Captain's Log: Mission Control, Houston

Captain's Log: Mission Control, Houston

 If you remember anything from the 60's and 70's, you probably remember our space program was tasked with putting a man on the moon by then president Kennedy. That happened, of course, in 1969 when Neil Armstrong was the first person to walk on the moon as part of the Apollo 11 mission. Those missions and all the space missions prior to it and every mission since then including to the current International Space Station missions have all been handled by Mission Control in Houston, Texas. Since we were in the area, we decided to check it out.

The first thing you notice when you get there is parking costs $6. When you actually get to the parking lot, there's a, no kidding, real space shuttle parked in the lot. At least they parked it in the back. The space shuttle, by the way, is huge with three monster engines poking out the back. Hard to believe they were able to piggy back it on another plane to transport it. Very cool. It should be even cooler when they're done refurbishing it for a future exhibit. I always try to park my big fat truck in the back of parking lots, so it was just the space shuttle and us.
Trudy and Matthew

So we hiked in from the space shuttle parking to the entrance of the Houston Space Center and found out we weren't old enough for the senior discount so $45 for a couple of tickets to get in. No problem. However, I was about to enter a government building and I was carrying a pocket knife (rule number nine). That was a problem. So back to the truck to drop off my weapons.

Shuttle mockup you can walk through

Lunar lander mockup hanging from the ceiling

Cockpit of the space shuttle, lots of Rockwell stuff here
The Space Center is actually a collection of buildings arranged like a campus. It is, in fact, on the campus of Rice University. The building we were in was a museum packed with all kinds of cool space stuff from Goddard's first liquid fueled rocket to the international space station. And two gift shops. What it didn't have is Mission Control. That was in another building, but they had a train that would take you there. While we were waiting, we took a tour narrated by a very knowledgeable older gentleman that included some stories that made you think he was actually there for the moon missions. Turned out he was, as the representative for Lockheed Martin, the contractor who designed and developed the moon lander among other things. My first job as a young engineer was working for Rockwell Collins in 1973. Collins had equipment on every space launch from the first Mercury through all the Apollo missions. Following that, Rockwell built the Space Shuttle. I never personally worked on the space program, but I worked with people who did and remembered some of it.
Mike, John Matthew, and Trudy on the tram

Outside in Rocket Park

If you saw the movie "Apollo 13", you saw what Houston's mission control looked like. That mission control still exists exactly like that today, although it is no longer used (the current mission control is very modern and is one floor below the old one). It required a short train trip and hiking up four flights of stairs (187 steps according to our guide), and was way worth it. All the original equipment in the original stations. No computers. Most of the stations were connected to the building's single main frame computer which took up most of another floor, but that was it. And that main frame had a total of memory of four megabytes (I think). Your cell phone probably has several thousand times that. That was for sending manned missions to the moon and back. There in the back corner was a station labeled as the "Contractor Representative". In the movie, he was the guy who kept reminding everyone that the lander was not being used for what it was designed for after the Apollo 13 mission turned into a rescue mission. Now I wonder if our first tour guide was there for Apollo 13, if he was that guy. Exciting times indeed.

One engine on the Saturn V rocket

Matthew gives some perspective
 as to the size of the rocket
On the way back, the train stopped at rocket park. We were on our own for this part and were ogling the various rather large rockets on display on the grounds of rocket park. Until we entered the building housing the Saturn V ("Saturn five"), the three stage rocket used for the moon missions. Inside the building was an entire Saturn V on its side. The stages were separated enough to see the engines for each stage, and it included the Apollo capsule. It was massive. The largest rocket ever built. 363 feet in length. Over 30 feet in diameter at the base, with a cluster of five main engines that made the space shuttle engines I was so impressed with look like toys. Along the wall were displays for all the Apollo missions. Truly impressive.
The Saturn V from the capsule end, the brown thing is the actual capsule.

John's phone he still uses is in here.
Its in two pieces but its there. Well, that
confirms it, he is an antique.
Back at the main building we were having some fun with the hands on displays when our friend's son noticed a display of some random cell phones thrown together to show how far technology has advanced in even the last decade. There in the display of antique cell phones was the flip phone that I'm still using. So I took a picture of it with my phone's camera.

Next time you're trapped inside on a rainy day and maybe feeling a little claustrophobic, remember some of the early space missions. Seven days in capsule with two other crew: no kitchen, no bathroom, no shower, no getting out of your chair for any reason. Followed by a fiery plunge and ending with a 30 mph crash into the ocean. Incidentally, the soviet capsule, the only way to currently get back from the International Space Station, lands in the desert at about 50 mph.

Happy trails. No crashing.


  1. What a fantastic tour. I so want to do this one. But until we can get to Texas I think I'm going to go find the movie Apollo 13 and watch it again. Thank you so much.

  2. We really enjoyed the space center too. George's brother lives in Houston, so we've gotten to go there several times. I want to go back!

  3. Cool stuff John......I love all that space stuff and history. Dawn and I have been to Kennedy and have even witnessed a Shuttle launch at night. Also have visited Alabama Space and Rocket center. Have not been to Houston, although your post makes me want to visit.. Safe Travels, we will see you in Cedar Rapids.

  4. One of the places we want to visit next winter when we are in Houston, thanks for the preview. I grew up about 60 miles from there, I remember we took a field there.

  5. Thanks for a great tour and pics. I'd love to visit that place someday.

  6. We enjoyed our visit in December. We were there during Christmas break so only got to go on the tram tour of the astronaut training center, not the mission control one. Interesting perspective from John's point of view having worked for Rockford. We're planning on being back in Wisconsin on April 14th. Hopefully, they'll be able to have the water on for us. Kevin is jealous of your summer job! Hope it is lots of fun. We're going to be in Omaha for the second week of April and probably the Amana Colonies RV Park on April 13th in case you're going to be in either area on your way back.


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