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Hit the Road

Space Center Houston

Grab the kids and blast off

I have always been fascinated with space—the final frontier, the great beyond—and as a child I’d stretch to touch the stars and pondered whether the Milky Way were really made of milk. When I became educated and learned that stars essentially were suns, that many of those suns had planets—Earth, for example, orbits around our sun, Sol, the largest body in the solar system—and that the size of the known universe was unfathomable, I became even more intrigued. I’d imagine distant galaxies and other worlds where someone like me wondered, “Is anybody out there?”

That same feeling arises at Space Center Houston, the perfect place to stretch a child’s imagination. Since 1992, the official visitors center for NASA’s Johnson Space Center has been granting guests big and small a star-bending journey through humanity’s adventures in space. More than 11 million earthlings have passed through the front doors of the 180,000-square-foot facility in Houston to take the trip.

Upon taking in my spectacular surroundings, I had one thought: “I want to be a kid again.” You’ll probably think the same thing. So, parents, don’t miss bringing your kids to this gateway to the universe that features something for all ages with a multitude of interactive exhibits, hands-on attractions and theaters.

Your little ones will have great fun climbing around the large, intricate playscape. On the day of my visit, every twitch of the eye revealed another porthole or cubbyhole where a young ’un was gleefully waving to his or her parents resting on the benches nearby.

At press time, few details about the upcoming summer 2011 exhibit were available. It is, however, based on extreme sports and is slated to be an exclusive, one-time experience. Spokesman Jack Moore said kids will be able to try out the life of a professional athlete, “get their feet off the ground” performing extreme stunts and be immersed in an interactive, virtual and digital world.

In the Starship Gallery’s Destiny Theater, I was thrilled to see the lectern that President John F. Kennedy stood behind on May 25, 1961, when he announced the ambitious goal of sending an American safely to the moon. The featured show, which gives a bit of space history, is perfect for eager and curious young minds. It chronicles the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo space programs and highlights such achievements as walking on the moon and tragedies such as the Challenger space shuttle disaster. It gave me a sense of pride in what we’ve accomplished and wonder about the magic that is space. It seems unimaginable! And yet, it’s very real. Afterward, we filed into a museum with a Skylab station, lunar core samples and replicas of satellites and rockets. Here’s your chance to touch a piece of moon rock!

In The Feel of Space exhibit, we learned what it’s like to be an astronaut in space where a lack of gravity affects everything: The human spine extends about an inch. Blood rushes to the head and torso, legs become thinner, and eyes become bloodshot—without gravity, blood can’t easily flow to the extremities. We also learned how the astronauts played: surfing on clipboards and using tortillas as Frisbees, among other creative things.

The kids in the crowd chorused “Yuck!” when they saw the package of brown stuff that was chicken teriyaki. After thrilling to the rumble and roar of a rocket being launched in the Blast Off Theater, we learned the difference between shuttle and space missions and that there are space hotels in the works. Galactic Suite, the first hotel planned in space, is scheduled to open for business in 2012. For a mere $4 million, you can book a three-day stay.

In a space shuttle replica, I saw how close quarters are for astronauts who rest in canvas sleeping bags attached to the wall. Being in the shuttle made me feel trapped—cornered—and I wondered how astronauts can mentally handle the close confines. I think I’d go nuts. A boy next to me excitedly said “Vrooooom, vrooooom!” as he grasped at what appeared to be a zillion buttons and controls. Future shuttle commander? Maybe so. Claustrophobic? Not likely.

I ended my journey with a trip on the NASA tram tour around the Johnson Space Center. We saw the mission control center and where astronauts train for missions using actual-size replicas. On our way back to Space Center Houston, the tram passed by a grove of trees lit with twinkling lights, each one designating an American life lost in the space program.

Beat the heat this summer by taking your kiddos to the farthest corners of their imagination. It’s an out-of-this-world adventure, and you don’t even have to leave Texas.

Ashley Clary, field editor