–a favorite pass time of mine while at the beach!
After a few hours of frolicking in the waves and soaking up some rays, we headed to a nearby seafood restaurant (Shrimp ‘n Stuff) for fried shrimp and hushpuppies. Yummm! (You don’t know how much you miss hushpuppies until you’ve gone a loooooong time without them! And if you don’t know what I’m talking about…make sure to try them the next time you are in the south! So. Good.)
Overall we had a great first day exploring the Houston area! I’d highly recommend Space Center Houston in particular for space nerds or really anyone whose interested in the history or future of space exploration! It’s one of the uniquely Houston things to do and such a great opportunity to see and interact with NASA technology first-hand. You can also check out their special events to see if anything exciting is happening during your visit (like Astronaut talks on Fridays!).