USA 2015 Day 3 – Johnson Space Center

Again I couldn’t sleep, waking up at 3am and sitting around until it was time for breakfast. Before breakfast I ordered a taxi so I could be out of the hotel by 08:15 – I wanted to make the most of my time at the Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center. Breakfast was a buffet again – I went for a few bits that looked relatively familiar and got a cup of tea to go so I could get ready.

The taxi to the Space Center cost me 70 USD, in part due to the driver having forgotten a road was closed and so he had to backtrack and go a different way. When we got there he asked what time he should pick me up, I said 15:30, yet he insisted he’d pick me up at 15:00 instead. I wasn’t that happy about this but figured if I was quick I might be able to cover the entire place in 6 hours.

I joined the queue waiting for the Space Center to open, but as I did so I saw others push into the queue, even though the majority of people were queuing properly. I didn’t say anything though as it didn’t really make that much of a difference. When they did open I headed straight to the queue for the tram tours.

For the tram tours there are three to choose from, all of which stop off at “rocket park”. The first one I went on, the blue tram, went to the building that was home to the historic Mission Control used in the days of the Apollo missions. The red tram was for visiting the spacecraft mock-up facility where they train and test, and the white tram was for the current mission control (same building as the historic mission control) but didn’t open until 11:30.

Mission Operations Control Room 2 (MOCR-2), Historic Mission Control

As the blue tram tour proceeded it took us through the Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center and told us about some of the buildings that we passed. Eventually it got us to the building 30 (named Christopher C. Kraft, Jr. after a retired NASA engineer), the one that is home to mission control and here we disembarked. After 80-odd steps we got to MOCR-2, the room where they had once monitored nine Gemini and Apollo space missions – including Apollo 11, the mission that saw Neil Armstrong step foot on the moon.

The equipment in the room has been put back to how it was at the time, and for the tour I was on could only be looked at from the room that was used for astronaut’s families, politicians, and even Presidents to watch from. We sat and listened to details about these rooms, all whilst the “Level 9” tour got to look around inside the room. I hadn’t realised when I booked my ticket that there was an option to get a greater level of access to the facilities.

A section of the Saturn V rocket

Looking back at the full Saturn V rocket

This visit felt brief, and the tour carried on in the tram, pointing out more buildings and the Astronaut memorial grove until eventually arriving at the rocket park we had passed earlier. There are a couple of rockets (Mercury-Redstone and Little Joe II) and engines outside, but inside the hanger is a Saturn V rocket – one of only three remaining in the world. The rocket itself will not have been into space as the old Saturn V’s were disposable, but it is real.

Saturn V booster rocket

For a while I walked around it, amazed at being so close to a rocket I’d been very interested in when I was younger. It was an iconic part of space exploration history, a symbol to the American people of what they had achieved, but also what they have (for now) lost – the ability to reach to the stars and step foot on the moon. There is hope though that the Orion will restore America’s ability for manned space exploration. I wished I had spent more time with this rocket, and took more time to get better photographs, but I knew time was limited. At least now the rocket I had read about in books was one I had seen with my own eyes.

Texas Longhorn Cattle

Once I’d finished taking pictures I wandered over to where they were keeping some long-horned cattle in the field. The JSC Longhorn Project is a CCISD/NASA collaboration which is used for teaching locals about livestock, and is also a reminder of the ranch history of the land on which the Johnson Space Center now resides.

Back at the Space Center, I joined the queue for the red tram – this one took a little longer to queue for, but once they got going we covered not just some of the same things, but also some other buildings too. This time it went to building 9 (the Space Vehicle Mock-up Facility – SVMF) where they have spacecraft mock-ups for training, and also where they test some of their new equipment such as robotics. At present it also provides storage for their new rover – the Small Pressurised Rover (SPR) which is designed to have crab-like movement. Although there was no one working in the lab at the time, you could actually see one of the Orion capsules that was being worked on.

ISS Modules

Orion Capsule

Small Pressurised Rover (SPR)

Space Vehicle Mock-up Facility (SPMF)

This facility was used during the Apollo 13 disaster to come up with a solution on the ground – one of the major benefits of having this facility available. Once finished there I stayed on the tram, skipping the rocket park, and heading back to the Space Center. Although the white tram tour had begun I decided to go to their Zero G dining area to get some food. I went for “3 tossed chicken” which was chicken in barbecue sauce and potato hashes, a moon pie (basically a double decker Wagon Wheel chocolate bar), and some apple juice.

Feeling refreshed I then looked around the adjacent souvenir shop for a while – this resulted in me buying a long sleeved t-shirt, a NASA mug, and a Johnson Space Center magnet. I had been tempted by a few other things, such as the NASA polo shirt that looked like the ones that the crew used – but I decided that if I ever get the opportunity to visit the Kennedy Space Center (which I hope I will next year) then this would be something to buy there.

