“Houston, we’ve had a problem here.”
Most people recognize this line from the movie Apollo 13. When Astronaut Jim Lovell (Tom Hanks) calls down to earth to report a major problem with the mission, his famous line was etched in our collective memory. (It’s often erroneously quoted as “Houston, we have a problem.” Verb tenses matter, people!)
It wasn’t some person he was calling back to, or a code name or acronym come up with by the U.S. government. ‘Houston’ was Houston, Texas, and the men (and very few women) who at the time were running NASA operations there.
Houston’s ties to NASA and the space industry date back to the 1960s, with the opening of the Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center. Though many people credit President John F. Kennedy with helping get us to the moon, it was his successor, President Johnson, who carried on the legacy and pushed humans into space. Now, Johnson Space Center (JSC) serves as “a hub of human spaceflight activity.”
Listen: “Space Tourism in Houston, Texas” with STG Founder Valerie Stimac on the History Fangirl Podcast
Astronauts train at Johnson Space Center, the International Space Station mission operations run from Mission Control, and – eventually – the Orion program to send humans to the moon, Mars, and beyond will be managed from these hallowed grounds. Next door, Space Center Houston is a wonderful, immersive museum that serves to inspire and educate future generations of astronauts through exhibits, talks, demonstrations, and the preservation of our rich astronautical history as a country.
If you want to plan a trip to visit Johnson Space Center and Space Center Houston, here’s how to make it happen. You’ll also find tips on what and when to see different parts of the museum and Space Center.
What It’s Like to Visit Johnson Space Center & Space Center Houston
Here’s a 2.5-minute video showing you what it it’s like inside Space Center Houston and Johnson Space Center.
Editor’s note: This video was originally made by the author for her personal site, Valerie & Valise.
How to Visit Johnson Space Center & Space Center Houston
From downtown Houston, it’s a 30-minute drive to Johnson Space Center and Space Center Houston (expect delays if there’s traffic). It’s a perfect day trip if you’re visiting the Houston area, especially if you or someone in your family loves space as much as I do.
In order to visit Johnson Space Center, you must book a tour through Space Center Houston, so it’s best to plan a visit to both on the same day. Block at least six hours to visit Johnson Space Center and Space Center Houston. You could easily spend this long in just Space Center Houston, but a six-hour day will leave you ‘spaced out.’
Other Important Details:
- Admission to Space Center Houston is $29.95 for adults and $24.95 for children.
- An audio tour ticket option is available for $36.00 for adults and $31.00 for children.
- Admission to Space Center Houston includes admission to the Space Shuttle Independence replica and a tour of Johnson Space Center.
- Space Center Houston is included as part of CityPass Houston, which includes admission to four other attractions. CityPass costs $59.00 for adults and $49.00 for children.
How to Spend a Day at Johnson Space Center & Space Center Houston
Upon arrival at Space Center Houston, you can’t miss the crown jewel of the museum: the Independence Space Shuttle parked out front! This is but one part of the museum though, so plan to explore all of the exhibits.
When you arrive at Space Center Houston, you’ll either have pre-purchased or will receive a timed ticket for Independence Plaza when you arrive. Be sure to keep that time in mind as you explore the museum. Based on that, here’s the plan I’d recommend for your time at Space Center Houston:
1. Explore the Starship Gallery
First of all: aren’t those the coolest names ever?! Starship Gallery. Just think about that. We have enough starships that we need a gallery. Backup: we have starships. SO COOL. 🤓
The Destiny Theater shows a short film about the United States’ motivation and efforts to get to space. You can then move into the Starship Gallery and work your way through a chronology of U.S. space travel.
In the Starship Gallery, you’ll see real ships from the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo missions. You’ll also see space suits, patches, and other memorabilia from various missions. It’s an immersive walk through our history in space.
2. Visit the Moon Rock Vault
From the Starship Gallery, pass into the Moon Rock Vault, where you can see – and touch – moon rocks! Yes, we went to the moon. If you’ve made it this far, conspiracy theorist reader, abandon now! We’re drinking the NASA Kool-Aid in this post!
