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Space the final frontier

Space   the final frontier
HARRY & LINDA KAYE PEREZ The Level 9 VIP Tour of the Johnson Space Center includes a visit to Mission Control.

Video to come

On May 25, 1961, President John F. Kennedy asked the U.S. Congress to appropriate the largest financial expenditure of any nation in peacetime to fund space exploration, and “before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth.”

This challenge was met, and on July 20 this year, our nation celebrated the 45th anniversary of this historical event of immeasurable magnitude. The Apollo 11 spacecraft was launched into space by a Saturn V rocket from Kennedy Space Center in Florida, and four days later, the Lunar Module landed in the Sea of Tranquility on the moon. Neil Armstrong was the first astronaut out of the Lunar Module and a famous quote was born: “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”

For those of you who might have been as impressed as we were watching the reruns of the landing on the moon and of space exploration in general, Space Center Houston’s Level 9 VIP Tour just might be in your future.

VIP tour

This four-hour tour is the ultimate behind-the-scenes VIP experience, giving guests unprecedented access to NASA including the Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory (NBL), the Historic Mission Control, and Mission Control for the International Space Station and the Shuttle Missions. This tour is offered weekdays at 11:45 a.m. and is limited to a maximum of 12 people on each tour. There is also an earlier tour, at 10:45 a.m., on Monday and Friday only. Reservations are required; the cost is $89.95 per person. Participants must be at least 14 years of age.

We boarded a small NASA bus and drove from the Space Center through the NASA Security Gates to Building 3, the Astronauts Cafeteria, so called because it is adjacent to the astronauts’ official offices. Here we had lunch, which is included in the tour price, made a quick visit to the gift shop, and we were off on the tour.

We visited Building 9, the Vehicle Mock-Up Facility, “where the impossible is happening,” with engineers, scientists, and astronauts shaping the future of space exploration. From the catwalk high above the massive floor, you’ll see several mock-ups of the International Space Station modules and get a look at the new Orion spacecraft, built to take humans farther than we’ve ever gone before to achieve deep space exploration. The unmanned Flight Test 1 is scheduled for Dec. 4, 2014.

The next stop was at the Sonny Carter Training Facility’s Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory (NBL). It is also known as the world’s largest swimming pool, measuring 202 feet long, 102 feet wide, and 40 feet deep. Through the crystal-clear water, we could see full-sized mock-ups of the International Space Station modules. The NBL simulates the weightless environment of space.

We visited the Historic Mission Control and even got to sit where Flight Director Gene Kranz sat during the Apollo 11 mission. The International Space Station Mission Control, a much larger and more sophisticated facility, was also a part of this tour.

The last stop on the Level 9 VIP Tour was Rocket Park, the outdoor display of the Gemini, Mercury, and Apollo rockets. It is amazing to stand close by these giant masses of metal that once took Americans into space.

So much more

If you take the Level 9 VIP Tour, you may not have much time that day to enjoy all the other features of the Space Center. Your Level 9 VIP Tour ticket will allow you to return the following day at no charge. Be sure to stop at the visitors desk at the front and put your name on the list for returning guests. There is so much to see and do at Space Center Houston, including exhibits, demonstrations, and some great IMAX movies on the space program and the astronauts.

NASA Tram Tour: If you are not up for the Level 9 VIP Tour, the NASA Tram Tour is the next best thing, and includes the Historic Mission Control, where NASA monitored space programs until 1992, then to Building 9, the Vehicle Mock-Up Facility, and the Rocket Park. It also gives you access to all the theater presentations, exhibits, and demonstrations. The open-air tram leaves every 60 to 90 minutes. Admission to Space Center Houston, which incudes the NASA Tram Tour, ranges from $18.95 to $22.95.

Destiny Theater, in the Starship Gallery, presents “On Human Destiny” and is a great way to start your tour. The 15-minute film chronicles events from the formation of NASA to the missions on the moon. Also in the Starship Gallery you can see the original Goddard Rocket, Faith 7, Mercury and Gemini V Capsules, the Lunar Rover Vehicle, and Skylab Trainer. Allow at least 45 minutes to enjoy this area.

Space Center Theater, with its towering five-story-high screen, will immerse you in a spaceflight. “Destination Station” and “Space Shuttle: Launching Our Dreams” are both 30 minutes in length and are presented on the half hour.

The Blast Off Theater focuses on current NASA missions and future space exploration. The “International Space Station (ISS) Briefing” and “Mission to Mars” are both 25-minute live presentations.

Before you go: Purchase tickets online and save $5 per ticket. A discount is not available on the Level 9 VIP Tour.

Harry and Linda Kaye Perez are freelance writers from just down the road from Floresville. Together they share a passion for traveling and writing, and discovering the very best in all corners of the world. Email them at

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