"There is intelligent fun out there!" is the motto of Space Center Houston, the official visitors' center of NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas.

Space Center Houston is a nonprofit organization owned and operated by the Manned Space Flight Education Foundation, Inc., that successfully blends scientific fact with interactive fun for kindergarten-age children, teenagers, and adults. So many hands-on activities, theater shows, and exhibits are packed into SCH — NASA loves acronyms — that anyone interested enough in space and science to go there should plan for an entire day.

Visitors to SCH don’t need to emulate NASA in its famous detailed programs and alternative plans, but thinking ahead will provide the satisfaction of a trip well done. If at all possible, plan to arrive as soon as the doors open. There can be a long line at the ticket booths, so being there early is a plus.

Take the shuttle to Mission Control at Johnson Space Center

Though it might seem strange to leave SCH as soon as you arrive, the recommended first activity is the tram ride to Mission Control and Rocket Park. Departure is made from the far right of the center after entering. The waiting line for the hour tour fills up fast even though there are a number of trams running, so taking the ride early in a visit to SCH saves time and gives a good overview of what the space program is about. Tours are conducted by knowledgeable crew members of SCH, all of whom wear NASA-type jumpsuits.

Mission Control and Rocket Park

The tram ride is included in the cost of admission. Riders must pass through a security arch, are given tram passes, and are photographed for an optional souvenir package. The first stop is a massive NASA workshop with mockups of the International Space Station (ISS). Visitors walk along an elevated viewing corridor and can watch technicians at work. The next stop is Mission Control where visitors sit in the viewing balcony above the original control room that handled space flight missions until 1995. The green monitors and red phone will bring back memories to adults who were glued to their televisions during the moon landing broadcast from that room. Last stop is Rocket Park where a Saturn 5 rocket is housed in an enormous building and other rockets and space equipment stand in outside exhibits. Both offer phenomenal photo opportunities.

Back to the future of space flight

Returning to SCH, visitors would be wise to let children stretch their legs at the Kids Space Place & Martian Matrix, an elaborate array of bounce-house activities and interactive games. Don’t forget to play in the arcade behind the bounce tower. Mirrors show what space explorers would look like on Titan and other outer space worlds. When finally the kids emerge, grab a bite of lunch in the Zero-G Diner, then on to the theater for a show with smoke and sound effects or to the museum to see — and even touch — real moon rocks and an authentic space capsule. There’s a performance stage for a glimpse of life aboard the ISS, an exhibit of real space suits, and push-button, sound making, light flashing exhibits throughout the hall.

Back to Earth and real life shopping

Good planning calls for scheduling the last stop at Space Trader & Gift Store so that sacks of gifts and souvenirs can be purchased just before heading out the door at the end of the visit. The shop, located to the left of the entry door (at right when exiting), has a wall of mission patches for the collector as well as the usual T-shirts, mugs, postcards and posters. Seniors and members of some organizations are given discounts, so check the list at the register.

End of day’s mission report

By the end of the visit, young and old SCH explorers who have pressed the buttons, explored the space, traveled the tram, and watched the shows will surely rate SCH with a unanimous two thumbs up. Space Center Houston is a blast.

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