Space Center Houston is the official visitor center of NASA Johnson Space Center and a must-visit for any space nerd, history buff, or aspiring astronaut. The museum and adjoining facilities are located on aptly named NASA Parkway on the outskirts of Houston, Texas, the fifth largest city in the United States. Fortunately, its location allows visitors to avoid the worst of Houston traffic. Everything is bigger in Texas, and that includes the price of this museum. At $29.95 for adults, $27.95 for seniors, and $24.95 for children ages 4 to 11, it’s one of the most expensive museums I’ve visited. However, parking is free, a rarity in Houston. The museum is open daily from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., although variations of the schedule occur, so check the calendar on the website before you visit.
As an affiliate of the Smithsonian, many of the artifacts on display at Space Center Houston are on loan from the National Air & Space Museum in Washington, D.C. For example, a model of an Apollo 11 Lunar Module is suspended from the ceiling and looks like the one on display at the Boeing Milestones of Flight Hall at NASM. People familiar with the NASM are sure to find many other similarities.
I recommend taking the NASA Tram Tour as soon as possible after arrival. This guided tour allows visitors to see the robots and giant spacecraft models at the Astronaut Training Facilities, along with several rockets at Rocket Park. The massive Saturn V rocket is housed in a shed alongside a timeline of NASA missions and a statue commemorating the astronauts of Apollo 13. Nearby is a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, a reusable rocket that traveled into space before moving to the museum.
My favorite exhibit was the Space Shuttle on top of a Boeing 747 in Independence Plaza. This was the easiest way for NASA to transport the aircraft. Small, remote controlled models of the shuttle and plane were used to determine the correct angle to attach the shuttle and what maneuvers could be used while flying. This is a particularly popular spot for school groups and families, so the passageways can get crowded.
Multiple films on space exploration play inside the museum’s theatres. I saw Human Destiny, which uses NASA archival footage to give a history of American space exploration; Down to Earth: An Astronaut’s Perspective with interviews of current and retired astronauts; and Touch the Stars, an overview of NASA’s robotic spacecraft and future plans to send humans to Mars. I also watched the live show, New Perspectives, which explained daily life on the International Space Station (ISS) on an interactive stage, and saw part of their kid-friendly science show, BOOM!, an explanation of the chemistry behind explosions that featured live experiments.
For additional amenities, Space Center Houston recently opened Food Lab, a wide range of eating options. Although I did not try any of the food, it’s guaranteed to be better than whatever the astronauts get for lunch. The museum also has a large gift shop, Space Trader, with apparel, bags, jewelry, toys, memorabilia, and Texas-sized lines at checkout. The shop has an online counterpart, in addition to the official NASA online store, so you can purchase your souvenirs once you get home.
Overall, the Space Center Houston is a fun place to visit, especially for people who enjoy learning about history and science. Make sure to keep the museum’s two vastly different environments in mind to prepare before you visit, especially if you or those in your group are prone to sensory overload. The outdoor spaces reflect Texas’ weather and is frequently hot and sunny with occasional pop-up thunderstorms. Much of the indoor museum space is dimly lit, loud, and sometimes crowded. The films are played at a high volume, as is common for IMAX movies. The space does not have a clear flow or path between exhibits, so the size of museum can become overwhelming. When visiting Space Center Houston, make sure to have a plan of what you want to see and where you can meet up if your group becomes separated. Some people might want to use hearing protection or bring a small flashlight to improve their sensory experience. The museum prides itself in providing accessibly experiences, so be sure to check out their Guest Service Desk if you ever need assistance during your visit.
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Abby Epplett has an MA in Museum Education from Tufts University and currently works as a park ranger for the National Park Service at Big Thicket National Preserve in Texas.