I then ventured back into the heat and joined the short queue for the white tram. Although short it did take quite some time before boarding a tram, possibly as much as 45 minutes. The white tram took me back to building 30, but to a different entrance that took us to the new mission control for the ISS, and what will be the eventual Mars mission.

White Flight Control Room (MCC-21)

ISS Mission Control

We were told that tours to this building will soon end, possibly as soon as a couple of years time as it will soon become a busy centre of operations. At present the ISS mission control wasn’t being manned, but we weren’t allowed to see it – instead we saw the newly refurbished “White Flight” flight control which the ISS control will move into shortly whilst theirs is renovated. It will be amazing to think that in the next couple of years this room would be in control of Orion flights as they gradually make their way to what they hope will be a Mars mission in 2040.

In recent years the control rooms are no longer known as MOCRs (Mission Operations Control Room), but now as FCRs (Flight Control Room) as since the launch of the Space Shuttle they were seen as more flight orientated than mission orientated.

Skylab EVA

Mercury Faith 7 capsule

Apollo 17 Command Module

Astronuat and Lunar buggy diorama

Back at the Space Center I then looked around the “Starship Gallery”. I bypassed the theatre part as I wasn’t really that interested in watching films about things I’d likely already know. As I first entered I saw a replica of Skylab (America’s first attempt at a space station orbiting Earth) they used for training. From here I went around to the start of the tour and saw the exhibits that include the actual Apollo 17 capsule, the Mercury 9 “Faith 7” capsule, Gemini V, and the lunar rover trainer. A lot of these they had put against appropriate backdrops so that when taking photographs it would look like they were in space.

Next up was an area designed to look like one of the Space Shuttles, the craft that was recently retired from active service. This wasn’t a great area, but it did include a mock-up of how the space shuttle’s flight deck looks. From the signage that was about it suggested this was more for educational purposes, though I couldn’t really see any reason for it to be.

The next area is the Astronaut Gallery – this features the country’s largest space suit collection, but also includes something rather special. In amongst the suits they have the restored prop of the Galileo Space Shuttle used in the filming of the original Star Trek TV series.

Star Trek TOS “Galileo” Prop

Next to this area is one that covers the ISS – there isn’t a massive amount to photograph here but they do have a live show that covers life on board the ISS and the challenges that they face. I did watch part of this, but it didn’t really cover anything that documentaries hadn’t. One interesting fact though is that the water that they reclaim from urine is actually cleaner than the water we drink here on Earth, even that which is in bottles.

ISS module interior

Before leaving the Space Center I had a look around the larger shop that they have there and the Space Center plaza. By the time I left it was 15:00 so I had timed my pace around the place quite well. I was back at the hotel by 15:30 and then instead of picking up my luggage I walked around the town to see if I could find anything else to photograph and was also looking for somewhere to get pre-made sandwiches from that I could take to the Amtrak station later. After covering at least 5 miles I went back to the hotel and asked if they knew anywhere I could go – they advised me of a supermarket a few blocks away where I was able to get a beef-filled croissant, a New York cheesecake and a couple of drinks.

Back at the hotel I sorted out my luggage and asked if the hotel staff knew if my directions to the Amtrak station were correct. Sadly the lady had no idea what an Amtrak was and didn’t realise they even had a train that went through Houston. Despite this, I walked just over a mile to the Amtrak station, apparently having taken the correct route. It was a very warm walk as by the time I got there it felt like I’d had a shower in warm water – the station wasn’t that much cooler either. After checking in my luggage I then had to sit around and wait until we started to board the train at 18:30.

The Amtrak train is very different to trains I’ve used before – this one was two stories, and some of the coaches had beds in them. The one I was in just had every spacious seats that were designed to recline a long way. This train got me into San Antonio at 23:30 – 35 minutes earlier than scheduled.

As I’d thought ahead and prepared a map I was able to walk from the station as it was only 1.6 miles to the hotel, but along the way I decided to make a diversion to photograph the Alamo at night. I was surprised at how many people were about, and even after 00:00 it didn’t show signs of getting quieter.

The Alamo

The Hotel Contessa was easy to find, but alas this was not the end of my night. They told me that despite my prepaid reservation that they were overbooked and had arranged for me to be in the Days Inn – a motel so far out of town that it was almost at the airport. I was too tired to argue, but I made sure that they paid for my taxi to get me there. I was not happy, but there wasn’t really anything I could do about it. It would have made more sense though, and I’d have been happier, if they’d booked me into a similar hotel somewhere in the vicinity of The Alamo or the Riverwalk – the two reasons I’d booked this one.

I arrived at the Days Inn at 00:40 and found that the air conditioning wasn’t working and the neighbours were incredibly noisy. The place looked like the sort of cheap motel you’d see in the movies – the sort you’d see fugitives stay in. It was difficult, but eventually I was able to get a few hours of sleep.

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