Friday, March 11, 2016

Mission Control

     Perhaps we were stuck in the Westchase neighborhood of Houston so that my wife could meet with her Texas work counterparts, but we would not be anchored here.  Our hotel was situated in a strange land of never-ending strip malls and miles of fast food joints.  The parking lot of the hotel shared space with a grocery store, casual restaurant, and service station, just a short block from an office building.  The whole neighborhood seemed a hodgepodge of apartment complexes, pawn shops, big box stores, and bail bonds bracketed by every manner of chain restaurant with small bodegas used as the mortar for the mosaic.  Houston's sprawl is hard for an East-coaster to imagine.  It seemed realistic that a drive from Brooklyn through the Bronx up to Westchester would be shorter than driving across town in Houston.
      This unfamiliarity would not deter my kids and I from unguided explorations.  With two days to "rest" and take in some sights, the single major draw was, most obviously, NASA-Houston and the Lyndon Johnson Space Center.  The visitor center was the current standard of museum display offset with educational interactive for the younger crowd.  These served as fillers for the two separate halves of the experience that were the real reason for our visit.  The chance to not only board a space shuttle but also tour the 747 ferry aircraft as they stood proudly alongside the property's entrance was exciting for kids and parents alike.  The true gem to this whole place was the tram/walking tour of the giant space center complex.
     Boarding a tram and snaking through a short government tunnel on to the space center had a sort of X-files feel.  The giant gate with government property signs did nothing to dispel those feelings.  We drove down small streets that were towered by large, nondescript buildings that had extremely scientific-sounding names labeled on their walls.  Some housed astronaut debriefing and quarantine areas.  There was an open lot filled with sand and rock to test space landing vehicles.  Somewhere inside one of the buildings was a giant pool to simulate near-zero gravity.  All of these facts blared from the speakers of our tram car as we soaked up the bright Texas sun.  We were able to stretch our legs at the facility that holds the training mock-ups for astronauts visiting the International Space Station as well as the robotic exploration vehicle testing area and a section for high school robot team competitions.  The Orion project was also represented, though slightly obscured (purposely?) in the back and brought promise of a manned mission to Mars.  We were afforded access to get up close and personal with a Saturn V rocket, an overwhelming monolith of space technology.  The highlight of the tour, as if the tour was not highlight enough, was the chance to stand in a room once occupied by giants of science, space, technology, and politics.  Mission Control, the legendary room that monitored the Apollo missions, in all its dated glory.  Buttons and knobs and switches and levers and giant headphones and red phones and giant screens and ashtrays and theater seats, it was amazing.  It became surreal as they played moon landing footage on the screens as if we were witnessing it for the first time as it happened.  All the details of the tour should be kept secret for only those who decide to visit as everyone should visit this place at least once to witness the history and unending endeavor of space flight.
     With a few short hours left in our first day in Houston we were able to visit the Downtown Aquarium and make use of our CityPass that allowed acces to many of the city's museums.  The place is smallish and can be seen in an afternoon but on a Tuesday evening there was no one around.  We had the displays virtually to ourselves.  The displays were captivating in each environment was set within a thematic room molded around the fish being showcased.  The oil rig pillars of the Gulf Coast, the shacks and moss of the bayou, the suffocating overgrowth of the rainforest, and a white tiger.  The kids were able to play with the sting rays and enjoyed the dancing fountains that sparkled in the night air.  Outside a waterfall added some watery atmosphere and framed an upscale aquarium restaurant.  It called to us with its desserts just as Mom called us from work to pick her up.  Dessert would have to wait until we added a passenger and stopped by the 24 hour House of Pies.
     We would eat dessert in bed and revel in our journey thus far and fall asleep talking about our next day in this journey.

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