People around the world know the phrase “Houston, we have a problem,” so it’s no surprise that one of Houston’s most popular attractions is located at the Johnson Space Center. The place that has served as the mission control center for NASA since the earliest days of spaceflight requires more than just an ordinary visitor’s center. At Space Center Houston, visitors can learn about space exploration in a museum that features about 400 pieces of memorabilia from NASA missions, including real spacecraft and moon rocks.
When you get here, you’ll know you’re in the right place. Independence Plaza, in front of the Space Center, is home to a monumental exhibit that only Texans could dream up: A full-size replica of the NASA space shuttle Independence, mounted on one of the actual NASA 905 Shuttle Carrier Aircraft used to transport space shuttles between locations on Earth. Visitors can explore inside both the shuttle and the enormous plane.
But what you find inside the museum in the Starship Gallery may be even more impressive: vehicles that have been in space and samples they brought back. These include real capsules from the Mercury missions (the first to put Americans in Earth orbit) and the Apollo missions to the moon. Visitors can explore inside a replica of Skylab (the first US space station before the International Space Station) that was used by astronauts to train.
The Lunar Samples Vault is a replica “clean room” lab that contains real soil, rock, and metal samples from the moon. The samples are kept in special nitrogen-filled cases that help to preserve them, with one small but very noteworthy exception. Outside the vault, there’s a case containing a lunar sample that visitors can actually touch. It’s a 3.8 billion-year-old rock found in 1972 by the Apollo 17 astronauts in the Valley of Taurus-Littrow, an area similar to the Grand Canyon but on the moon. It’s one of only eight moon rocks on Earth that people are allowed to touch.
The Astronaut Gallery features a collection of real space suits and special garments worn by astronauts. But not everything in the Center is about the past—the Mission Mars exhibit looks towards a future exploring the red planet. Although astronauts haven’t collected rock samples on Mars yet, you can see and touch a real one here. It’s one of only about 150 meteorites on Earth known to have originated on Mars.
The Space Center was designed with help from Disney and built in 1992. It was founded and is managed by the Manned Space Flight Education Foundation, an organization dedicated to STEM education, and funded by private donations rather than tax dollars. They offer STEM education programs for elementary through high school students and a variety of special events and temporary exhibits.
Cover image: Romain2k, CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons.