Space Cadet

Astronauts, robots, rocket ships and futuristic gizmos and gadgets – Phillip Portman has a boy’s own space adventure at NASA.

I’m in two minds when we pull up to the Space Center Houston for a tour of NASA. On one hand, it feels like I’ve entered a time machine and travelled back to the ’60s. The buildings look basic and it’s almost as if we’re touring a massive university campus. It doesn’t feel nearly as top secret as Hollywood makes it out to be and I’m wondering if there’s time to change my mind and check out that café where Beyoncé (who grew up in Houston) once ate breakfast. On the other hand, there’s a huge NASA 905 Shuttle Carrier Aircraft with a replica Independence shuttle mounted just outside the main entrance. It’s pretty impressive and I take about 50 photos and then 50 more once I realise the Houston humidity has fogged up my lens. When Independence Plaza is officially opened to the public in January, you’ll be able to hop on board and take a look around inside. But for now, I have a ticket for a VIP tour of NASA.

One of our first stops is the Historic Mission Control in building 30. Complete with chunky computers, dial up phones and a smell that can only be compared to a visit to your Nana’s house, this is the famous site that monitored the historic Apollo 11 mission to the moon in 1969. I was born 20 years later but when someone whispers, “That’s one small step for man. One giant leap for mankind,” I suddenly realise where I’m standing and its significance. It’s hard to comprehend that they actually pulled off these missions, especially when our guide points out that a modern-day watch contains more technology than there was in the Mission Control room in the ’60s.

Things get a bit more futuristic when we move on to the Space Vehicle Mockup Facility. This is where you’ll see all sorts of crazy inventions that will assist NASA in their future missions. We see groovy little robots, hi-tech astronaut suits, rovers and even an Orion spacecraft that an astronaut will likely call home for their duration in space. You don’t need to be a space geek to appreciate the out-of-this-world technology.

We get to check out real life astronauts at the Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory (NBL) inside the Sonny Carter Training Facility. It’s home to the biggest indoor pool I’ve ever seen, which, I soon discover, is used as a simulator by astronauts. It holds over 24 million litres of water and the crew trains in controlled tasks inside the pool as it provides a weightless environment similar to that experienced in space. It’s here that our guide pipes up and says that NASA is currently working with a set of twins to monitor the impact space travel has on biology. They’ll launch one twin into space for a year while the other remains on earth. They’ll compare the results when the twins are reunited.  

We stop for a morning tea break when our guide casually points out that the manager of the Mars mission just walked into the bathroom. He also informs us that most astronauts hold multiple PhDs. Becoming an astronaut is quite tough. In 2013, over 6,100 people applied and only eight made the cut. My Bachelor Of Arts degree suddenly feels devoid of importance as we move on to our next stop.

Anyone who says size doesn’t matter clearly hasn’t seen the Saturn V at Rocket Park. One of the largest rockets ever created, Saturn V stands over 36 stories tall and is famous for assisting America with their various Apollo missions. Twenty-seven astronauts have used this beast of a rocket to get to the moon and back and it remains one of three still in existence today. To give you an idea of its sheer size, the only way to capture the entire thing in a photo is to stand in a very specific spot at the top left-hand corner of the horizontal rocket.

As we make our way to New Mission Control, I can’t help feel like I’m at a zoo as I peer through glass windows and watch as workers go about their spacey business. Unlike Historic Mission Control, which hasn’t been active for decades, New Mission Control is buzzing. It’s manned 24 hours a day and assists the team onboard the International Space Station (ISS). A small group of workers are manning around five computer screens each and there are screens at the front of the room beaming images of earth; satellites and text that no doubt plays a vital role in protecting the astronauts hundreds of kilometers away in space. There is also a live feed from inside the ISS of an astronaut floating around. It’s like watching an episode of Big Brother, except it’s actually entertaining. Those on board will experience 16 sunrises and sunsets per day as the station orbits earth once every 90 minutes. 

We wrap up our tour at the Starship Gallery, a museum of sorts with plenty to see and do. Here where we get to touch a real piece of the moon (spoiler alert: it feels like a tile), check out over 400 space artifacts and shop ’til we drop at the awesome NASA gift shop.  

To make the most of your visit to the Space Center, I recommend checking out the Level 9 Tour, which will give you unrivaled access to NASA’s facilities. Tickets can be pre-purchased at

MORE: Air New Zealand flies from all Australian capital cities to Houston via Auckland from December 15. Go to for flights. Phillip flew to the USA courtesy of Air New Zealand.

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