The note on the negative sleeve says 1967. My sister, very stylish and pretty in a white summer dress, and I, defiantly anti-stylish in a blue shirt (buttoned all the way up, thank you.) and black slacks, stand in front of a tipped-over Mercury Redstone rocket and an oddly shaped unmarked white cone with a shape that would later become very familiar – an early model of the Apollo capsule. I was six or seven years old – I still had hair. Mom or Grandpa would have made the picture. Probably Mom.
It’s been a while since I went to NASA.
The place is a little different now.
The Redstone stands upright. And it’s not NEARLY as big or impressive as when it was all there was. There’s a Saturn V in its own building nearby that’s almost as tall lying down as the Mercury Redstone is standing up. THAT’S big.
Before, tourists happened, somewhat… but the glory days were still in the planning and engineering stages and hitting the tourists for money wasn’t a huge priority. Now there’s a tourist center the size of a shopping mall, with about the same business model. Only it’s a lot more fun. It’s operated by a nonprofit educational foundation, and it’s effectively the NASA Museum of Space Exploration, with exhibits on loan from various Institutes and the Smithsonian Air and Space… which is to say it’s something very special. It’s not particularly expensive, and you’ll leave with a lot more than you’ll ever get at Splashtown or Six Flags.
By the time I arrived Sunday last (about, oh, 40 years late…) I had taken care of the admission fees online (Scroll down to “How to Get There” – it may not hurt as much as you think, and if you’re local and have an inner child who’s a Trekkie/Space Geek this is one of the better entertainment packages to be had…) and had only to stop at the membership desk and pick up my annual membership pass. So when the nice lady at the turnstile says “down there to the left” I go down there to the left. It takes a couple of minutes, no more, and I’m good to wander.
And right next to the membership desk is a live show about life on the ISS, but the next one of those doesn’t start for an hour or so. It’ll keep until next time.
In the middle of the floor is “Facing Mars,” which I’d call a ‘limited-run traveling exhibit’ centered, obviously, on the current and proposed Martian explorations. Most of it deals with the problems and possibilities of manned missions, and the approach is is the same angle NASA’s been using since the beginning of the space program: “Imagine yourself a member of our team.” And why not? It works. There are generations of Americans now who grew up, each and every one of us, dreaming of the stars, and we’re absolute suckers for that sort of thing.
Most cutting-edge museum exhibits today (and “Facing Mars” is very much cutting-edge) are interactive and imagination-centered. So there are a LOT of things here to do, from Walking On Mars: to “Fine Motor Skills In Space” to “emergency surgery in space.”
Because we KNOW things can and will go wrong, there’s an exercise in “emergency solar panel fixing” There’s a spinning chair (because that has similar effects on balance and equilibrium to time in microgravity) and a robot navigation maze controller. You can, if you brought a friend with you, experiment with the dynamics of communication in space. If you’re brave enough, or crazy enough, or dumb enough, you can even try a 30 foot or so fall in something resembling Martian Gravity. You can learn about health and medical problems that might affect the trip, you can learn about growing plants for food on Mars, you can learn all sorts of things about the psychological and physical effects of space travel. Your inner geek can feast on this stuff for weeks.
If you’re inclined to think about what this whole thing is about, you can learn what the xenopaleobiologists* think we should be looking FOR. Some of it might be microbes called “cyanobacteria” and it might have looked something like the dark line in this rock, I think, if I understood the explanation correctly….
*(or whatever you want to call them – guys who think about what life on other planets might have looked like eons ago if there had been life on other planets to look at)
(But wait, there’s more. You’ll have to go to the exhibit, which runs until 1 September, for that. I’m getting into tl;dr space already here.)
I’m not always crazy adventurous, but I tried the Mars Walk. It’s an interesting, but not particularly pleasant or, I think, accurate experience. Me being me, I took it too seriously and actually tried to walk, but that was NOT happening.
The way this thing works, you wear a harness, which is a modified climbing rig that’s attached to a winch. The winch is set to carry 62% of your weight, Martian gravity being .38 of Earth normal. So most of your weight is taken on the crotch straps of the harness (because you still WEIGH 100% of Earth normal, you just don’t have the weight on your feet). The problem is that the fact that your weight is on those straps mean your hips can’t function properly and you can’t really swing your legs. Plus there are no shoes allowed, which means you’ve got socks on yielding vinyl (those orange things on the floor are basically tumbling wedges – vinyl over closed-cell foam) and there’s just NO traction. Most folks seemed to be taking it as a bouncy ride, which was probably the best way to go. They were certainly having more fun than I did. This guy, especially.
I’ll have to try it that way next time I go back. Also that 30-foot “jump off the tower and hope you don’t die” thing.
Or maybe I’ll just shoot pictures of that one.
Check back. I’ll let you know.
How to get there:
1. Get to Houston.
2. Go south on I-45 (variously known as the Gulf Freeway or the 401(k) Freeway – it’s been under construction since the early Cretaceous or so…) to NASA Parkway.
3. Turn Left.
4. When you see the jets, turn left again at the light.
5. You’ve got it from here.
Or, if you’ve got time and you’re inclined to support public transportation, the #249 Metro Bus has a stop a hundred meters or so from the front door. Cost is $2 each way, and it takes about an hour from downtown. Lots cheaper than renting a car, but the schedule isn’t always friendly. Check first.
IMPORTANT: Check the website for ticket info before you go. I found that single adult tickets at the gate were $22.95, but in advance via the web they were $17.95. And THEN I found that the “membership” (annual pass) via the website was $25.95. So for 8 bucks more than your one-day online you get a year’s worth of wander around. Parking, per the website, is $6/day. Parking _for members_ via the sign at the parking toll booth, is FREE. So you buy the membership and drive down there and park… and then your second trip costs you two bucks, and after that you’ve got the Golden Ticket for a year.