As we walked into the huge hangar like building, the conical structures of a rocket exhaust greeted us. There were 5 of these. As our eyes adjusted to the light inside the building, which was a bit darker than the sweltering bright day outside, the sight of the 100 meter long rocket laid out horizontally in the building was before us. This was Saturn V rocket. The rocket design which took us to the moon! One of the greatest pieces of engineering mankind has ever produced. I was spellbound. This was definitely the highlight of my visit to the NASA’s Johnson Space Centre in Houston, Texas.
In June of this year, I was visiting my sister and brother in law at their home in Dallas, Texas, USA. One weekend we decided to go visit the Johnson Space Centre in Houston which is around 4 hours away. It was summer time and the day was sizzling. We started on Friday evening, reached our hotel, which was near the space center, in the night.
The next day, after breakfast at the hotel, we drove over to the space center where we were greeted with crowds of people. This was the holiday season and predictably, it was super crowded. A visit to the Johnson Space Centre can be divided into 4 parts I believe; The exhibits in the main building itself and the 3 guided bus tours; to the Main Control Centre, the Saturn V rocket and the astronaut training facilities. We bought tickets for the tours to the control room and the Saturn V rocket and left the 3rd one depending on how we were feeling after the first 2 tours.
We started our visit by first going through the exhibits in the main building. They had lots of informative exhibits about the history of NASA, crewed missions, Mercury program, Apollo programs, International Space Station, different kinds of engines used so far, future plans including a whole section devoted to the Artemis program. This is the program which is going to take us back to the moon. The space race of the 1950s and 60s was one of the most intense technology races of humankind (between USA and USSR) and it resulted in so many achievements like the first rocket in space, first man in space, first woman in space, first probe to moon and many other lesser known firsts. With Artemis ‘we’ are going back to the moon. When I use the word ‘we’ here I of course refer to all humankind. Artemis is going to take the first woman on moon and also the first person of color to the moon. With the advancement of private players like SpaceX and Blue Origin and other countries’ space programs including India’s ISRO, Japan’s, China’s and of course one of the original super powers in space, Russia’s, the world is at the cusp of another golden age of space exploration. These are exciting times!
Next, it was time for our first guided bus tour, to Saturn V rocket. We queued up and boarded our bus which, I am not sure, can be called a bus. It was more like a elongated golf cart with more seating capacity. Once out of the cool building we started sweating. It was stifling outside. Once the bus filled up we started off. The bus had a guide on board and she started her description of our surroundings and added a little bit of history too. Soon we reached the building housing the Saturn V rocket where we were dropped off with instructions on how to navigate the area and be back at the stop where the next bus going back to the main building will pick us up. The good thing here is that people can spend as much time as they want here. Its not required to catch the same bus which dropped you off. There are multiple buses running and people can board any bus. We spent almost an hour here admiring the giant rocket. It was around 100 metres in length. We walked around it reading the informative boards in front of the various sections. I had difficulty in digesting how big the rocket and its engines is. Imagine the thrust produced by those massive engines which lifted this, almost 3 million ton rocket off the ground and propelled it into space. Looking from far away or looking at videos does not do justice to how massive this rocket is. Insert some short history and acts here.
Next on our agenda was the Mission control tour. Taking a similar bus we were taken to a building where all of the visitors were given a briefing which seemed a bit stern at times, but which is understandable as this is an active building with NASA actually using it. There was a newer control room just below the one where we were going and the staff wanted us to be at our best behavior. The staff then shepherded the group through a long flight of stairs into the visitor seating area where we were greeted by an old man who introduced himself as the guide who will be taking us through the next 1 hour. The section where we were seated was separated from the control room by a panel glass. This is where visiting dignitaries and families of the astronauts were seated during rocket launches. Beyond the glass we could see series of computers and beyond that 5 big screens. Before coming here I had watched the movie ‘Apollo 13’ as preparation for this trip and I could mentally see the characters in the control room before me. Soon, the guide started exampling what we were looking at and also played some recordings on a small TV in the room. They play the recording of the conversation that went on during the moon landing in 1969. Its mesmerizing hearing the audio and seeing the room where the conversation took place in front of us. The mission control room also reminded me of my own experience of working in control rooms when I used to work in thermal power stations in India. I was reading a book on the space war recently and it mentioned that a technician actually fainted during the moon landing out of the sheer tension. I could just imagine the scene here as the smoking, tense engineers, with bodies dripping with sweat were coordinating the launch of the moon lander on an object some hundred thousands of kms away from earth. Surreal!
Once the tour ended here we were bussed back to the main building where we saw another interesting exhibit, the space shuttle. One of the most unique sites in the sky during the time it was active, it was amazing to actually see it so close. We also toured the inside.
Once this was done we made our way back into the main building. We were quite exhausted by now. So we decided to skip the third tour and just did some shopping instead in the little souvenir shops they have. I bought a NASA space pen for my dad who loves collecting pens. I also bought random knickknacks for my mom and brother. With the shopping done we called it a day and left for Dallas which we reached in the night. Thus ended a visit to one of the pioneers sites of the first golden age of space exploration. PS: we are in the second one now.