NASA Johnson Space Center and Space Center Houston: The Complete Guide

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NASA is determined to get another man—and the first woman—on the moon by 2024, and Johnson Space Center (JSC) is one of the places that’s making it happen. For more than half a century, this sprawling, 100-building research and development complex just outside Houston has led the nation in scientific, engineering, medical, and technical advances that have shaped space-related travel—and is jettisoning it into the future. The only way the public can visit the complex—including the newly restored Mission Control Center, appearing exactly as it did on July 20, 1969, when the first lunar landing was monitored from here—is via Space Center Houston, the center’s official visitor center. Here you’ll enjoy a state-of-the-art museum, arrange a tram tour, visit the replica space shuttle Independence, plus purchase tickets for special experiences.

History

It all started when John F. Kennedy stated to Congress in 1961: “We choose to go to the moon.” The Manned Spacecraft Center opened in 1963 (it was renamed in 1973 to honor the 36th president), kicking off a four-decades-old-and-counting legacy of “design, development, and operation of human space flight.” 

JSC is where astronauts are selected and trained. This is where Gemini, Apollo, and Skylab were run, and where International Space Station missions are still being run. And this is where Orion—the new spacecraft to send humans to the moon and Mars—is operating. Today, the center remains one of NASA’s largest research and development facilities.

Space Center Houston opened in 1992 as the public arm of Johnson Space Center, a world-class, 250,000-square-foot space with exhibits, real-life space artifacts, and lunar models. Disney Imagineers helped design the concepts, ensuring an entertaining yet educational aspect. Since then, Space Center Houston has welcomed more than 20 million visitors.

What to See and Do

Space Center Houston is your starting point, where you’ll get your tickets, enjoy artifact-filled galleries, films, and live demonstrations, and hop on the popular NASA tram tour of the JSC complex. You could spend all day here—and should allocate at least six hours to do it justice. Your experience can be enhanced with add-ons, including a VIP NASA experience and lunch with an astronaut.

Your first stop at the museum should be Destiny Theater and the film, “Human Destiny,” which provides an overview of many of the artifacts that you’ll be seeing.

From here, seek out the Starship Gallery, where the chronology of U.S. space travel showcases the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo eras. Among the ships and vehicles on display are the Apollo 17 command module, the last Apollo mission to the moon; a lunar roving trainer, which astronauts used to practice driving a rover on the moon; and the lunar module LTA-8, which transported astronauts to and from the spacecraft to the lunar surface. Look for the Gene Kranz Apollo 17 Vest, worn by the iconic flight director known for wearing colorful vests handmade by his wife. Nearby in the Lunar Samples Vault, you can touch a real-life rock from the moon, one of only eight rocks in the world that are allowed to be touched.

Astronaut Gallery delves into the life of an astronaut, displaying different spacesuits and garments from the Gemini, Apollo, and Shuttle eras, including Sally Ride’s inflight coveralls, Michael Collins’ Apollo 11 garment, and John Young’s STS-1 suit. A portrait gallery on the wall memorializes every NASA astronaut who has flown in space.

Mars is on the forefront of NASA’s goals, and the Mission Mars Gallery explores the work that’s going on to make travel there happen. Here you climb into a replica Orion capsule, the vehicle that which will transport astronauts to the moon and beyond, and learn about the intricacies of travel to the red planet—and living there. You can also touch a real-life Mars rock.

In the International Space Station Gallery, showcasing the largest structure built in space (as long as a football field!), you’ll see real-life artifacts and interactive robotic exhibits that bring the International Space Station to life. You’ll also learn about the day-to-day life on this giant space laboratory. 

At Independence Plaza, a replica of the Independence Space Shuttle sits atop the original NASA 905 shuttle carrier aircraft. And not only is it amazing to look at, but you can climb inside the shuttle, where exhibits delve into the history and future of space exploration. Here you’ll get a feel for what it was like to live in this very functional, gadget-filled space. Hint: It’s not very glamorous, but it’s technically astounding. You can also explore inside the original airplane.

The pièce de résistance, however, is the popular, one-hour NASA Tram Tour, which takes you on a behind-the-scenes look at the JSC campus. This is the actual working space of scientists, engineers, technicians, and astronauts who are imagining and striving for the next space journeys. You have two choices of tours, depending on what you want to see.

  • The Astronaut Training Facility Tour includes a visit to the Space Vehicle Mockup Facility in Building 9, where astronauts train and scientists and engineers work and invent; you’ll see ISS replicas, the Orion capsule, and other new NASA projects.
  • The Mission Control Center Tour takes you to the newly restored Apollo Mission Control Center, from which the Gemini and Apollo missions were managed—including the first famous moon walk. 

On some weekends and holidays, another option is to visit the current Mission Control, where the International Space Station activities are monitored.

How to Visit 

Johnson Space Center and Space Center Houston are located about 30 minutes from downtown Houston. Space Center Houston, Johnson Space Center’s visitor center, is open daily except Christmas. For specific hours, visit the website. One-day passes are $29.95 for adults, $24.95 for children (ages 4 to 11), and $27.95 for seniors (65+). There’s also a $5 fee for parking.  

An audio option, narrated by astronauts, is available at the Information Desk for $36 for adults and $31 for children.

When you purchase your ticket, you will be given time slots for the NASA tram tour of the JSC and to visit Independence Plaza, both of which are included in your ticket price. These are your hard stops, when you must visit at your appointed times. In between those visits, stroll through the museum’s spacious galleries, enjoy films, see what lectures are going on, dine at Zero-G Diner, and take it all in.

Additional ticket options include the Level 9 VIP Tour, which provides behind-the-scenes access to the Johnson Space Center ($179.95; must be at least 14 to participate); and Lunch with an Astronaut ($69.95 for adults, $35.95 for children ages 4 to 11; includes admission to Space Center Houston), in which an astronaut shares a catered lunch while telling his or her stories and answering questions.

Tips for Visiting

  • You can skip the line by buying tickets online, ahead of your visit. 
  • If you become a member, which costs just a few dollars more than the ticket price, you’ll get priority boarding on the NASA Tram Tour.
  • Most visitors come on weekends, holidays, and summer. If you want a more relaxed experience, visit off-season or arrive as early as possible during high season.
  • Space Center Houston is part of CityPass Houston ($59 for adults, $49 for children), which includes admission to four other city attractions.
  • Seasonal exhibits are often offered in the Main Plaza, in front Space Center Houston, and live shows take place on the outdoor Stellar Science Stage.
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