There has been a rebirth in excitement about America’s space program as NASA, its contractors, and partnering nations prepare to send men, women, and the first crew of color to the Moon with the Artemis project in 2024. The world is once again entranced with the idea of space travel and visiting our nearest celestial neighbor, so much so that the 14 NASA Visitor Centers across the country are experiencing an uptick in attendance.
The most popular is the Kennedy Space Center, where visitors are able to watch the largest rocket ever built hurl humans to the moon. The next most visited is Space Center Houston, which is part of the Johnson Space Center. Here is where the mission control centers and training for all of the nation’s manned space missions — from Gemini in the 1960s to the International Space Station (ISS) — have been located as well as the headquarters for our next leap to the moon, the Artemis missions.
Whether you are a space geek, into history, or looking for a fun destination to visit, Space Center Houston should be on your list, especially with a ticket aboard their VIP Bus Tour.
A Day At Space Center Houston
Space Center Houston is packed with fascinating exhibits that look back at our history in space and how NASA is preparing to return humans to the Moon. There are authentic historic space capsules in the Starship Gallery, exhilarating motion simulators to ride, movies continually running in the Mission Briefing Center and Destiny Theater, displays where you can walk through the Skylab space station or view the Earth as the astronauts do through the cupola of the ISS, have lunch at Food Lab Market and Eatery, and more.
A highlight of a visit to the space center are the tram tours that take you to the George W.S. Abbey Rocket Park. Here, you can see the only complete Saturn V moon rocket, the Astronaut Training Facility, and a view of historic Mission Control where Apollo 11 was guided to the Moon from a special observation area.
The first two tram tours are free with admission. Tickets can be reserved at the guest services counter. Admission is charged for the Mission Control Tour and must be reserved online.
An Out Of This World Experience — VIP Tours
Now, the tram tours are excellent, but if you really want to experience the Johnson Space Center firsthand, then upgrade your general admission to one of the two VIP Tour packages.
There are two packages available that run during the weekdays, one in the morning at 9 a.m. and the other at noon. Each lasts 3 hours and costs $199 per person. The tours are limited to 10 people per bus and tend to sell out quickly, so make those reservations early.
But why is upgrading your general admission ticket to a VIP Tour worth the money?
1. Walk In The Steps Of History
You can literally walk in the steps of history when you take the morning VIP Tour. The tour bus stops at the historic Christopher C. Kraft Mission Control Center. Walk up — or ride an elevator — to the third floor and see the historic mission control center where engineers guided the astronauts of Apollo 11 to the Moon and saved the lives of the crew of Apollo 13.
The control room has been completely restored to its 1960s state. Each control console and display screen works the same as it did those many years ago. The room has been so precisely restored to its original state that when historians discovered cigarette butts under many of the consoles, they placed them back into the ashtrays that dot the rows of equipment.
After watching a film narrated by flight director Gene Kranz, who was in charge during the Apollo 11 landing from a special observation area, and unlike the tram tour, the doors are unlocked and you can actually walk inside the control room to view it firsthand. It’s an inspiring experience.
From there, the tour makes a short walk to another room to view the actual ISS mission control room that is manned 24/7 to keep the ISS and crew flying safely.
2. Touch History
The morning tour makes a stop at the Crew Systems Laboratory. Here, you will learn about what it takes to make space suits, what astronauts go through to put on and take off a suit, and its important functions. You’ll even get to touch and examine a space-worn suit. There are also vintage suits from the early Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo eras on display.
3. Experience Unseen History
While there are many artifacts on display in the main visitor center building, the VIP Tours take you to see many more artifacts that are not available to the general public. In the Crew Systems Laboratory, you can see the actual device that mission control improvised to purify the oxygen aboard the Apollo 13 mission that nearly ended in tragedy.
You will also get to walk through the Ghost Shuttle in the Shuttle Avionics Integration Laboratory. This is an actual space shuttle (without walls and engines) where astronauts and engineers trained. Before every shuttle mission, the Ghost Shuttle was used to iron out any problems found in an upcoming flight before the shuttle left the ground. Walk inside the massive cargo bay then up the ladder to the crew area and sit at the console on the flight deck.
4. Get Up Close With Astronaut Training
The Johnson Space Center is the main training site for our astronauts heading to the ISS and now Orion, which will go to the Moon. Both tours take you to see the Astronaut Training Facility where full-size mockups of the ISS, Orion spacecraft, and Boeing Starliner capsule are used for training and troubleshooting.
The afternoon tour also takes you to the Neutral Buoyancy Lab, a giant swimming pool that holds full-size mockups of the ISS and other capsules. It’s here that astronauts in their spacesuits practice underwater for their upcoming missions in virtually the same environment as they would in space. It also makes a stop at the Jake Garn Simulation and Training Facility where astronauts familiarize themselves with in-orbit laboratory systems.
And who knows? As you look down into these training facilities at the work being done from a catwalk high above, you may be watching the next man or woman to walk on the Moon.
VIP Tour Basics
When you reserve a VIP Tour, meet up with your tour guide and receive a special VIP badge 15 minutes prior to beginning the tour. Space Center Houston does not open until 9 a.m., but ticket holders for the morning tour are allowed early entrance so that they can gather together before hopping on the bus.
The tour guides are incredibly knowledgeable and can answer just about any question you have.
Generally, the two tours include visits to:
- 9 A.M. Tour: Crew Systems Laboratory, Shuttle Avionics Integration Laboratory, Apollo Mission Control Center, ISS Mission Control Center
- Noon Tour: Jake Garn Simulation and Training Facility, Astronaut Training Facility, Neutral Buoyancy Lab (NBL)
When on the tour, any fanny packs, purses, backpacks, etc., must be left on the locked bus when you enter a building.
Remember that these are working NASA facilities and you will be walking among working employees and contractors, so be considerate as you walk past their offices.
Guests must wear closed-toe shoes on VIP tours to avoid injuries. Bathroom breaks are limited so be sure to hit a restroom before heading out.