After seeing – and touching – the moon rocks, continue into the second part of the Starship Gallery to see a walk-through reconstruction of the SkyLab. SkyLab was the predecessor to the International Space Station was decommissioned at the end of the 1970s. Today, it provides important context for our desire to continuously have humans in space today.
3. Explore a Space Shuttle in Independence Plaza
With your timed ticket in hand, head outside to Independence Plaza. Warning: Prepared to be wowed by the massive plane and space shuttle sitting outside. They seem large from the parking lot – they’re even more impressive when you stand right next to them.
Your ticket will allow you to enter and explore the plane (a model NASA 905) and space shuttle replica Independence. Inside, you’ll get a real sense for what being an astronaut was like in the 1980s through 2010s. Being an astronaut, while awesome, is also a technical and even labor-intense job. There are no luxury amenities to be found here!
Pro-tip: Be sure to check out the metal frame walkway near the Space Center Houston building on Independence Plaza. This walkway was used at Kennedy Space Center as part of the Apollo program – it was the walkway that astronauts used to board the command modules!
After your tour, head back inside Space Center Houston. You’ll also have a timed ticket to visit Johnson Space Center, so be sure to keep that in mind as you keep exploring. This itinerary should be flexible based on your Independence Plaza and tram tour ticket times.
4. Re-fuel with Lunch
At Space Center Houston, you can enjoy lunch at the Zero-G Diner. This cafeteria-style dining facility has several options, including ‘Cosmic Grounds Coffee and Sandwiches’ and ‘Global Kitchen.’ You can find food ranging from burgers or salads to pizza or vegetarian options. The cost of lunch is not included in your admission price.
5. Take the Tram Tour of Johnson Space Center
Settle into the tram for a short ride to Johnson Space Center. The tour will take one hour in total, so keep that in mind as you plan your day.
The Tram Tour is flexible, so you may see any or all of these parts of JSC on your tour:
Rocket Park – A small rocket park where you can see a full-size Saturn V rocket, plus some other rockets and boosters.
Building 9 (Vehicle Mock-Up Facility) – The super-cool building where NASA works on new projects. Here, you can see replicas of the ISS, the Orion capsule, and vehicular and robotics teams hard at work.
Mission Control – As part of your tour, you may see both the historic Mission Control (where the Gemini and Apollo missions were controlled) and the new Mission Control (which oversees ISS operations, pictured above).
As part of my NASA social, I was also able to tour the Neutral Buoyancy Lab. This is an off-campus building where astronauts train in a gigantic six-million-gallon swimming pool. The pictures are too cool not to share! You can book the VIP “Level 9” Tour which usually includes a stop at the NBL building. Tickets can be purchased here for $129 per person.
👆 A once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, trust me!
6. Explore the Rest of Space Center Houston
After you return to Space Center Houston at the end of your tram tour, you can explore the rest of the building.
The Atrium is interesting in itself. At the time of my visit, they were displaying a series of quilts and space suits designed by artists. There are also replicas of a moon lander and the ISS hanging from the ceiling.
The Mission Mars Exhibit is a new exhibit in the atrium area of Space Center Houston and has a bunch of information about NASA’s new program, Journey to Mars. You can touch a Mars rock here, learn about the Space Launch System, and experience a simulated launch in an Orion crew module replica.
The Astronaut Gallery displays information about the men and women who helped make spaceflight possible in the last 50+ years. You can see famous space suits, favorite clothing, and more.
There are loads of other attractions too, including a few jets and another capsule replica out on the property near the entrance to the parking lot.
Bonus: End Your Day at a Famous Astronaut Restaurant
As you end your day at Space Center Houston and Johnson Space Center, you may be hungry again. That much space in a single day is enough to work up an appetite for anyone!
Stop for dinner at Frenchie’s Italian Restaurant on NASA Parkway before you get back on the highway to Houston. The restaurant is full of NASA and astronaut memorabilia! The walls are completely covered with signed photos of astronauts, news stories, and NASA artwork. Their food is also delicious, and traditional Italian with lots of carbs and large portions. It’s a perfect end to a completely space-filled day!