Who doesn’t get excited when talking about space exploration? The moment we decided to live in Texas, visiting The Johnson Space Center in Houston has always been on the top of our travel list and we finally made it happen! It was one trip we would never forget.
The Space Center is in itself a feat to conquer; and what I love about the place, aside from having tons of amazing exhibits, is learning the journey of how space exploration has evolved through the years, the technological advancements it required and what it can do to benefit our future.
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All information given here is based on our personal experience. Schedules and fees might change at any time.
The Space Center is not a theme park where you see cotton candies and roller coaster rides. This place is a museum and a facility to help you learn about NASA’s achievements and its course over the years. So if you’re not into this kind of fun, you can skip this visit and find something that fits your interest.
It is a massive compound with two main features:
Johnson Space Center: This is a working facility where actual NASA employees work and astronauts train. The facility is divided into two main parts. First, is the working side, which visitors don’t have full access; this is where on-going research, training, and monitoring of the International Space Station (ISS) occur. The second part is where visitors can take a peek at the historic rooms of NASA.
Space Center Houston: If you see a parked space shuttle on top of a Boeing 747, then you are in the right place. This is the museum half of the compound. You enter here and start your space center experience. You find three amazing theaters, two “expensive” gift shops (yes, the items are overpriced), popular and seasonal space exhibits, a decent food court and interactive children science area (which we skipped).
Buy Tickets online
Yes, admission tickets can be bought online, and this is definitely the best way to avoid lines and wait time. You can also schedule your timed ticket tours here. It is best to print your tickets before, rather than buying your ticket at the center. It could get crowded especially during holidays and summertime, so make sure to do this part online.
Remember: There are three sets of tickets, ONE paid admission ticket and TWO free timed tickets, one for the Tram Tour and another for the Space Shuttle Tour.
Be an Early Bird
The center usually opens at 10:00 AM Mondays to Sundays, so be there 15 to 30 minutes early; by doing so, you get a chance to grab an excellent parking space and be the first few people to stand in line. If you plan to see all of the exhibits, then go early and stay the whole day, there are tons to see and things to do.
You can just basically go there and run around the compound and leave. However, to enjoy most of the exhibits in a limit time, you need to plan a route. There is a site map available online that you can download and print before going there; this will give you a general idea on how to go about your visit.
Tram Tour (Guided tour)
This tour takes about 90 minutes and is done outside the visitors building. It is an open-air tram tour, so be sure to check the weather during your visit. The best way to enjoy this is to do it first thing when you arrive. Texas weather can get really hot, so choose the earliest schedule of the day and don’t wait for the warmer temperatures in the afternoon.
The tour is divided into two and you can get on both with your timed ticket. Let me break it down for you.
I recommend doing this tour first. This will take you to the iconic Christopher C. Kraft Mission Control, used by NASA to lead the Gemini and Apollo mission, including the historic first moon landing.
The guide will give a brief history of the room and allows you to ask questions about it. If this place looked familiar to you, it is because it has been featured in some movies over the years.
Then you move on to another room. Here you get a chance to witness a live feed of the International Space Station. How cool is that?!
At the end of the Blue Tour, the ride will take you to the Rocket Part, but don’t get off yet, go back to the center and hop on to the Red Tour immediately.
This tour will take you to the Space Vehicle Mock-up Facility, where real NASA astronauts train for missions. It is also where NASA scientists and engineers formulate and develop ingenious space exploration vehicles. This is not a museum but a working facility, so mind your voices and follow the guide’s instructions.
Before going back to the center, you can now stop at the Rocket Park and go inside the Saturn V facility. Inside, you can marvel and walk the entire length of one of three decommissioned rockets built to launch astronauts to the moon.
By the time we ended our tram tour, we were famished. The center has a decent food court; although it didn’t have much food choices but their salads and burgers are good enough. If the weather cooperates, you can relax and bring your food to the outdoor eating area to enjoy your meal away from the noise inside.
Starship Gallery (Museum and Exhibit)
You walk a hallway towards a maze of knowledge. Every corner explains the history of how space exploration came to be. Here, a whole wall of chalkboard with scribbles and doodles about the science and technology behind the space exploration and it’s progress.
You get to see the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo capsule and a mock-up living quarter inside them; but be warned, there is a funky smell when you walk through the capsule.
Independence Plaza (Space Shuttle Exhibit)
Take the elevator up and the stairs to go down.
This exhibit comprises the Shuttle tour and the Plane tour. I recommend doing the Plane Tour first as it is on a first come, first serve queue.
The shuttle tour requires a timed ticket; so don’t forget to get yours before your visit. Inside, you will get the first-hand experience on how cramped and tiny the shuttle is inside; how the astronaut’s living quarters are so limited that they had to sleep close to the toilet. Yikes!
There are 3 Theaters at the Center, but we only went to two of them:
Destiny Theater (15 minutes): Shows a film titled “Human Destiny.” This is a story about the series of historical events that occurred and brought about the creation of NASA and its fascinating journey. This does not require tickets and runs the same movie every 15 minutes.
Space Center Theater (30 to 45 minutes): An actual theater and is dubbed one of the largest 4K theaters and state of the art audio and video technology in Texas. There are scheduled screenings for films such as Mission Control: The Unsung Heroes of Apollo and The Journey to Space. You can choose to see more than one movie, but we decided to watch only one due to time constraints. We opted to watch the visually stunning Journey to Space, and it did not disappoint.
Astronauts Gallery and International Space Station (Exhibit)
A gallery where they showcase one of the most extensive collections of spacesuits, from the oldest version to what astronauts are wearing now. There is also a wall dedicated to all NASA’s astronauts; those that lived to share their stories and those that did not. The ISS side shows a small collection of space artifacts and a mock-up version the orbiting laboratory.
Although this is the first to greet you when you enter the center, I suggest doing this last. This doesn’t require timed tickets and no time limit, so a perfect way to end your stay. This shows seasonal exhibits, so be sure to check the website for notice and updates.