An Exclusive Tour of NASA's Johnson Space Center
By Heather Brand
Forty years ago, on July 20, 1969, millions of Americans sat riveted to their television sets as they watched astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin set foot on the moon and speak those memorable words, “The Eagle has landed.” This “giant leap for mankind” would not have been possible without Houston’s own Johnson Space Center, which coordinated the historic Apollo mission.
Created in 1963 to fulfill President Kennedy’s ambition for the United States to reach the moon before the close of the decade (and before the Russians), this center has been at the heart of NASA operations since the early days of the space race. Lyndon Johnson, a senator at the time of the 1957 Soviet launch of Sputnik, had spearheaded legislation to bring the project to Texas, and had suggested Houston as an ideal location, due to the city’s mild climate, status as a major port, and established university research facilities.
The Johnson Space Center became NASA’s hub for astronaut training and the home of Mission Control. Over the years, the center has developed, guided, and monitored numerous crucial missions, such as the early Mercury and Gemini projects to put astronauts in orbit around the Earth, the Apollo moon missions, the subsequent Space Shuttle flights, and the construction of the International Space Station. Currently, the center is in the planning phases of its next big project: the Constellation program, a new initiative to return to the moon by 2020.
The Johnson Space Center’s campus of about 100 buildings stretches across 1,620 acres in the Clear Lake area, southeast of downtown Houston. Approximately 18,000 people work there, including private contractors, government employees, and a corps of about 110 astronauts, but public access to the site is limited due to security issues. To make the space program more accessible to the general public, the Space Center Houston opened here in 1992 to offer visitors hands-on experiences and space-themed exhibits.
Yet, as I recently discovered, you can still experience the “real” Johnson Space Center by signing up for a Level 9 Tour, a five-hour, behind-the-scenes look at the sprawling NASA campus. These weekday tours, limited to groups of 12 people age 14 and older, are essentially field trips for grownups.
The tour includes the NASA cafeteria, where visitors enjoy lunch among the astronauts, mission-control officials, physicists and other employees; the Sonny Carter Training Facility, where astronauts learn to maneuver in weightless conditions of the Neutral Buoyancy Lab, a 40-foot-deep swimming pool; mission control centers, including the National Historic Landmark Apollo Mission Control; and the Space Vehicle Mock-Up Facility.
From the August 2009 issue.